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MENAFN - Jordan Times - 05/04/2012

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(MENAFN - Jordan Times) The yearlong unrest in Syria has unsettled neighbouring Lebanon where many Lebanese warn of civil war if Syria collapses into a full-scale communal conflict.

A Beiruti businessman observed that it is fortunate the present government has been formed by Tripoli politician Najib Mikati and the pro-Syrian March 8th coalition comprised of Hizbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement. This government does its utmost to disassociate itself from the crisis in Syria and to prevent arms and money from flowing from Lebanon to the Syrian rebels.

A government by March 14th, consisting of the Future Movement led by Saad Hariri and the Lebanese Forces, would have backed the US-led drive to topple the Syrian government and facilitated the transfer of funds and weapons to the rebels, risking all-out civil war in Syria and, perhaps, Lebanon.

Adherents of the pro-March 14th camp criticised their respective spiritual leaders who also warned against involvement in Syria.

Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai has come under fire from Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea, while Sunni Grand Mufti Sheikh Muhammad Rashid Qabbani has been castigated by the Future Movement. Both religious leaders rejected the complaints of these parties. By contrast, ultra-orthodox Sunni Salafist preachers extended support to the Syrian opposition and the rebels fighting the Syrian army.

As a result of the crisis, dialogue between March 8th and March 14th has been suspended until the Syrian crisis is resolved. The March 8th movement expects a boost in influence if the Syrian government succeeds in quelling the revolt while March 14th believes its position would be strengthened if the opposition topples the Damascus government.

Meanwhile, Free Patriotic Movement ministers and Prime Minister Mikati squabbled over what to do about the acute shortage of electricity and for failing to make appointments to key posts. Consequently, as well as lengthening power cuts, the Lebanese are suffering from lack of water, crumbling roads, and tainted meat, fish and poultry. People are furious but the politicians do nothing to remedy the situation. The refrain on everyone's lips is: "They aren't interested in the country, only in putting money in their pockets."

Ziad Hafez, an economist formerly with the International Finance Corporation, predicted that the 2013 parliamentary election could shake up the political landscape. Politicians who do not deliver could be punished while the rival coalitions formed in 2005 could split and their constituents form new alliances. He hoped that this could lead to a positive change in the current form of the sectarian-based system that has governed the country since the days of the French mandate.

Lebanon is divided into two zones: the north and the rest. Tripoli and its northern hinterland, extending to the Syrian border opposite Homs and Hama, has been seriously affected by the crisis in Syria. This region has close traditional family, clan, tribal, cultural and two-way trade ties with Syria. Tripoli has suffered serious economic decline.

Jamil Safieh, a transit agent formerly employed in the port, said: "Before the Syrian revolt, things were not bad. The worldwide economic crisis did not affect us. Commerce here is local. But over the past year, the flow of goods through Syria to Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf has fallen dramatically due to the lack of security in Syria. Beans, lentils and clothes are no longer coming from Turkey. Sanctions forced Syrian merchants who had money in banks here to withdraw it in cash and carry it in bags across the border. The collapse of the Syrian pound means Syrians cannot afford to come here.

"Lebanese who used to go to Syria to buy cheap clothing and food cannot go there because of fighting, kidnapping and killing. Syria stopped selling us electricity, oil and gas, so the price of electricity has doubled. Power is cut eight hours a day. The cost of cooking gas has doubled. Real estate prices have fallen by 15 per cent.... Unemployment has risen. The atmosphere is low, there is less money, less business."

He warned that there could be an explosion in Tripoli and the north, involving Sunni Muslims and Shiite Alawites who belong to the same community as the ruling family in Syria.

Puritanical Sunni Salafists with a grudge against Alawites are being energised by anti-Syrian political personalities and parties, as well as by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the regional powers backing the rebels in Syria. Although the Lebanese army and other political forces managed to contain these elements, Safieh warned that a clash could cause a full-scale civil war here even before one erupts in Syria.

The negative impact of Tripoli's economic decline extends eastwards to the underdeveloped and impoverished Akkar and the northern Bekaa, areas hosting thousands of Syrian refugees crossing into Lebanon from Homs and Hama, Rastan and Qusair. Most take refuge with Lebanese villagers and townspeople, mainly in the north and northeast. There are, so far, more than 8,000 United Nations- registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon and several thousand unregistered displaced Syrians.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and international and local non-governmental organisations are providing the Syrians - who arrive with no possessions or money - with food, clothing, medical care and other necessities so they do not tax the slender resources of host families who are generally poor.

So far, the drive to manage the inflow, which rose dramatically in February and March, has been largely successful and the refugees are welcome. But if the UN and the aid agencies are overcome with a flood, the Syrians could become a serious burden and risk rejection.

An aid worker said that some of the families hosting refugees recall the warm welcome given to Lebanese civilians driven from the south and other areas by Israel's devastating onslaught on Lebanon in 2006.

Beirut, the mountain and the south have sustained economic damage but this is not as serious as in the north. Although there are no reliable statistics, economist Hafez said trade through Beirut port, the largest in the country, and tourism have fallen.

"Arabs [from Iraq and the Gulf] who normally travel by land to Lebanon, do not come" due to the dangers posed by crossing Syria. While legitimate commercial transactions have declined, trade in contraband and speculation in Syrian pounds are flourishing.


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