THE NEXT CRISIS ZONE?
March 2015, General Martin Dempsey, then-US Joint Chiefs of Staff
chairman, stated that the ISIS will “surely” become a threat for
Lebanon in the near period. The same is bound to happen in Jordan
in the mid period. Dempsey’s high rank and his access to reserved
military and intelligence information suggests that his statements
are not just hypotheses but forecasts, which are surely backed by
We need not refer to reserved information to find that Lebanon, since its foundation, has always been an unstable country. First it was part of the Ottoman empire, then it was occupied by France during the times of the “Great Lebanon” (which included Syria as well). The country, which won its independence in 1943, was scarred by a civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990. Instability is constant in Lebanon, country that is constitutionally based on the distribution of power on a confessional basis; something that was never amended by the government, despite the rapid demographic growth.
In Lebanon, every little regional mishap triggers a repercussion and an impact, usually a negative one, on the country’s internal stability. It happened with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which triggered Lebanon’s invasion by Israel in 1978 and in 1982; it also happened with the clashes between Israel and the Hezbollah; with the presence of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon; with the intrusive and overbearing Syria, which interfered with Lebanon’s internal affairs and had a military contingent stationed in Lebanon for over 29 years (until April 2005); and the same thing is true of the present Syrian civil war.
Lebanon harbors 12 Palestinian refugee camps with over 450.000 refugees in them. And that’s just the ones who are registered with the UN; the illegal refugees are at least twice as many. The Palestinian refugees began to settle in the camps when they were ousted from Jordan in 1970 – the famous Black September – and continued to arrive in waves after every new Arab-Israeli conflict and intifada. Within these refugee camps, Lebanese jurisdiction is quite limited.
If that weren’t enough, the Syrian civil war produced roughly one and a half million Syrian refugees that flooded Lebanon, causing a number of social problems and adding to the instability. These numbers are impressive if we consider that, overall, the Lebanese population counts roughly 4,5 million individuals. The refugees, mostly Sunni Muslims, triggered a political-institutional shift in Lebanon’s already shaky confessional balance. That is why Lebanon hasn’t carried out a census since the 1930’s.
Everything that happens today in Syria has repercussions in Lebanon on the social, political and military level. And this is not only due to the common border between the two countries, but also to the alliance between the Lebanon-based Hezbollah and Syria’s leader Bashar al Assad. In the case of Lebanon, the militiamen of the Party of God are like a State within the State.
The Saudi aversion to the Hezbollah’s support of Assad sparked a financial retaliation against Lebanon, a country that survives thanks to the economic support of the of the countries in the region. The top financiers of Lebanon were, of course, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations. Now over 3 billion dollars of military funding which was destined to the purchase of French weapons were blocked. There followed a prohibition for Saudi, Kuwaiti, UAE and Qatari citizens to travel to Beirut, even on vacation. Finally, the Lebanese workers in the Gulf were expelled.
The Saudi’s intend to follow up with further economic ‘sanctions’, such as the withdrawal of Saudi money from the Lebanese Central Bank, the stop to investments and to the importation of Lebanese products, the need for a visa for any Lebanese entering Saudi Arabia and the forced closure of the Lebanese companies that operate in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh would like to extend these measures to other Gulf countries as well.
To close the circle, the Gulf Cooperation Council has recently included the Hezbollah in their list of terrorist organizations. This decision hints at further measures that will soon befall the Lebanese authorities, which are accused of crimes that they cannot be responsible for, since the Hezbollah operates independently from the Lebanese government. The Secretary General of the Shiite movement, Hassan Nasrallah, publicly dared the Saudis to confront Hezbollah directly, without inflicting their punishment on the innocent Lebanese population.
On March 10, 2016, Saudi Arabia urged the foreign ministers of the Arab League to list the Hezbollah among terrorist organizations despite the objections of both Lebanon and Iraq. Tunisia and Algeria reluctantly agreed. The next step could be to try to do the same with the UN, since there are already a number of nations, including the US, since August 1997, which have sanctioned the group. This would be hard to achieve, seen that there are 40 countries that contribute troops to the UNIFIL contingent in Lebanon and, as a matter of fact, the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon operates with the approval of the Hezbollah.
A new proxy war?
The Hezbollah have had the support of the Arab world in virtue of their history with Israel. To oppose them will weaken Lebanon further, with all that this entails in the general picture of the Middle East. Once again Saudi policy seems driven by resentment rather than by the evaluation of the long-term effects that such policy will produce.
