Lebanon’s Gathering Storm

by Michael Young Michael Young is the opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper and the author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle 08.10.2014
BEIRUT – With all eyes focused on sectarian violence in Iraq and Syria, little attention has been paid to Sunni-Shia relations in Lebanon. Yet the potential for a perfect storm is brewing.

In the Bekaa Valley town of Arsal, a Sunni enclave in a Shia-majority region, jihadists recently attacked Lebanese army units and abducted soldiers, whom they accused of working with Hezbollah. Arsal borders Syria’s Qalamoun region, where the Syrian army and Hezbollah are fighting Syrian rebels and jihadists.

When the Islamic State reportedly beheaded a Sunni army member in Arsal, few of the town’s inhabitants interviewed on Lebanese television publicly condemned the group. Instead, they focused their anger on Lebanese politicians. Many people blame worsening sectarian relations on Lebanon’s deteriorating social and economic situation, itself a consequence of the conflict in Syria.

Services and construction – two main pillars of Lebanon’s economy – have suffered badly, and tourism has all but dried up. The country’s infrastructure is in calamitous shape. Power is rationed – in some places to just a few hours per day. A dry winter has resulted in severe water shortages. The Lebanese now rely increasingly on private generators and water suppliers, which are costly and therefore reduce consumption and economic growth. With debt levels estimated at nearly 150% of GDP, economic collapse is now a serious possibility.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that Lebanese cite a corrupt and ineffective state as the source of their troubles. The problem is that this general dissatisfaction may aggravate political and sectarian tensions.

While the mood in Lebanon’s Sunni community has become increasingly hostile, Hezbollah’s behavior in recent years has made the situation worse. The party imposed its power following the February 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister and prominent Sunni leader, for which an international tribunal in The Hague has indicted several Hezbollah members.

Following the Hariri assassination, widespread protests forced the Syrian army to withdraw from Lebanon. Fearing that the departure of a strategic ally would shift the balance of power against it, Hezbollah began intimidating its rivals.

In 2008, its forces overran Sunni neighborhoods in western Beirut, killing several civilians. In 2011, it ousted Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri’s son, and replaced him with the party’s preferred Sunni leader. Most significant, Hezbollah announced in 2013 that it was siding with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in its fight against mainly Sunni rebel forces.

Hezbollah’s actions were bound to exacerbate Sunni-Shia tensions in Lebanon, a country with a complex sectarian makeup. The dangers multiplied when the Islamic State took control of Mosul in Iraq and expanded its authority in Syria. Though most Lebanese Sunnis are moderate, many could not help but feel some satisfaction about the Shia-dominated Iraqi government’s losses and Assad’s military defeats in eastern Syria.

Sunnis also recognize that Hezbollah is trapped in the Syrian quagmire, where many hundreds of its fighters are believed to have been killed since spring 2013. They know that Hezbollah would be unable to contain a possible Sunni uprising in Lebanon, which is why Hezbollah has leaned on the Lebanese army to help repress Sunni militancy. The army’s scope for action is limited, though – an estimated 30% of its rank-and-file soldiers are Sunni.

Adding to this combustible mix are the 1.5 million Syrian – mainly Sunni – refugees now in Lebanon, and Salafist jihadist groups in the Palestinian refugee camps, who, with economic discontent running high, might be enlisted in a sectarian war. If that happens, Hezbollah could be overwhelmed, particularly because the three areas of Shia concentration – Beirut’s southern suburbs, South Lebanon, and the northern Bekaa Valley – are geographically separate, with lines of communication passing through mainly Sunni regions.

The Lebanese government will have to work hard to reduce the risk of a worst-case scenario. But, with parliament having now gone four months without electing a new president, and the challenges of daily life mounting, the signs are not encouraging.

Sectarian tension in Lebanon is at an ominous level. Avoiding war, let alone solving some of the country’s economic problems, will be a major achievement. If the international community is to counter the Islamic State and find a way to prevent the further erosion of order in the Middle East, its leaders will have to think about the region as a whole. That must include shoring up Lebanon’s stability.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
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