Lebanon: The Next Syria?

Strategically situated on the coast of the Eastern Mediterranean, and bordered by Syria to the north and east and Israel to the south, is Lebanon. Historically, Lebanon has been a fragile state, attempting to reconcile the interests of seventeen official religious sects. It is no stranger to conflict, which has been inflicted on the country by both civil war and invading powers. Today, disagreements among Lebanon’s religious groups are paralysing government. Compounding the issue, Lebanon is experiencing a significant uptick in violence emanating from Syria. Left alone, Lebanon may be unable to ease the pressure under which it is finding itself.

For over two years, the Syrian civil war has remained squarely in the public consciousness, and rightfully so. United Nations weapons inspectors have now collected overwhelming evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria.1 As the death toll steadily rises, and violence continues to prevail, Syria will remain at the forefront of international news.

While the atrocities occurring in Syria demand our attention, and need to be stopped, with such an intense fixation on Syria itself it is easy to lose sight of the broader picture. Namely, what seems to go unreported is the regional effect that Syria is having on the greater Middle East. Broadly, Syria has devolved into sectarian conflict – a fight between the region’s Sunni Muslims and the region’s Shi’ite Muslims. With each passing day, new dynamics complicate the conflict. In addition to the sectarian conflict, the Syrian civil war has become a battleground for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Syria has also become an incubator for terrorism as al-Qaeda affiliates are growing in strength. The Syrian civil war is fueling new aims for Kurdish autonomy in northeast Syria. Iraq is experiencing a new wave of its own sectarian violence. And Jordan is being forced to deal with an influx of refugees for whom the state will have difficulty providing basic necessities like water and electricity. In short, the Syrian civil war is no longer a movement to depose an autocratic leader; instead, Syria has become a vacuum that could potentially destabilise the entire region.

One country in particular that is feeling the significant stresses of armed conflict on its border is Lebanon. Violence from Syria is spilling over the border and this summer Lebanon has experienced a steady stream of violence. In July, a car bomb exploded in a historically secure suburb of Beirut wounding at least 50 people.2 An insurgent group claiming to be an al-Qaeda affiliate, the 313 Brigade, took credit for the attack. In August, two car bombs simultaneously ripped through mosques in the city of Tripoli killing 42 people and wounding hundreds more.3 Beyond the rash of car bombings, opposition movements encouraged by vehement anti-Shi’ite language emanating from Syria have begun to rearm themselves and have taken to the streets. In another prominent incident, the Sunni firebrand cleric Ahmad al-Assir encouraged his supporters to open fire upon a checkpoint manned by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).4 A two-day gun battle resulted in the streets of Sidon. These incidents are but three in a long list of violent acts attributable to insurgents from Syria and their supporters within Lebanon.

The deteriorating security situation in Lebanon is beginning to set off its own chain reaction across the region. Already nervous about the prospect of having a hostile, unstable, and terrorism-sponsoring Syria on its northeastern border, Israel is wary about the potential of a floundering Lebanon to its north. Israel has fought multiple wars-notably in 1967 and 1973-and it has taken overt military action such as bombing Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor to ensure that its own security was protected. Eventually, Israel will become more aggressive in securing its borders; although one could argue that it has already begun to introduce protection strategies. In August, Israeli Defense Force commandos staged an operation probing into southern Lebanon.5 The Israeli Air Force has since conducted air strikes targeting areas just outside of Beirut in response to missile attacks launched from Lebanon towards Israel, which were attributed to Liberation of Palestine (PLFP).6 Israel has already confronted armed Palestinian guerrillas operating from Lebanon. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to eradicate the threat posed by Palestinian groups. Fears of another conflict with Lebanon could be driving Israel to see no alternative other than force; however, an armed intervention would pull more of the already unstable region into conflict and perpetuate chaos within Lebanon.

Beyond the escalating violence, Lebanese domestic politics faces a challenging future. The Lebanese government system is a confessional one; therefore, the government is constructed to create representation that corresponds with religious demographics within Lebanon. Power is distributed among the three major religious factions: Sunni Muslims, Shi’a Muslims, and Maronite Christians. In Lebanon, the President is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister is always a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of Parliament is always a Shi’a Muslim. Additionally, seats in parliament are always divided along religious lines based on the 1930 census with each receiving a percentage of seats that correspond to percentage of the population that identify with each religious groups.

