Lebanon Pulse

Regional violence threatens Lebanon's fragile stability

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Article Summary
As suicide attacks and explosions increase in Beirut, Lebanon is being inexorably drawn deeper into the Syrian conflict.

All indications point to Lebanon having become part of the Middle Eastern regional conflict, in its most abhorrent sense: a Sunni-Shiite war.

The issue is no longer whether shrapnel from that conflict is now pockmarking Lebanon’s interior, or whether the war raging in Syria has reached it. The great fear currently is whether Lebanon will become a main front — a priority, even — in this conflict that erupted in Syria following popular protests and soon became a military conflict in which all countries of the region are now directly or indirectly involved. One need not be a military expert to realize that the Lebanese scene, with its historical baggage and idiosyncrasies, is particularly prone to this type of conflict. The small nation is Hezbollah’s primary stronghold and base of operations — which might prove to be the party’s Achilles’ heel.

The predominantly Shiite areas that form Hezbollah’s popular and power base are heavily populated and teeming with activity, having never before been victimized by the type of terrorism that has recently ravaged them. It is true that they have been perennial targets of Israeli air strikes, such as those that occurred in the 1996 and 2006 wars. These strikes destroyed large parts of their neighborhoods, villages and infrastructure, displacing and killing untold numbers of their inhabitants. Yet, it also is true that these two wars, irrespective of their barbarity and horridness, were conventional strikes by Israel and resisted by Hezbollah through guerilla tactics that drained the enemy’s will to fight. In both cases, Hezbollah claimed victory simply because it had not been crushed, and in the process exploited worldwide Arab and Muslim support. The latter stood against Israel and with Hezbollah’s military resistance doctrine.

But today, Hezbollah faces a different situation altogether, lacking the protection and support it once enjoyed. In fact, the party today finds itself, as a result of its involvement in the ongoing Syrian war, facing near total Arab isolation. This comes amid intra-Muslim divisions that are degrading its image and transforming it from hero to antagonist.

On a military level, circumstances have also radically changed. The “Party of Islamic Resistance” — Hezbollah — is no longer facing Israeli planes and tanks, but is now targeted by terrorist bombings, such as the Ruwais and Bir el-Abed explosions; suicide attacks such as the Iranian Embassy bombing in Beirut; assassinations, the latest of which being the murder of one of its most prominent commanders, Hassan al-Laqis; and other acts by terrorists that have infiltrated its heartland, targeting its cities and neighborhoods.

It is as if the war of attrition that the party excelled at against Israel has come back to haunt and target it, at the hands of factions claiming to champion the oppressed against an oppressive Hezbollah. The other variable in this new and fierce confrontation is that the enemy is no longer Israel — the usurper of lands, against whom all Arabs rally — but rather jihadists who are fighting the party in the name of the "one true religion." Perhaps most importantly, this new war’s timeframe is indefinite. It is fed by the ongoing war in Syria, which is drowning Lebanon in hatred and predominantly Sunni refugees. These refugees are now present in every Lebanese village and city, and have no sympathy for the party that backs the Syrian regime. They live in a state of injustice and poverty that makes every one of them a candidate for willing martyrdom.

With the addition of the sectarian dimension of the conflict with Iran, Lebanon has become a powder keg with a lit fuse. The issue is not that the country’s security is fragile, but that its civil war never truly ended. Two and a half decades after the signing of the Taif Accord that ended the fighting, no genuine reconciliation ever took place between the country’s social constituents. There was no reconciliation predicated on a mutual recognition of having erred and laying the foundations for sustainable peace. No tribunal was ever convened to hold war criminals responsible, or at least to review the causes of the conflagration, as was the case in other countries and societies that fell victim to such internal strife.

On the contrary, Lebanon’s post-war years saw an attempt to suppress any memory of the conflict. The hastily passed amnesty law of 1991 ignored the wounds caused by the war, without nursing or alleviating their pain. And the spate of reconstruction, despite its great benefits on urban and economic levels, was a mere distraction confined to metal and stone. Meanwhile, people remained prisoners of the same causes that led to the devastating conflagration in the first place. Components of Lebanese society never found common ground to bolster their unity and establish a shared vision that transcends their differences and lays the foundation for a Lebanese state that nurtures all of them. Instead, these differences grew as the Lebanese took sides along regional axes that, once again, carried the Middle Eastern conflict into Lebanon’s heartland.

The Lebanese civil war erupted in 1975 and took the form of a Christian-Muslim conflict, driven by demographic changes centered around the division of power and the small country’s position in the larger ongoing regional conflict. That war lasted for 15 years and led to countless deaths and tragedies. Today, under the guise of another sectarian conflict, Sunni-Shiite this time, and against a similar backdrop of demographic alignments along regional lines, the specter of war again rears its ugly head. But this war’s repercussions might be deeper felt this time around, compounded as they are by the wars being waged in Iraq and Syria. Nothing suggests that Lebanon is any more immune today. On the contrary, the embers of the last war still smolder, stoked once again by a multitude of demons aroused from their slumber.

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Found in: syrian civil war, sunni-shiite conflict, sectarian conflict in lebanon, regional war, middle east, lebanese civil war, internationalization of syrian conflict

Sami Nader is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse, 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 the economics and geopolitics of the Levant, and is a professor for USJ University in Beirut. On Twitter: @saminader

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