Syria conflict takes toll on Beirut politics

Lebanese unable to form cabinet as politicians take sides and stoke tensions

Lebanese Army soldiers patrol the  the Sunni frontier village of Arsal, a bastion of the Syrian rebels, which was rocketed yesterday by Syrian aircraft in a tit-for-tat attack for Tuesday’s rebel missile strikes on the Shia town of Hermel, a Hizbullah stronghold. Photograph: Reuters/Ahmad Shalha

Lebanese Army soldiers patrol the the Sunni frontier village of Arsal, a bastion of the Syrian rebels, which was rocketed yesterday by Syrian aircraft in a tit-for-tat attack for Tuesday’s rebel missile strikes on the Shia town of Hermel, a Hizbullah stronghold. Photograph: Reuters/Ahmad Shalha

Thu, Jun 13, 2013, 01:00

The Lebanese state has adopted a policy of “dissociation” from the Syrian crisis but the country’s citizens are associated with the warring sides by faith, community, and political affiliation, deeply polarising the country.

The fall of the rebel-occupied Syrian border town of Qusayr to Syrian government forces backed by fighters from the Shia Hizbullah movement has already cost the lives of three Lebanese: two Shias and a Sunni.

The Sunni frontier village of Arsal, a bastion of the Syrian rebels, was rocketed yesterday by Syrian aircraft in a tit-for-tat attack for Tuesday’s rebel missile strikes on the Shia town of Hermel, a Hizbullah stronghold.

Instead of trying to ease differences and restore calm, politicians wrapped either in the flag flown by the regime or the banner adopted by the rebels stoke tensions and exploit the situation for partisan gain.

Consequently Lebanon has no government or parliament. Prime minister-designate Tammam Salam has not been able to form a cabinet while the constitutional commission due to decide when to hold postponed parliamentary elections has failed to obtain a quorum.

The new parliament must elect a successor to president Michel Suleiman whose six- year term ends next year.

Politicians who used to depend on Damascus to mediate their disputes have no common conciliator.

A country with a population of 4.3 million, Lebanon is hosting 1.2 million Syrians, 500,000 refugees from the 27-month conflict and the rest long term Syrian residents and guest workers and their families.

Lebanon has not established camps for the refugees although some have thrown up ad-hoc encampments, particularly in the Bekaa Valley which stretches along the border with Syria.

In addition, thousands of Palestinians from Syria’s refugee camps have flooded into Lebanon, swelling the population of camps holding 445,000 stateless Palestinians and putting pressure on the resources of the UN agency caring for Palestinians.

Rent and prices of food, clothing, electricity, water, fuel and other essentials have skyrocketed. Schools and hospitals are struggling to accommodate both the Lebanese and refugees. The country’s already fragile infrastructure is deteriorating at an accelerating rate.

“The security, economic, social, political and demographic pressures are huge, and the situation is very dangerous,” said caretaker social affairs minister Wael Abou Faour.

The Lebanese are concerned that Syrian rebels and fundamentalist foreign fighters who have come here from Syria will stay. “The international community must insist that these people go to their home countries,” said analyst Marie Nassif-Debs. Lebanese politicians are too divided to ensure their departure.