The Lebanese confessional system is a significantly flawed. Most glaring is that distribution of seats and positions have not been altered because a survey has not been conducted since 1930. Putting this flaw aside, qualities inherent to confessional systems make governing difficult. To assume complete legislative power-the ability to hold a majority in Parliament and Cabinet-parties must form coalitions with parties within their own religious bloc and with parties outside their blocs. In one recent example, the Shi’ite party Hezbollah formed a coalition with a Maronite Christian party lead by Michel Aoun – also known as the March 8th Alliance – giving them veto power in the Lebanese cabinet. As a result of this system based on tenuous alliances, Lebanon has historically been plagued by unstable and ineffective governance.

The current situation in Lebanon is no different. Sitting President Michel Suleiman has been unable to form a cabinet as rival factions press for demands.7 Without a formed cabinet, Lebanon technically is without an official government. As a result, parliament has been unable to effectively conduct its business. Should this impasse continue, the Lebanese state, will suffer serious further setbacks. Beyond the passing of new laws and the provision of basic services, the government will not be able to effectively handle the heightening violence. A floundering government coupled with increased violence could spell disaster for Lebanon.

It is no coincidence that violence is increasing as the Lebanese government is weighed down in a political quagmire. In political science literature a functional state is defined as one that has a monopoly on the use of violence.8 By being the sole wielder of violence, the state is able to centralise power and is able to project its power in order to eliminate its challengers. Where the state is unable to project its power, the state will meet resistance and will have a more difficult time effectively functioning. A strong, centralised state is capable of monopolising violence in all its territories, while a weak state like Lebanon can only truly project power to a small portion of the country. Lebanese state certainly does not hold a monopoly on violence within its borders and as a result it is being challenged where it cannot project power.

From the perspective of an insurgency-or any armed group that is smaller than the state-it is always weaker than the state. This is because the state has more resources at its disposal when compared to a sub-state group. As a result, the sub-state group will try to find ways to equalise the balance of power between the state and itself. One way a sub-state group, like an insurgency, can do this is to operate far away from centers of power like a nation’s capital.9 In other words, the insurgency will try to operate outside the sphere in which a country has a monopoly on violence. This is what is occurring in Lebanon. Recent and notable attacks that occurred this summer were in cities like Tripoli and Sidon, away from the capital Beirut. Violence has occurred on the porous border region between Syria and Lebanon. This is because Lebanon does not have the ability to project its power throughout the entire country. Consequently, insurgent groups have the ability to challenge the government’s authority.

This has significant implications for Lebanon. Insurgents thrive in lawless zones. Without being checked by the central government, an insurgency is free to operate as it pleases. Additionally, it is able to establish a base of operations from which to stage attacks and plan. In some instances, operating in a lawless zone also allows the insurgent group to function as a de facto government, providing protection and services that normally would fall under the jurisdiction of the government. This could also help with gaining new recruits, as the insurgent group is able to provide a support network that would be absent if one was not a member of the insurgency.

Syria is currently facing these issues. Once Assad lost a monopoly over violence, his ability to project power throughout the entire country was also lost. Now, insurgent groups like Jubhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria have filled the power vacuum. They have joined the fight, challenging Assad outside of his sphere of influence. Al-Qaeda has lawless areas to plan and execute attacks. Such areas are incubators for extremism and now Syria is being consumed by extremist violence.

One of the great concerns for Western governments, particularly when considering whether to arm the rebels, has been the growing threat of violence committed by radical Islamic groups such as al-Qaeda. Critics of plans for arming the rebels cite the inability to guarantee extremist groups will not receive western aid as a chief reason against the plan.10 It is against the West’s interest to assist insurgent groups that pose a threat to Western security. By ignoring Lebanon, the West is providing another opportunity for extremists to be cultivated. Extremism and violence flowing from Syria into Lebanon will eventually destabilise the central government, creating a situation where the central government holds just an enclave of power within a country consumed by violence. This is what has happened in Syria and if left unchecked, Lebanon could be next.

