As the increasingly sectarian war rages on in Syria between the mainly Sunni rebels and the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad, many wonder whether the virus of sectarianism will also infect Lebanon. As a multi-confessional country with its own history of civil war (1975-1990), Lebanon seems to be a likely candidate. The involvement of Lebanese groups on both sides in the Syrian conflict and recent shootings and bombings within Lebanon seem to indicate that Lebanon is on the brink of another war. Or does appearances deceive?
The risk of a civil war in Lebanon is high, because several armed groups are (or until recently were) active within Lebanon. One of the oldest armed groups is Hezbollah. Founded in 1985 to expel foreign forces from Lebanese territory (specifically the Israeli presence in South Lebanon), this group is the largest armed presence in Lebanon besides the Lebanese army. However, it is also politically very powerful, because it leads the March 8 bloc in the Lebanese parliament (currently good for 68 of the 128 seats, with Hezbollah holding 12 seats). It has shown in the past that it is a military and political power to be reckoned with. Its militias occupied West Beirut for 18 months in reaction to the discovery that Hezbollah had spying equipment installed in the international airport of Beirut. Hezbollah extracted several political concessions, including a de facto veto in parliament, in exchange for the end of its occupation of West Beirut and the promise to not use its armed wing again in domestic politics. Currently, its involvement in the Syrian civil war is a hot topic in Lebanon. As a Shiite group it supports the Syrian regime by sending weapons and fighters, because they see the Alewites as Shia coreligionists. This support has stoked fears within Lebanon that it might bring the Syrian civil war to Lebanon. There are already some signs that this might already be the case. In the past few months attempts have been made to disrupt Hezbollah supply lines from Hermel and Maasna to Syria with roadside explosives. Also the bomb attack begin July in the Hezbollah neighborhood Bir al-Abed in Southern Beirut can be seen as a reaction to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria.
There also has been a more direct, armed challenge to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria. Last year, a radical Sunni preacher, Ahmed al-Assir, set up his own armed militia in Abra, near Sidon in South Lebanon, as a counterweight to Hezbollah’s own armed presence in Syria and South Lebanon, while holding fierce anti-Hezbollah and anti-Assad speeches. He called in November 2012 for the removal of Hezbollah posters from Sidon, which led to armed clashes with Hezbollah fighters. His activities continued relatively unchecked until several of his men killed 10 army soldiers at a checkpoint near Abra in June 2013. The Lebanese army invaded Abra and killed and captured many of al-Assir’s followers. Al-Assir escaped during the this battle. The Future Movement (a Sunni party from the March 14 block, which opposes the March 8 bloc) criticized the military action in Abra and accused Hezbollah of taking part in the fighting and of torturing detainees before handing them over to the army. However, most of the Lebanese political parties applauded the move as they saw al-Assir as a foreign agent pointing to the large number of foreigners under his followers. In this regard they seem to ignore his genuine popularity under the local population.
But the list of armed groups and hot spots in Lebanon does not end here. In Tripoli, North Lebanon, there are often clashes between armed groups. The most serious clashes were in May 2013 between inhabitants of the rival neighborhoods Jabal Mohsen (supporters of the al-Assad regime) and Bab al-Tabbaneh (supporting the Syrian rebels). Although their rivalry precedes the Syrian civil war, it has increased the tensions between the two neighborhoods. But in the last year Tripoli also saw several clashes between different Palestinian groups. Lebanon has a large marginalized minority of Palestinian refugees (more than 400,000 people) living in refugee camps across Lebanon. Different Palestinian armed groups have used these camps in the past to plan and coordinate their attacks against Israel. The influx of Palestinian fighters and weapons into Lebanon in the seventies unhinged the fragile sectarian balance of the country and initiated an arms race between the different religious groups culminating in 1975 into civil war and the Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon in 1982. Regardless the attempts of the Lebanese militias and Israeli army to root them out, there are still armed Palestinian groups active within Lebanon. The last big flare-up with one of these groups was in May 2007 and involved the radical Sunni group Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Tripoli. The group attacked several army post around the refugee camp, but the Lebanese army succeeded in crushing most of the group.
