Securing Lebanon, Widening Divides

As I write this post it has been reported by The Daily Star that militants near the Lebanese town of Arsal have killed two soldiers, almost immediately after the army had secured two captured soldiers. For now it seems like the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra is responsible, prompted by the arrest of one of their commanders. The troops were attacked at the Wadi Hmayyed checkpoint on the outskirts of this Sunni town, located in the Shia-dominated Bekaa Valley, on the border with Syria. Whether locals were involved or it was the work of Syrian jihadists, or a mixture of both, this event is further evidence of the deepening cleavages between the state and Lebanon’s Sunni population.

The civil war, which has ranged next door and will celebrate its morbid fourth anniversary next March, has put intense strain on the Lebanese state. Sunnis, who have suffered under Syrian occupation during and after the civil war, viewed the uprising in 2011 as a chance to change the political dynamic in Lebanon. With the regime of Bashar al-Assad gone, so they thought, a Sunni government in Damascus would allow them to reverse Hezbollah’s prominence in the political sphere, and eventually, its monopoly on violence–a monopoly that should be reserved for state institutions.

The Syrian revolution faltered: a lack of leadership on behalf of the West; competing regional Sunni powers backing different proxies; the ensuing power vacuum exploited by al-Qaeda and now its dangerous offshoot the Islamic State; and the oil wealth of rich Gulf donors and their alacrity to back Salafi groups, turned an opportunity for mainstream Sunni politicians into a quagmire with dangerous consequences.

Now, over three years into the conflict, Sunni politicians have begrudgingly come to accept the fact that the Syrian revolution threatens to pull the Lebanese state into another civil war, one that would see the rise of Salafi militants within the country, and further threaten their control over the poorest rungs of Sunni society. By signing onto the security plan, which de-facto includes a cooperative relationship between the military and Hezbollah (which is fighting on behalf of the regime in Syria and created the catalyst for spillover into Lebanon, with Sunnis wanting to take out their revenge within Lebanon) these politicians have helped put the state in direct opposition to downtrodden Sunnis and the groups they back.

For more on this dynamic and the current state of Sunni-government relations in Lebanon read my piece for Carnegie Endowment’s Sada: Middle East Analysis, entitled Securing Lebanon, Widening Divides.