There certainly is no easy solution to the situation in Lebanon. However, standing on the sidelines will perpetuate the situation. It is also important to realise that potential policy solutions will not solve the problem overnight. Rather, it will be a long, arduous process that nonetheless should be addressed.

To help Lebanon, the West must first find a way to neutralise Hezbollah. Much of the current violence attributed to Sunni insurgents streaming across the Lebanese-Syrian border is because of Hezbollah’s decision to become involved in Syria. Insurgents are in Lebanon to disrupt Hezbollah strongholds, undermine the party’s legitimacy at home, and force Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria. Before Hezbollah entered the conflict, it looks as if the rebels had a substantial chance to completely oust Assad. However, the tide turned once Hezbollah entered the conflict.11 As a result, it is in the insurgents’ interest to remove Hezbollah from the conflict so that they could potentially shift the balance once again. If the West is able to disengage Hezbollah from the Syria conflict, it is also removing a reason for Sunni groups to incite violence with Lebanon.

Furthermore, isolating Hezbollah has larger geostrategic implications. Neutralising Hezbollah disrupts a sophisticated international terrorist organisation. It also damages Iran as Hezbollah is a critical Iranian ally in the Middle East. To make sure Hezbollah feels restricted, Western countries need to be putting intense pressure on Hezbollah’s financial operations. The first step in the process should be a universal designation by Western countries that Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation. Currently, the EU has failed to designate Hezbollah an official terrorist group even after overwhelming evidence that Hezbollah was operating and planning terrorist attacks in Cyprus and Bulgaria.12 Coming to a consensus on a ban will allow countries to legally sanction Hezbollah officials, companies, and fundraisers. The United States has begun to do this; however, it must be taking place on a much larger scale. Hezbollah’s network is widespread and diffuse. Until recently it was even running a racketeering ring within the United States.13 Countries must designate Hezbollah a terrorist group and must work together to root out sources of capital for Hezbollah. Curbing their capabilities would also further facilitate the consolidation of a more unified state that protects all Lebanese citizens.

Second, to effectively counter the rise in the violence, Lebanon must be able to construct a functional security plan. While there are similarities between Lebanon and Syria, one significant difference is that Lebanon is not immediately threatened by a revolution, despite its dysfunctional government. However, without a comprehensive strategy, more insurgents will be free to operate and will encourage dissent throughout the country. Lebanon does have a security apparatus that could conceivably deal with the threats. However, the Lebanese army has historically been ineffective and there have been recent talks suggesting that the army is no longer non-partisan, undermining its credibility. To ensure that the LAF can effectively deal with the insurgency, the West must help Lebanon.

As referenced briefly at the beginning of this piece, Jordan is another country that is suffering as a result of the Syria conflict. To ensure some stability there, the U.S. conducted a military exercise with F-16s, Patriot Missile batteries, and military advisers in Jordan.14 After the exercise the U.S. left its units in place to deter potential attacks originating from Syria. Like Jordan, Lebanon should receive some form of military assistance. This does not have to manifest itself in terms of fighter jets and anti-aircraft technology. Instead, Western nations can take steps to help Lebanon secure its newly found energy fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, allowing the LAF to divert resources away from the coast towards security against insurgents. Furthermore, the LAF is about to receive new funding from the Lebanese state. Western nations could help the LAF spend its money most efficiently on areas of defense in which they are significantly lacking, such as communication technology.15

Finally, Western nations should consider sharing intelligence concerning insurgent activity with the LAF and the Lebanese government. Western countries, especially the United States, have extremely sophisticated intelligence networks that are collecting information on Lebanon daily. Since these Western agencies have better capabilities than their Lebanese counterparts, the West should be sharing information necessary to fight the insurgents. In July, the U.S. provided the Lebanese government with information concerning a car bomb attack.16 Sharing intelligence allowed the explosion to be contained without fatalities. This kind of information sharing needs to continue and will be welcomed.