The US have expressed their preoccupation about the worsening of Saudi relationships with Beirut; they are well aware that the region has no need for further instability. Furthermore, the peace process in Syria will forcibly have to make use of the Hezbollah. The Saudi reprisals are just creating useless difficulties. The new, more pragmatic, American stance contradicts the US Department of the Treasury which, in July 2015, sanctioned military members of the Hezbollah for their involvement in Syria. But in today’s Middle East, convenience and interests are fast changing.
Presently, Lebanon can make use of the American, French and British support. London has promised the Lebanese army weapons and training. The British fear a potential expansion of the ISIS in Lebanon in virtue of the country’s persistent instability. The truth is that the Hezbollah, despite being allies of Iran and Russia and despite being independent in the Lebanese context, are fighting the ISIS and ensuring security in Lebanon. The political and financial sanctions imposed on Lebanon by Saudi Arabia are - once again - going in the opposite direction.
To use Lebanon for a proxy war against Iran isn’t in anyone’s interest and therefore lacks a logical purpose. Thinking of opposing the Hezbollah to produce effects on the Syrian war and on the alliance between the Hezbollah and Iran, or thinking of destabilizing Lebanon to oppose the Iranian hegemony in the region, is pure madness.
The Lebanese stalemate
Today Lebanon is going through an internal stalemate. It lacks a president since May 2014. Michel Suleiman’s mandate has already expired and parliament doesn’t seem to be able, after 36 attempts, to reach the two-thirds of the votes that are needed to elect his successor among the country’s Christian leaders - according to the Lebanese constitution, the office of president is reserved to the Christian-Maronite.
About one quarter of the 128 deputies sitting in the Lebanese parliament are siding with the Hezbollah but they are not the only contenders. Saad Hariri, the son of former PM Rafik who was murdered in 2005, leads the ‘March 14’ alliance and his Sunni party, Movement for the Future. Hariri, who has both Lebanese and Saudi passports, has been known for his anti-Syrian, and anti-Hezbollah, stance. On the other front there is the ‘March 8’ alliance, which includes the Free Patriotic Movement of the Maronite Gebran Bassil, the Shiite Amal Movement and the Socialist Progressive Party of the Druse leader Walid Jumblatt.
The institutional paralysis, with the government left to administer only the current affairs, gives further freedom to the activity of the Hezbollah, both on the inner front – the Party of God controls much of the south of the country – and on the outer front, Syria, where they have a contingent of roughly 7.000 men.
The shadow of the Caliph
Over this institutional chaos and on the Hezbollah-Saudi feud there looms the shadow of the ISIS. In January 2014, a video announced the creation of a Lebanese branch of the Islamic State. In the meanwhile, there was talk of an agreement between Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and Abu Mohammed al Golani (Jabhat al Nusra) to militarily infiltrate Lebanon in order to create a new Wilayat (province) to add to those conquered in Syria and in Iraq. In the same month the ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the area controlled by the Hezbollah. Terrorist attacks in Lebanon have been recurrent since July 2013, always in Shiite areas.
The ISIS militias are present on and around Lebanon’s border, in the areas of Arsal and Qalamoun. They are currently opposed by the Hezbollah’s militias in the Bekaa valley and, in the north, by the Lebanese army. Small portions of the country are controlled by the Jihadists. In June 2015, the ISIS tried to occupy the Christian village of Baalbek.
Other, less known, factions affiliated to the terrorists – the Farouq Brigade, the Green Brigade, the Fajr al Islam Brigate, the Ghuraba Brigade – operate in the vicinity and, if defeated, will most likely flee to Lebanon, producing more instability. Furthermore, the ISIS ideology has had a discrete following among the Sunni populations of Lebanon, especially in the area near Tripoli, and this as brought tens of volunteers to join the ranks of the Caliphate.
The perennial uncertainty of Lebanon makes the country partially immune from traumatic events. However, its military and demographic weakness makes it an easy prey for hostile forces, because Lebanon is a country where internal policy is systematically conditioned by the pressure of external powers.
Whatever may happen in Syria, the future of Lebanon does not appear to be rosy. If Assad manages to hold on to power, Syria will try to annex Lebanon once again, only this time they will be supported by the Hezbollah and their Iranian sponsors. On the other hand, if Syria disintegrates in the hands of the Islamic extremists, the risk will be even higher as the internal social, religious, and sectarian conditions of Lebanon could spark a new civil war. This circumstance could be fueled by the 375km-long border that Lebanon shares with Syria. Finally, there looms the Israeli shadow over Beirut; Tel Aviv thinks that it is their right to interfere militarily with the events in the Land of the Cedar.