How Syrian war changed Lebanon’s traditional conflict

Friday 25/03/2016
Members of Lebanon’s militant Shia movement Hezbollah hold their flags, on March 1st, in the town of Kfour, in the Nabatiyeh district, during the funeral of a Hezbollah fighter killed in Syria.

London - A report covering 2013-14 was never likely to grab headlines but Lebanon in Conflict has gained rel­evance since completed by Inga Schei and Lokman Slim and published in October. It adopts both chronological and analytical ap­proaches, while drawing from inter­views with “ordinary” Lebanese, to challenge long-held assumptions.
The report, carried out by Hayya Bina (the Lebanese Association for Inclusive Citizenship) and financed by the US Institute for Peace, ends in January 2015 with the double suicide bombing of a café in Ja­bal Mohsen, just outside Tripoli in northern Lebanon. Seven people were killed and 35 others wounded in the attack carried out by two Sun­nis who lived within walking dis­tance of their target.
Lebanon in Conflict argues the Lebanese sense of border security flipped in 2013-14, with the Syrian border becoming “a sprawling bat­tlefield… [and] an epicentre of in­stability” in contrast to the relative quiet of the Israeli border, which “is very likely to maintain its status quo”.
The report cites incidents along the Israeli border that failed to esca­late. In August 2013, four Israeli sol­diers were wounded by a Hezbollah bomb but there was no retaliation. Likewise, there was no flare-up in September 2014 after a Hezbollah fighter was killed when an eaves­dropping device exploded or in Oc­tober 2014 when Israel shelled south Lebanon after two Israeli soldiers were injured in an explosion.
Neither did Hezbollah seek to ex­ploit the July 2014 conflict in Gaza. As the battle raged between Israel and Hamas, Hezbollah lost 20 fight­ers during 72 hours in Qalamoun, Syria. Some analysts claim Hezbol­lah has lost more fighters in Syria — an estimated 1,000 — than against Israel.
Turning to the Lebanese Army, Lebanon in Conflict notes long-standing hopes that it might serve as a unifying institution. It recalls this belief leading to foreign aid, in­cluding from the United States and Saudi Arabia, which in December 2013 announced military assistance of $3 billion.
The report surveys pressures in 2013-14 on the Lebanese armed forces (LAF) from growing Sunni ex­tremism and the Syrian maelstrom. It cites the July 5th, 2014, statement in which Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, a Sunni, acknowledged Hezbollah’s cooperation with the army and security services.
“Clearly, ‘Sunni extremism’ and the danger it poses has not only changed the LAF’s agenda (and those of its beneficiaries) but it has also changed the enduring notion that the LAF serves as the model for… state institutions in Lebanon… Not only is the LAF in no position to challenge Hezbollah militarily, but the very rationale behind any such challenge is no longer relevant,” the report said.
Since the report was published, the Saudis announced in February withdrawal of military aid in re­sponse to what they consider unac­ceptable Hezbollah influence — one of the many ways in which Lebanon in Conflict has gained traction since publication.
The report marks the birth of a new wave of violence from Sunni extremists in the small-scale bomb­ing of July 3rd, 2013, in an “excep­tionally secure” quarter of Dahiyeh, the Hezbollah-dominated Beirut southern suburbs. This was two months after Hezbollah celebrated its “victory” in Qusayr, a strategic Syrian town near the Lebanese bor­der. The following month came a car bomb in Dahiyeh, Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Beirut, that killed 22 people, claimed by a group saying it was responding to Hez­bollah’s involvement in Syria. In November 2013 and February 2014 came the bombing of the Iranian embassy and cultural centre in Bei­rut, as well as a series of attacks on the Lebanese Army.
Lebanon in Conflict reminds us that in Lebanon’s “long history of bombings… few (if any)… were of the suicide variety”. Again, the new pattern has persisted: those recently indicted over November’s double suicide bombings in Bourj el-Barajneh, south Beirut, are both Lebanese and Syrian. “As long as Lebanon remains… involved in the conflicts of other nations,” wrote the authors of Lebanon in Conflict, “the likelihood that this type of violence will become increasingly fashion­able seems a foregone conclusion.”
Another casualty of Syria is the Axis of Resistance, through which Hezbollah once allied with Palestin­ian groups against Israel. This, the report argues, was overwhelmed in 2013-14, as “evidenced by the burn­ing of Hezbollah-provided aid in Ain al-Hilweh [Lebanon’s largest Pales­tinian camp] in May 2013”.
Lebanon in Conflict charts a litany of assassinations, attempted as­sassinations and kidnappings. The last rarely make headlines, even within Lebanon. On May 15th, 2014, “Iraqi contractor W. Jabbour was re­leased… after a $50,000 ransom was paid. Surprisingly, family member Majed Al-Nashi was kidnapped dur­ing the exchange.” On September 4th, 2014: “The body of Lebanese Orsali Kayed Ghadadah was found. The individual was kidnapped sev­eral days before by a group of Islam­ists said to be affiliated to ISIS [the Islamic State].”
The report’s authors offer no so­lutions, framing their work as an attempt to encourage understand­ing of tensions between “stabil­ity” and “instabilities”. There can be no doubt they believe the latter are beginning to overwhelm the former.