To construct a feasible security plan to eradicate the insurgents and handle Lebanon’s complex domestic issues, the West should assist in the formation of a new government. Without a functioning government, there is no way that Lebanon can effectively enact legislation or effectively come to uniform decisions. In order to effectively handle the increased violence, the central government needs to be unified and enforcing consistent strategy. The current political gridlock is detrimental to the state’s ability to handle these issues. Western governments should be facilitating negotiations between the competing parties to encourage the quick formation of a government. The West could also offer incentives in the form of potential economic assistance as a way to incentivise the Lebanese to come to agreeable terms. If negotiations continue to flounder, Lebanon will be unable to handle imminent security threats and a state collapse might loom.

The world watches as Syria continues to befuddle policy makers. Western leaders in particular are unsure of how best to deal with the situation. It is true that there is no quick fix, but inaction because of indecision certainly will not begin to solve this issue. While the West waited too long in Syria, it can still act in areas around the Middle East that are feeling the pressures of the Syrian conflict. Lebanon is one of these areas and Western involvement could be instrumental in isolating the Syrian conflict as well as protecting a fragile state. In short, if the West wishes to protect its interests in the Middle East, it must help Lebanon and must do it quickly.

1 “Syria Chemical Attack: What We Know” BBC September 24, 2013 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-23927399 return to main text
2 “53 Wounded in Car Bombing at Parking Lot in Dahieh’s Bir al-Abed” Naharnet July 9, 2013 http://www.naharnet.com/stories/en/89884 return to main text
3 “Bombs Kill 42 Outside Mosques in Lebanon’s Tripoli” Reuters August 23, 2013 http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/23/us-lebanon-explosion-deaths-idUSBRE97M0FL20130823 return to main text
4 “Sunni Cleric Incites Gun Battle With Lebanese Army and Hezbollah” The Christian Science Monitor June 24, 2013 http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2013/0624/Sunni-cleric-incites-gun-battle-with-Lebanese-Army-and-Hezbollah return to main text
5 “The Lowdown on Hezbollah’s Ambush in South Lebanon” Al Akhbar August 8, 2013 http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/16676 return to main text
6 “Israeli Warplane Strikes Area South of Beirut” The Daily Star August 23, 2013 http://dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Aug-23/228385-israel-says-bombed-lebanon-in-retaliation-for-rocket-attack.ashx#axzz2d7aeF2c6 return to main text
7 “Jumblatt Draws Fire for Rejecting 8-8-8 Cabinet Proposal” The Daily Star September 27, 2013 http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2013/Sep-27/232743-jumblatt-draws-fire-for-rejecting-8-8-8-cabinet-proposal.ashx#axzz2gLNMg0jM return to main text
8 Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime” in Bringing the State Back In edited by Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) return to main text
9 James Fearon and David Laitin, “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War” American Political Science Review vol. 97 no. 1 (2003) return to main text
10 “U.S. Begins Shipping Arms Syrian Rebels” Wall Street Journal June 26, 2013 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323419604578569830070537040.html return to main text
11 “Qusair in their Hands, now Hezbollah is Fighting for Aleppo” Haaretz June 5, 2013 http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/1.528038 return to main text
12 “Gaining the Upper Hand Over the Iran-Hezbollah Axis” Atlantic-Community.org October 15, 2012 http://www.atlantic-community.org/web/guest/-/gaining-the-upper-hand-over-the-iran-hezbollah-axis return to main text
13 “Nineteen Charged in U.S. with Racketeering to Fund Hizbullah” The Daily Star May 31, 2006 http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Politics/Mar/31/Nineteen-charged-in-US-with-racketeering-to-fund-Hizbullah.ashx#axzz2gLNMg0jM return to main text
14 “U.S. to Keep Patriot Missiles, F-16 Jets in Jordan Amid Syria Crisis” Haaretz June 15, 2013 http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/1.529964 return to main text
15 “Lebanese Military Develops Strategic Vision” Jane’s Defense Weekly September 12, 2013 https://janes.ihs.com/CustomPages/Janes/DisplayPage.aspx?ShowProductLink=true&DocType=News&ItemId=+++1585908 return to main text
16 “Lebanese Officials Say CIA Warned Them of Imminent al Qaida Attack on Hezbollah” McClatchy DC July 15, 2013 http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/07/15/196755/lebanese-officials-say-cia-warned.html#.Ukj4duBxuCg

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