Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Lebanon reacts to Yemen’s war

The crisis in Yemen is stirring up sectarian tensions in Lebanon, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi in Beirut

Al-Ahram Weekly

As if Lebanon does not have enough troubles of its own, now its politicians have found another issue to squabble over: Yemen.

The sectarian nature of the Yemeni struggle, with the incendiary element of Iran thrown in and now the Saudi-led Arab intervention, has rubbed the Lebanese the wrong way.

As soon as Operation Decisive Storm got underway last week, Future Current leader Saad Al-Hariri, Lebanese Forces Party leader Samir Jaja, and Druze chief Walid Junblatt all declared their support for the strikes against the Houthis, the rebel Shiite group that has taken over the capital Sanaa and major parts of Yemen.

This was too much for Hezbollah, whose leader Hassan Nasrallah lashed out at the Saudis in an entire speech dedicated to Yemen, calling the aerial campaign an “aggression” and accusing the Saudis of all sorts of things, including responsibility for the deadlock in Lebanon’s politics.

Nasrallah then called for an Arab-Islamic initiative to defuse the situation. Hezbollah’s political position was predictable, knowing its close links with Iran, a country that has reportedly armed and trained the Houthis.

However, Hezbollah’s allies have been hesitant to adopt the same fiery rhetoric. The Amal Movement, led by Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabih Birri, avoided any remarks that could antagonise the Saudis. The same thing has been true of the Free Patriotic Movement led by Michel Aoun.

In discussions before last weekend’s Arab Summit meeting, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil avoided any strong remarks that could cause offence to either the Saudis or Hezbollah.

The Nasserists have also been sitting on the fence, careful to keep good ties with Egypt without distancing themselves from Iran. Most of Lebanon’s Nasserists are Sunnis, and they cannot publicly come out in support of the Houthis in Yemen, as this could further alienate the Sunnis, some of whom already suspect the Nasserists of being a “fifth column” in the Sunni community.

In addition, many of Lebanon’s Sunnis, including the Nasserists, have close ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

The crisis in Yemen has stirred up old resentments in Lebanon. The Sunnis, still angry about the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri and Hezbollah’s brief occupation of Beirut in 2008, are having trouble supporting Nasrallah’s remarks.

But the last thing the Sunnis want is a confrontation with Hezbollah, perhaps the world’s best-trained militia. The Sunnis in Lebanon are mostly middle-class urbanites who are not concentrated in one area and lack the military zeal of other communities in the country.

Some of the country’s Shiites, however, see the Yemen conflict as part of a long-running struggle against oppression by the Sunni majority, led in the distant past by the Umayyads and today by the Saudis.

They are willing to overlook the fact that it was the Houthis who took up arms to destabilise Yemen, acting in collusion with former Yemeni president Ali Abdallah Saleh.

Despite the Shiite-Sunni rift, evidenced in the quick-tempered reaction of Lebanese Sunni leader Saad Al-Hariri to Nasrallah’s speech, it is clear that neither the Sunnis nor the Shiites in Lebanon are spoiling for a fight.

Some might think that the Druze community, led by Walid Junblatt, would make common cause with other minority groups, Shiite Muslims, for example, or Christians. But Lebanon’s Druze have a tradition of siding with Muslim leaders, usually Sunnis, against foreigners, and even against their own Maronite Christian neighbours at home.

At present, relations between Junblatt and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus have hit rock bottom. Junblatt no longer hides his belief that Al-Assad’s father, former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad, had his own father, Kamal, killed because of political differences.

However, Junblatt remains at heart a pragmatic politician. He sided with Syria against the Maronites during the Lebanese Civil War, then turned against Damascus just before the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri and demanded the departure of all Syrian troops from the country.

Today, Junblatt supports anti-regime groups in Syria, including Al-Nusra Front, but is reluctant to incur the ire of Hezbollah back home. And he is equally loath to alienate Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

Syria’s Christians, from across the political divide, are also wary of starting a domestic feud over a fight in a far-off land.

However, Lebanon’s Christians are worried about the virulence of Islamic State (IS) attacks on Christian and Yazidi minorities in Syria and Iraq. Both Aoun and Suleiman Frangieh, the head of a Tripoli-based Christian paramilitary group known as the Marada, have voiced such concerns.

Many Lebanese Christians, especially those affiliated with the Future Current-led 14 March Alliance, believe that Lebanon must remain committed to pan-Arab policies and blame the Syrian regime for the troubles of the minority groups.

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