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Lebanon: Between Tripoli and Balochistan

Northern Lebanon is paying the price for the rise of radicalism in the region.
Lebanese army soldiers ride on their military vehicles after being deployed to tighten security following days of clashes between Sunni Muslims and Alawites in the northern port city of Tripoli October 28, 2013. Two people died in the northern city of Tripoli on Monday, security and medical sources said, in fighting between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Lebanese army which has spilled over from the war next door.   REUTERS/Omar Ibrahim (LEBANON - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL U

The flames of war that struck Lebanon’s northern capital, Tripoli, last week are still smoldering. Despite the army deployment in the neighborhoods that witnessed military confrontations, nothing indicates that the fate of the latest ceasefire will be different from the many that preceded it.

The agreements reached between the official security services and the “leaders of the axes” fall squarely within militia-type logic and themselves constitute a challenge to state authority and its monopoly of arms and in maintaining security.

The Lebanese north is no longer in the state’s hands. It has become a swamp in which violent and oppressive radical forces sprout. Those forces use the sense of injustice and deprivation, and the double standard being used to resolve Arab issues, first and foremost the cause of the Syrian people, to rouse the hungry and mobilize the oppressed. What has become clear is that the conflict in Syria has moved to Lebanon. It is the same conflict, between the same conflicting parties, with the same sectarian dimension, taking place in two different countries.

The borders created by international agreements have practically disappeared and been replaced by borders of another kind: religious borders fueled by regional powers, which the latter use in their major conflicts.

The state of affairs in the east is terrible. Every day, there are bombings bearing the signature of religious terror. There are conflicting reports about the approaching battle for Qalamoun, which is a Sunni area and the stronghold of the rebels near Damascus. The Syrian regime has been preparing for that battle to strengthen its negotiating hand in the lead-up to the Geneva II conference.

At the same time, the conflict in the Lebanese north between the Sunni area of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite area of Jabal Mohsen rages. Concurrently, but not coincidentally, 11 explosions rocked predominantly Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad and Mosul. 

Meanwhile, on the Iran-Pakistan border, 14 Iranian border guards were killed by “armed groups” thought to be associated with al-Qaeda. That was followed by Iran executing 16 Sunnis from Balochistan, in what appears to have been a revenge response. 

The scene in the Middle East last week was a scene of terrorism and blood and fire of a sectarian nature. Meanwhile, the positions regarding Geneva II have been escalating. President Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice has said that Washington is reviewing its Middle East policy and reassessing its priorities. She said that Washington is seeking a diplomatic solution with Iran and wants to “mitigate” the Syrian strife. 

That US position is worrying its allies of yesterday. Demoting Egypt from the list of US priorities and “easing” the Syrian conflict do nothing to calm the raging Sunni street. US Middle East policy is in open retreat under the pretext that the United States shouldn’t focus its diplomatic effort on the Middle East at the expense of other strategically important regions like Central Asia. Meanwhile, Iran is trying to benefit from the chaos that followed the Arab Spring.

In every corner of the Middle East, the feeling of suppression is promoting extremist religious currents and jihadist movements. The biggest proof of that is what is happening in northern Lebanon, which is witnessing a profound shift in its social and political fabric.

That area, which used to be a model of co-existence and openness and which was dominated by moderate Sunni Islam, has slowly slipped into a state of emptiness and despair, an emptiness that has started being filled by de facto forces dubbed the “leaders of the axes.” That label suggests that the social contract guaranteeing common sectarian living, and thus pluralism, and the basis of a unified state, has collapsed. Worse, there were reports that fundamentalist movements, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), have starting getting active in the north Lebanon fight. 

It is true that the Tripoli events may be artificial. And it is true that some are tampering with its security and that the collapsing Syrian regime and its collaborators have an interest in strife in northern Lebanon. As the Samaha-Mamluk investigation revealed, the Syrian regime may be trying to destabilize security and stability in Lebanon, which has lived under Syrian control for two decades, to suggest that a sectarian explosion may strike the region and that the Syrian regime is the only force able to prevent it.

The regime thinks that such a political maneuver may deter international forces from supporting the Syrian revolution. There are those who say that Hezbollah and the Hezbollah-sympathetic Lebanese army intelligence are the ones behind the flare-up in northern Lebanon to put pressure on Saudi Arabia, which has been supporting the revolutionary forces against the Assad regime. 

But, on the other hand, what’s striking is how the forces of moderation quickly slipped into the sectarian quagmire either with or without being aware of it. Some voices from among the forces of moderation have expressed understanding for the “leaders of the axes” even though the latter constitute a rival force that seeks to pull the rug from under the moderates’ feet and grab their popular bases. The forces of moderation acted as if they had no choice but to succumb to the street’s sectarian instincts. Instead of leading, the moderates allowed themselves to be led. It is a race to the abyss. 

Sami Nader is a columnist with Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse. He is an economist, Middle Eastern affairs analyst and communications expert with extensive expertise in corporate strategy and risk management. He currently directs the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, focusing on economics and geopolitics of the Levant, and is a professor for USJ University in Beirut. On Twitter: @saminader

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