The Middle East Channel

Lebanon confronts civil war

Lebanon confronts civil war

Twin car bombs exploded outside packed mosques in Tripoli killing at least 47 people and wounding hundreds. This horrific attack came on the heels of a car bomb in Beirut’s southern suburbs on August 15 that killed 27 people and wounded more than 300. Lebanese are more fearful than ever that their country is being dragged into yet another civil war. A return to all-out civil war remains unlikely, but the prospects for stability and security in Lebanon have never been dimmer.

Alarmist messages have sounded furiously in recent days. Lebanon’s Minister of Interior Marwan Charbel recently warned of the danger of partition as religious leaders in Tripoli called for establishing vigilante groups to protect their neighborhoods and streets. Resident of Beirut’s southern suburbs, considered a Hezbollah stronghold, are now subject to a daily search of their cars at checkpoints manned by Hezbollah men, every time they exit from or return to their homes. There is fear of more explosions in the near future that could drag the country into an irreversible cycle of tit-for-tat retaliatory violence.

This violence occurs in the midst of a five-month-old political crisis that has left Lebanon in the hands of a caretaker cabinet since Najib Mikati, the former prime minister, resigned after his divided cabinet failed to approve a commission to oversee parliamentary elections planned for June. Lebanon’s fragile state institutions have historically failed to contain and negotiate political conflicts; political communities that are organized around religion and sect; and the absence of a national consensus over Lebanon’s political identity. The regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the surging war next door in Syria, have put unprecedented strains on these already struggling institutions.

The absence of a national consensus over Lebanese sovereignty looms large. In the mid-1970s, the absence of a national consensus about the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) military presence in Lebanon was one of many factors that pushed Lebanon into a 15-year civil war. Today, there is no national consensus about Hezbollah’s weapons. In the 1970s, a majority of Christians saw in the PLO military arsenal an existential threat. Today, a majority of Sunnis consider Hezbollah’s military arsenal an existential threat. No matter how many public speeches Hezbollah’s Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah makes touting Hezbollah’s resistance achievements in defending Lebanon and deterring Israeli aggression, he has yet to make a breakthrough in the wall of fear and suspicion through which the great majority of Lebanese Sunnis now view Hezbollah’s weapons.

Lebanon has been and remains an arena where regional struggles are played out. It makes little sense to separate out the domestic from the regional calculations of most local players. Take the impasse facing the formation of a new cabinet. Hezbollah circles blame the long delay on a Saudi veto placed on Hezbollah participation in the cabinet. Pro-Saudi March 14 circles blame the impasse on Hezbollah’s reluctance to give up power at a time it is involved militarily in Syria at the behest of the Iranian regime. Five months later, Lebanon remains without a government at one of the most trying times in its history.

Add to this mix a deep Sunni-Shiite split over the war in Syria. Hezbollah’s political and military support for the Syrian regime has antagonized the great majority of Lebanon’s Sunnis who identify with the rebels’ cause. Some followers of the Sunni Salafi groups are fighting alongside the rebel groups. For Hezbollah, the war in Syria is the first line of defense against a Saudi-U.S.-Israeli led project to crush them. For them, it is an existential struggle. For Lebanon’s Sunni community, the fight in Syria is about reversing the political tide inside Lebanon in their favor. Bashar al-Assad’s defeat in Syria will translate into a Hezbollah defeat in Lebanon. Since the assassination of Rafik Hariri on February 14, 2005 Lebanese Sunnis have felt their political prominence undermined by the rise of Hezbollah’s political fortunes. The forced collapse of the last cabinet headed by Saad Hariri in January 2011 cemented these beliefs and contributed to a growing sense of alienation between the Sunni community and state institutions which many now feel are beholden to Hezbollah.

The Syrian conflict is testing the Lebanese parties’ respective fears and beliefs: the Christians’ existential angst of being a minority in a sea of Muslims (not reassuring given what is happening to Christians in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt); the Sunnis’ long-held belief that the leadership arc in the Levant has always been Sunni and that today’s Shiite arc is a historical aberration that must be corrected; and the Shiites’ historical feelings of social injustice and political marginalization along with their firm conviction that this is their time to redress historical injustice. Today, these fears and beliefs color the lenses through which these communities perceive each other.

Civil war a la 1975 is still unlikely primarily because of the vast imbalance between Hezbollah’s military arsenal on one hand and the firepower at the disposal of all its political opponents combined on the other. Hezbollah has little desire to alter the political status quo. It wants to avoid Sunni-Shiite violence in Lebanon. It has kept its base under tight control and will continue to do so. No Sunni leader in the opposite camp wants to engage at this point in a military confrontation with Hezbollah, which he knows he will lose. The emerging Salafi leadership has yet to develop a mass following inside the Sunni community. It remains geographically limited to northern Lebanon and has yet to develop a compelling narrative that appeals to the urban Sunnis. The Sunni business class, which continues to be the political tempo setter for the community writ large, is deeply suspicious of Salafi groups and has yet to invest in the formation and training of Sunni militia groups for self-defense purposes.

The Palestinian groups in Lebanon have officially opted to stay out of the intra-Lebanese fights. Recently, Lebanese authorities accused two Palestinians, who are affiliated with Hamas, of firing rockets at the southern suburbs of Beirut. The recent incidents in Abra in southern Lebanon in which Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, a Salafi preacher, and his followers fought the Lebanese army, point to a worrying trend. Some Syrian refugees joined Assir’s ranks. Whether there is the making of a "guns-for-hire" phenomenon is too early to tell. So far, more than 70 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are women and young children. However, as the conflict in Syria protracts, battle-hardened Syrian men might join their families in Lebanon and join the ranks of the Salafi groups especially in Tripoli, if the latter have the funds to hire their services. Operationally, this will be a long-term process that will take a few years in the making.

While civil war is unlikely, Sunni-Shiite tensions will continue to deepen. Hezbollah and Future Movement leaders are locked in mutually exclusive positions on key issues that divide them, including the conflict in Syria and Hezbollah weapons. There are no intersection points between their respective positions on these two issues on which a third party could build common ground. Second, neither side benefits from concession-making. Hezbollah knows the opposing camp is no match and doesn’t see any benefit from making concessions at this point. To the contrary, the Future Movement benefits from being non-compromising in dealing with Hezbollah at a time when doing so will keep it from losing ground to Salafi preachers. Third, there is no local or regional mediator that could step in between these two parties, a practice on which Lebanese politicians have often relied in the past in solving their internal conflicts. Lebanon’s Christian community is internally divided and unable to play a mediating role between Sunnis and Shiites as the Kurds have sometimes done in Iraq.

In the past, regional mediators were instrumental in assisting Lebanese parties negotiate their internal conflicts: Saudis and Syrians in the 1980s and Qataris in 2008. But today, regional players including the Saudis and the Iranians are keener on pressing for an advantage than at seeking consensus.

A Syria that is unstable and at war with itself for many years to come presents Lebanon with a new set of challenges. Syria’s diminishing influence over Lebanese affairs has created a political vacuum that has yet to be claimed by any of the domestic actors. Hezbollah stands the best chance of claiming that space. Yet it has chosen not to do so partly because of its primary focus on the military fight in Syria and partly because governing remains a far distant second priority for the party leadership. A weakened Syrian regime creates a regional vacuum that will be contested by regional players including Saudi Arabia and Iran. Part of that contest will play itself out in Lebanon as each side seeks to bolster the positions of their respective proxies in their bid to strengthen their regional hegemony.

Randa Slim is a research fellow at the New America Foundation and a scholar at the Middle East Institute.