While the uprising in Syria rages on in its fifth month, neighboring Lebanon is witnessing a deepening of the dangerous political split between the pro-Syrian Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition and the pro-West March 14 alliance.
According to the Lebanese English-language Daily Star the March 14 alliance has called for an end to “crimes against humanity”, referring to the Syrian regime’s attempts to crush the uprising, and for the Syrian authorities to swiftly implement political reforms.
On the opposite side of the political divide the March 8 coalition has staunchly defended the Syrian dictatorship in its crackdown on opposition groups.
Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, a Christian former army commander, of the March 8 coalition went even further when he dismissed the ongoing killing of protestors in Syria, describing the country’s situation as calm with the exception of “minor incidents in a neighborhood or two in Homs.”
“The danger,” he said, “is outside Syria and what is happening is media pressure.”
A Syrian activist, speaking to GlobalPost in Beirut, said he had felt a distinct narrowing of freedom of speech in Lebanon, where pro-Syrian parties have regularly beaten up participants in rallies in solidarity with Syria’s pro-democracy movement.
“We used to call Lebanon the citadel of the region,” he said, referring to Lebanon’s long-standing tradition of free speech. “But now we feel safer talking in Syria. The things you used to be able to only say in Beirut, now you can’t. You’re more free to talk politics in Damascus these days.”
While Hezbollah has long enjoyed respect among a large and diverse population of Arabs, the group’s popularity in Syria and Lebanon is waning. Its unwavering support for the Syrian dictatorship is eroding its popularity among many Syrian protesters, as well as some Lebanese, who once viewed the Iranian-financed Shia group as the region’s only true resistance to Israel.
According to the Associated Press Syrian protesters have vented their anger with the group by setting fire to the yellow flag of Hezbollah and pictures of the group's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, during anti-regime demonstrations.
While Lebanon has felt nothing comparable to the seismic shifts occurring in neighboring Syria, the assassinations and bombings of 2005, including that of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, for which Syria was initially widely blamed and for which members of Hezbollah have been indicted by an international court in the Hague, are still fresh in the minds of many Lebanese.
Many fear a return to the campaign of assassinations, bombings and violent protests as Syria and its allies fight what many locals says is a zero sum game of
life and death.
Many streets in west Beirut’s bustling Hamra district, famed as a melting pot of different religions and political trends, now fly the red and black flag of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP), one of Syria’s staunchest supporters in Lebanon.
Members of the group, which believes in a ‘Greater Syria’ extending from Syria across Iraq and south to include Jordan and occupied Palestine, recently attacked and hospitalized peaceful protestors holding a rally in solidarity with Syria’s democracy movement.
“Since Hezbollah took over people are worried about the Syrian influence in Lebanon,” said the activist.
Hezbollah forced former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri’s son and political heir, from office in January after he refused to renounce support for the UN-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of his father.
In the newly formed government, Hezbollah and its allies took 16 of the 30 seats. In the previous government, which resulted from the 2009 parliamentary elections, they had only 10 seats.