Strikes on Syria threaten a fragile peace in Lebanon


The United States and its allies launched an attack Friday on forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a military action that President Donald Trump said would continue “until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.”

The announcement, made shortly before the dawn call to prayer across the Middle East, was followed by the sounds of loud explosions that could be heard in the Syrian capital of Damascus. It immediately raised questions about how Syria’s backers in Russia and Iran would respond to the attack on their ally.

The assault began less than a week after Mr. Assad’s forces were accused of killing dozens in a chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held town of Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus. In a televised address, Mr. Trump said the action was necessitated by a “significant escalation in a pattern of chemical weapons use by that very terrible regime.”

The scope of the U.S. action was not immediately clear, though Mr. Trump said the U.S. was acting to punish Mr. Assad in coalition with Britain and France. The attack came just before investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were to arrive in Douma to investigate the alleged attack.

Speaking from the White House, Mr. Trump said: “To Iran and to Russia, I ask: What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women and children?” He added: “The nations of the world can be judged by the friends they keep.”

The attack began hours after Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations warned that any action against Syria would be “fraught with grave repercussions for global security.” Moscow, which has troops, planes and warships — as well as formidable air defense units — deployed in Syria to support Mr. Assad’s regime, has said it could retaliate against American ships and planes if Russian military personnel are threatened.

Even before the military strikes against Syrian began, many in neighbouring Lebanon were worried that peace in this tiny multiconfessional state – which still bears the scars of its own 1975-1990 civil war – would be jeopardized by the anticipated U.S. action and whatever comes next in the region.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah fuelled those concerns with a speech Friday in which he slammed Israel for an April 9 airstrike that killed 14 Iranians at an airbase in Syria. Mr. Nasrallah said Iran and Israel were now in “direct confrontation.”

That’s bad news for Lebanon, where Hezbollah is both the strongest military power and a proxy for Iran. Israeli military analysts recently told The Globe and Mail that they see no way to deal with Iran’s growing military presence in Syria without also confronting Hezbollah in its south Lebanon stronghold.

The showdown between Israel and Iran is a dangerous subplot to the dramatic faceoff between the United States and Russia over how to deal with the Kremlin-backed Mr. Assad.

Like Russia, Iran has been instrumental in helping Mr. Assad maintain a grip on power he once seemed on the verge of losing. While Russia has provided the air power that has aided the advance of pro-regime forces, Iran and its proxies have been the key force on the ground. Iranian advisors are believed to be present at many of the Syrian military bases Mr. Trump may be contemplating attacking.

Iran’s growing presence in Syria has already drawn repeated Israeli airstrikes, including an April 8 attack that saw Israeli jets — operating from Lebanese airspace — fire missiles at Syria’s T-4 airbase. At least 14 Iranian nationals were killed in the attack.

Iran has promised vengeance for that attack, threatening to “turn Haifa and Tel Aviv into dust.” Any escalation against Israel — or against U.S. special forces operating in eastern Syria — would almost certainly involve Hezbollah.

“Attacking the T-4 airport is a pivotal incident in the history of the region that can’t be ignored. You made a historic mistake and a great folly which brings you into direct confrontation with Iran,” Mr. Nasrallah said in a televised address that was carried by Hezbollah’s al-Manar channel. The speech contained some of Mr. Nasrallah’ strongest rhetoric since Hezbollah fought a month-long war against Israel in 2006 that left much of south Lebanon devastated.

Even before Mr. Nasrallah spoke, there were growing worries that Lebanon might be sucked into the swirling conflict next door.

Basem Shabb, an MP from Lebanon’s pro-Western Future Movement, said Lebanon had managed to remain a “demilitarized zone” throughout Syria’s civil war largely because of the former U.S. president Barack Obama’s desire to improve relations with Iran. The Obama White House tacitly accepted Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon — and its intervention in support of Mr. Assad in Syria — while Hezbollah looked away as U.S. aid helped rebuild the Lebanese army into a credible fighting force that could one day serve as a counterweight to Hezbollah.

