For Lebanon watchers, the fighting in Tripoli over the last week was all but inevitable. As the conflict in Syria dragged on for months, the likelihood that that conflict would spillover into Lebanon only increased. Now that likelihood seems to be on the verge of realization.
The nearly 15-year long Lebanese Civil War was one of the most complicated conflicts in modern history. Numerous militias, straddling various sectarian, political, and ethnic cleavages fought over neighborhoods in Beirut, villages in the countryside and even mountains. These militias often found state-sponsors and protectors but, for much of the conflict, the Lebanese managed to turn supposed proxy relationships on their head. Often, it seemed, the Lebanese controlled the sponsors rather than the sponsors regulating the Lebanese. And, as you might expect, the militias frequently abandoned one state sponsor for another. More importantly, though, the civil war in Lebanon managed to draw in the entire Middle East and much of the West. In fact, in many ways, the civil war in Lebanon was a realism sandbox for IR theorists; if one were to treat the Lebanese militia as states—not a difficult stretch given they controlled territory and populations, and replaced some nominally state functions—the machinations of the militias and their allies represent archetypal power politics. It is unfortunate that so often the civil war is viewed through a sectarian lens; doing so ignores the largely non-sectarian moves and counter-moves among the militias and the outside powers that really fueled the conflict.
But I digress.
The spillover into Lebanon that the fighting in Tripoli represents indicates that the Syrian civil war is beginning to pull in the region. It is not the first sign. Reports indicate that the United States has begun to facilitate the flow of arms from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States into the hands of Syrian rebels. Clearly, these states have picked sides and are attempting to exert a sponsor’s influence over the widening Syrian conflict. However, just as clearly, the diffuse, locally-oriented, and shifting nature of the Syrian rebels suggests the emergence of a Lebanon-like militia structure. This point is underscored by the inability of either the Syrian National Council or the Free Syrian Army to rally local units to their banners and become true umbrella organizations.
At this point, the conflict appears to be mainly one of the Syrian state (and its minority adherents) versus the diffuse anti-Assad militias, with Islamists spoilers thrown into the mix. Importantly, Syrian minorities have remained on the sidelines and not reportedly taken to arming themselves. That greatly reduces the complexity of the conflict but has clearly not removed from it a clear sectarian milieu. It is also no assurance that they will continue to remain on the sidelines—particularly with the United States reportedly encouraging the Syrian Kurds to open a second front against Assad. Although that may hasten Assad’s departure, it will likely aggravate Turkey and encourage the Turks to back their own horse, increasing specific but not general support.
And that potentially takes Syria a step closer to the Lebanon scenario. When fractious militias are armed and they are backed by different powers (regional or otherwise), the potential for a lengthy conflict that draws in Syria’s neighbors increases. There is no incentive to stay out of the mix when your neighbors (read: rivals) are able to improve their regional position through a Syrian proxy. With outside players willing to provide arms, intelligence, and logistical support to specific militias merely to improve that outside player’s regional standing, there is every incentive for local militias to abuse that willingness and cut the best (temporary) deal possible.