Nowadays the Palestinians are no longer the only refugees in Lebanon. Since the start of the Syrian civil war more than 600,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon. Although you may see mostly Syrian women and children begging on the streets, the refugee population may also include Syrian rebel fighters. It is unclear to what extent these mostly Sunni rebels use Lebanon to supply their troops and to launch attacks against the al-Assad regime, but the recent attacks on Hezbollah may indicate their presence on Lebanese soil (insofar these attacks are not carried out by Lebanese sympathizers, like al-Assir). Another sign of their presence within Lebanon is the recent arrest of several men (Syrian and Palestinian) with weapons and al-Nosra uniforms (a radical Syrian rebel group linked to al-Qaeda) in North Lebanon.
Although it does not really count as an armed group, one should not overlook the role and meddling of the al-Assad regime in Lebanese affairs. Although its troops helped to end the Lebanese civil war, its attempts to influence Lebanese politics have also contributed significantly to unrest and political polarization in Lebanon. Lebanon’s parliament is in fact split between a pro-Syrian bloc (March 8 bloc) and an anti-Syrian bloc (March 14 bloc). This divide is deepened by the financial and military support that the al-Assad regime gives to Hezbollah, and by the assassination anti-Syrian public figures. Its most prominent Lebanese victims included journalist Samir Kassir (2005), prime minister Rafic Hariri (2005) and head of Lebanon’s intelligence service Wissam al-Hassan (2012). These assassinations combined with the continued presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon led in 2005 to large popular protests, which forced Syria to withdraw its troops completely from the country.
The participation of Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict and the presence of members of Syrian rebel groups and armed local sympathizers in Lebanon pose a clear danger to the stability of Lebanon and contribute to an increasing sectarian divide between Sunni and Shiite groups within Lebanon. The risk on civil strife is further heightened by the presence different armed groups in Lebanon. But what is the solution? Disarmament of the different armed groups would be a good step to prevent the extension of the Syrian civil war into Lebanon. For this reason several groups (including the Future Movement and the Maronite Patriarch Beshara Boutros Rai) have spoken out against the presence of illegal arms and armed groups within Lebanon. However, the whole solution hinges on the question whether the most important armed group, Hezbollah, can be disarmed. This seems to be unlikely as it is both politically and militarily very powerful. Its March 8 bloc holds more than half of the seats in parliament and its fighters control Southern Lebanon and not the Lebanese army. Moreover, its enjoys significant support under the Lebanese population for its “resistance” against Israel.
A more likely solution is to request Hezbollah to withdraw from the Syrian conflict and thus limit the growing sectarian tensions within Lebanon and the risk that Syrian fighters will continue against the al-Assad regime their fight on Lebanese soil. Several members of the March 14 bloc and the Lebanese president Michel Sleiman have thus requested Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria and to honor the Baadba agreement, which stipulates that no Lebanese party should draw the country in regional conflicts. It is hard to say whether Hezbollah will accept this option as it would mean the abandoning its Syrian coreligionists, its paymaster al-Assad and its Syrian supply line for weapons. Hezbollah may accept this option in the end, if its involvement will harm its popularity and leads to political isolation and growing political pressure. However, Hezbollah may be the most powerful armed group in Lebanon, but not the only one. The presence of other groups may, regardless the decision of Hezbollah to withdraw or not, still form a danger to the internal peace and religious tolerance in the country. Lebanon is currently relatively peaceful, but for how long will this peace last?
Online sources and further reading
Lebanese daily Daily Star – dailystar.com.lb
Lebanese daily L’Orient – Le Jour – lorientlejour.com
US think tank and publisher Council on Foreign Relations – cfr.org
Qatari news channel Al-Jazeera – aljazeera.com