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Why Lebanon isn't headed for civil war

The death of Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan in Lebanon has led to some overheated international speculation.

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Workers stand near an apartment building severely damaged in a car bomb attack that killed Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan in the Achrafiye district of Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Oct. 23. Calm returned to the streets of Lebanon's capital on Tuesday, a day after troops launched a major security operation to quell fighting touched off by the assassination of a top anti-Syrian intelligence chief.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP

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Five days after a devastating bomb attack killed a top Lebanese security chief sparking minor clashes and road blockages by his supporters, a semblance of calm has returned to a country that has little interest in starting a new civil war. 

The death of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, head of the police's intelligence bureau, in a car bomb explosion in Beirut provoked headlines around the world that Lebanon was descending toward renewed civil strife and suffering the consequences of a spillover from neighboring Syria, which is caught in its own devastating conflict. Although Syria has been blamed by many Lebanese for Hassan's assassination, the reality is more complex, and the prognosis not necessarily as dire as the international assumptions would suggest.

“No I don’t think there will be a civil war from this assassination,” says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut. “The leaderships of March 14 and March 8 do not want instability in Lebanon at this time,” he added referring to the two rival parliamentary coalitions that dominate the Lebanese political landscape.

Still, Lebanon does face a period of uncertainty as Syria collapses into ever-worsening violence. Lebanon’s communal stresses and strains and the conflict in Syria almost guarantee further acts of violence – assassinations, random bomb attacks, Shiite-Sunni violence, or possible clashes along the sensitive northern and eastern borders with Syria. But there are compelling reasons why Lebanon will not succumb to the kind of full-blown civil war that ravaged the country between 1975 and 1990.

First, memories of that debilitating 16-year conflict are still raw. The war left more than 100,000 people dead and some 17,000 still missing, a substantial number for a country with a population today of only 4 million. No one seeks a return to that grim and bloody period.

Second, in 1975, the military balance between the rival sides was more equally matched than is the case today. In 2012, there is only one major non-state armed force – the militant Shiite Hezbollah. With its enormous military resources, Hezbollah could defeat the Lebanese Army, let alone another militia.

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