Lebanon of two minds: Syria conflict deepens rift between political rivals
| Friday, 11.18.2011, 05:28 AM

BEIRUT (MEO) — Lebanon's decision to stand by Syria's embattled Bashar al-Assad has deepened the rift between the Hizbullah-dominated government and the opposition.
People wave Syrian flags and carry a poster depicting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanon's Hizbullah Leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah during a rally to show support for al-Assad in Damascus, November 16, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer
"The decision of the Lebanese government to support the Syrian regime went against the current of the Arab Spring and ... ignored the wishes of a large part of its own population," said Imad Salamey, political science professor at the Lebanese American University.
Lebanon's vote against suspending Syria from the Arab League proved another watershed in a cold war between the powerful pro-Syrian militant group Hizbullah and the anti-Assad opposition led by former premier Saad Hariri.
The fight over the country's position on the eight-month revolt in Syria has also spilled into the public sphere, dividing public opinion and grabbing headlines on a daily basis.
"Lebanon's stance at the Arab League does not represent most of the Lebanese," read an opinion column on NOW Lebanon, a website highly critical of the Syrian regime.
"This is shameful, appalling and inexcusable. It was not a surprise for anyone here, but it was certainly a harsh reality check."
Those supportive of Assad, however, accuse the Arab League of doing Washington's dirty work.
"The (Arab League's) primary aim, quite simply, is to move Syria out of the camp of resistance to the U.S. and Israel and bring it under American and Israeli tutelage," wrote columnist Ibrahim al-Amin in the local daily Al-Akhbar, close to Hizbullah.
But despite the flaming rhetoric, experts say the Hariri-led opposition bears little influence on Lebanese policy.
"Even if the opposition makes some sort of an escalation, there's nothing it can do," said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut.
"The speaker of parliament (Hizbullah ally Nabih Berri) has forbidden any debate on Syria, and the opposition has no say in the government."
Lebanon, historically considered one of the most liberal countries in the region, sided with Syria and Yemen in voting against sanctions on the Assad regime and suspending Damascus' membership in the 22-member Arab League.
Syria has traditionally held sway in Lebanese politics and the regime in Damascus has long had a say in who gets appointed president or premier.
Today, as a regional diplomatic offensive to oust Assad gains steam, the Hizbullah-dominated government is digging in its heels, arguing that alienating Syria would be against Lebanon's interests.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati's cabinet on Wednesday defended its decision at the Arab League as a move to protect "stability and civil peace".
"Lebanon's decision ... stems from Lebanon's particular situation, which all our Arab brothers understand," read a statement released after a cabinet meeting.
Hariri, whose government was toppled by Hizbullah and its allies in January, for his part did not mince words in responding, slamming Mikati's decision to stand by Assad as "shameful."
"This is not the Lebanese will that voted, it is the Hizbullah government headed by Mikati," Hariri wrote in a message on Twitter.
As the rift deepens between Lebanon's rival camps and fears mount of the unrest in Syria spilling over, experts are divided on what could come next for Beirut.
"The Arab League incident is a dangerous (move) by the Lebanese and could isolate Lebanon regionally and internationally," Salamey warned.
Khashan, however, downplayed the likelihood of backlash from the international community.
"The outside world understands Lebanon's predicament and they know that Hizbullah has the upper hand in running the affairs of the country, which is why Washington and others are keeping a low key on Lebanon for now," he said. 

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