Syria’s Slippery Slope: The danger of clichés in Lebanon

John Rentoul, writing for The Independent, has a blog dedicated to “Questions to Which the Answer is No”, where he identifies and deconstructs lazy ‘questioning’ headlines in newspapers. Far be it from me to attempt to muscle in on his work, but there is one question which has dogged Lebanon recently, no more so than in the last few days when it has been asked by seemingly every news anchor in the UK, which deserves similar scrutiny: “Is Syria’s unrest spilling over into Lebanon?

Last Friday, a devastating car bomb ripped through a residential street in Beirut’s Achrafiyeh neighbourhood, killing three and injuring over 100. The following days saw street protests outside the government buildings and Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, as well as lethal clashes in both Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli. The violence has since died down, as it has countless times before, though the political fallout continues.

No sooner had the dust from the bombing settled, than Western news outlets began touting it as fresh evidence of the creeping infection into Lebanon of Syria’s civil strife. There is certainly a possibility that Syria had a hand in the attack. Its target, Wissam al-Hassan, was an important member of the anti-Syrian March 14th alliance. He was responsible for investigating a series of assassinations in Lebanon in which the Assad regime and its Lebanese allies are implicated, as well as spearheading the arrest of Michel Samaha, a pro-Syrian former minister accused of plotting assassinations in the country, possibly also at the behest of the Syrian regime.

There can similarly be no doubt that events in Syria have a real effect on Lebanon and the radicalisation of certain sections of its population. One only need look at the abundance of ‘Free Syrian Army’ flags (far outnumbering Lebanese flags) in videos of the protests outside the Grand Serail the day after the bombing, or plastered around the Sunni areas of Tripoli, to see the importance of events in Syria to some people in Lebanon. But restricting the discussion of these events to one of whether Lebanon will be ‘sucked into’ the Syrian crisis belies the complexity of what is really occurring in Lebanon. It ignores the historical animosities between Lebanon’s various communities and political units and the current flow of political wrangling, and plays into the hands of those in Lebanon who would seek to use the Syrian civil conflict to justify their own discord-sewing actions. Perhaps most dangerously, such language removes agency from the Lebanese themselves – making them out to be the inevitable victims of someone else’s war, rather than the potential agents for peace and change within the country.

My six months in Lebanon was barely enough time to scratch the surface in terms of understanding the complexity of Lebanese politics and history and how they relate to current events. I also have to admit to similar use of the Syrian conflict as an easy lens for understanding and writing about Lebanon’s problems, and the complexity of Lebanon’s situation means that I understand how journalists fall into the trap of seeing Lebanon purely through the easy, ready-made template of Syria. But there is a real danger to this approach if publics and governments begin to see it in the same terms, and act on the basis of this. Words, as we are often told, have power. Lebanon’s political problems need addressing if it is to remain stable in the face of its current troubles, but discussing these problems as an inevitable consequence of another country’s war will do nothing to help this process.

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