That cold peace may be over now, particularly if Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolton follow through on their declared ambitions to terminate the pact Mr. Obama negotiated to freeze Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of some Western economic sanctions.

“With the Trump Administration, it has become more difficult to keep the situation in Lebanon as it was,” said Bassem Shabb, a Lebanese MP from the Future Movement, a pro-Western bloc. “Lebanon is a faultline again.”

Like much of the rest of the world, Lebanon is deeply divided about what happened in Douma, and what should happen next in Syria, where seven years of civil war have already left upwards of 500,000 people dead and driven millions more from their homes.

Lebanon has been divided for decades into pro-Western and pro-Syrian camps roughly equal in size. Pro-Western Lebanese — who blame Damascus for a string of assassinations in their own country — have no trouble believing the Assad regime would use chemical weapons against its own people. “Many Lebanese don’t need to wait for some investigation of the chemical attack to reach their own verdict on the Syrian regime,” Mr. Shabb said, referring to a team of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that began arriving in Syria on Friday.

Meanwhile pro-Syrian Lebanese — especially Shia Muslims living in the Hezbollah-dominated south of the country — have been bombarded with the narrative that the attack on Douma was a hoax perpetrated by anti-Assad forces. “Even reality is perceived differently in different parts of Lebanon,” said Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University. “Different narratives, different realities.”

Moscow escalated its own information campaign on Friday, when a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Defense alleged that Russia had proof that the attack was staged by the White Helmets — a civilian rescue group working on the ground in Syria — working under the orders of the British government.

Britain, which is already at odds with Russia over Moscow’s alleged role in the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal, dismissed the allegation of its involvement in the Douma attack as a “grotesque, blatant lie.”

Mr. Nasrallah delivered a message similar to the Kremlin’s in his speech on al-Manar. He told Hezbollah’s faithful that the crisis in Syria was a “play,” and that no chemical weapons had been used in the Syrian army’s assault on Douma. The battle for Douma ended Sunday, when fighters from the Saudi-backed Jaish al-Islam militia agreed to a ceasefire that saw them surrender the town to pro-Assad forces. Russian troops entered Douma on Thursday, and the Syrian flag was raised there a few hours later.

It’s unclear what evidence will remain in Douma by the time the OPCW inspectors arrive in the shattered town. The inspectors have a mandate to determine whether chemical weapons were used, but not to assess blame for any attack.

Even when at peace, Lebanon is a country constantly on edge, a place where checkpoints bar the roads to the homes of prominent politicians, and where cars are swept for bombs before they’re allowed to park near large shopping malls or hotels. In Sunni neighbourhoods of Beirut, images of former prime minister Rafik Hariri are ominipresent — a reminder of his 2005 assassination, which many in Lebanon and the West blame on Mr. Assad and Hezbollah.

Tensions are again rising ahead of a May 6 election that will see a struggle for power pitting politicians backed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia against those aligned with Syria and Iran.

Prof. Salamey said he saw two options for President Trump in terms of how to deal with Syria and the wider region. He could move to restore American influence in the Middle East with a prolonged military operation — and a follow-up political strategy — that would force Iran and Russia to “change their calculations.” Or the U.S. should stand down and admit that the region is now under the sway of Moscow and Tehran.

“He has to have a political strategy first. You have to know what you want to achieve, and what you’re willing to pay for it in Syria, in Iraq, in Lebanon,” Prof. Salamey said, adding that it would change nothing if the U.S. simply fired another round of cruise missiles at Syria, as Mr. Trump ordered following a previous chemical weapons attack, almost a year to the day before the incident in Douma.

“If this will be a move like the other moves — a hit-and-run kind of move — it will probably cause more damages than benefits. Assad will continue business as usual. He will continue to attack, and will continue to be backed by Iran and Russia.”

Globe and Mail