The flow of refugees has inevitably raised fears that Lebanon will be sucked into Syria’s civil war. Yet while resentments against the refugees may increase in the future – as they did against the Palestinians – for now, aside from a few snooty looks towards beggars and worries at the increasing crime rate, Lebanon’s latest migrants are not actively creating tensions. That cannot be said of Lebanon’s own domestic actors, however.
Since 2005 Lebanon’s politicians have been divided according to their views towards Syria. Those that successfully pushed for an end to Syria’s post civil war military presence are known as ‘March 14’. They are led by the parties representing Sunni Muslims in Lebanon’s complex sectarian political system, and have substantial support from half of the parties representing the Christians. The other half of the Christian parties back the pro-Syria grouping, ‘March 8’, which is led by the groups representing Lebanon’s Shia: Amal and, the dominant partner, Hezbollah. The Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, has regularly switched sides, seeking to stay on the winning side.
The uprising against Assad has intensified some of these divisions. Syria’s Sunni-dominated opposition movement has most sympathy from Lebanon’s Sunnis (estimated at 27% of the population). The Sunni leaders voice their opposition to Assad but, as the Syria conflict has become increasingly sectarian, they face pressure from their base to do more. As in Syria, frustrations at the traditional leadership have pushed some Sunnis in a more radical direction, and militant Salafism is rising. On the other side, Hezbollah sees the Syria crisis as an existential conflict. If Assad falls, Hezbollah’s supply line from its patron Iran would disappear, making its position hard to sustain. Consequently, as has been widely publicized, Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to help Assad, playing a decisive role in the regime’s recent recapture of the rebel town of Qusayr.
Lebanon’s Sunnis have been outraged by this. Its has shattered Hezbollah’s general popularity among the Lebanese, won by pushing Israel to end its 18-year occupation of the south in 2000 and then fighting it to a stalemate in 2006. Moreover, it has raised sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias in Lebanon to a new level. In June a radical Sunni preacher, Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, and his supporters clashed with the Lebanese army, who were supported (some say encouraged) by Hezbollah in the Sunni coastal city of Sidon. In July a car bomb wounded 53 in Hezbollah’s Shia Beirut stronghold of Dahia, and a second bomb in August killed 20. Groups linked to Lebanese and Syrian Sunni radicals were blamed. A retaliatory car bomb the following week in the Sunni city of Tripoli killed at least 42 was similarly blamed on militant Shia groups, though Hezbollah denied any involvement. Indeed, Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has urged Lebanon’s different sectarian groups to keep their fight outside of Lebanon, insisting that Sunni Takfiris (radicals) are doing the bidding of the US and Israel by creating divisions between Muslims.
Another civil war?
However, while tit-for-tat sectarian bombings may well increase as the violence in Syria worsens, the return to civil war that many Lebanese fear seems unlikely. Firstly, at a military level, the forces are hugely imbalanced. Hezbollah is a professional military, structured, battle-hardened, well-armed and disciplined. In contrast, Sunni forces are disorganized and poorly armed. In 2008 when the Sunni Future Movement fought Hezbollah in the streets of Beirut, they were comprehensively defeated within hours. Even with Hezbollah’s forces stretched by deployment in Syria, it would require a major overhaul of Sunni militant forces and a massive injection of arms from abroad for them to reach a point where they could sustain a prolonged challenge.
Secondly, the army, Lebanon’s only other professional well-armed group, is effectively on Hezbollah’s side, despite claims to be neutral. The Shia, being Lebanon’s largest and poorest sectarian group (roughly 41% of the population), make up the majority of the army’s soldiers. As such the army is unlikely to be deployed against Hezbollah for fear its soldiers wouldn’t fire on their co-religionists. Lebanon’s Christians (roughly 27% of the population) are fervent supporters of the army and many of its commanders and, indeed the President and commander and chief, Michel Suleiman, are Christian. Despite being split politically between March 8 and March 14, no Christian wants to see the victory of Sunni radicals in either Syria or Lebanon. While they may not like Hezbollah, the Shia militia has effectively left their way of life alone, unlike the Sunni radicals that have persecuted Christians in Iraq, Egypt and now Syria. As seen with the clash in Sidon when the army worked alongside Hezbollah, the institution is now a defender of the status quo: and that includes Hezbollah’s position as the only powerful non-state militia. Some Christians may not admit it but, as the region again descends into instability, this actually suits them better than the alternative.
Sunni radicalism against Shias in general and Hezbollah in particular is therefore likely to increase but in the form of sporadic violence and terror attacks rather than a genuine military challenge. The real danger will come if Assad actually falls from power in Damascus as Hezbollah might feel its position threatened in Lebanon. In such circumstances it might seek to extend its power over the whole state rather than just to dominate it – something that the Christians and the army would be unlikely to accept.
The South remembers
A trip to the southern city of Tyre serves as a useful explanation for the general support that Assad and Hezbollah retain among Lebanon’s Shia. The press sometimes crudely characterizes the Syrian civil war as part of a regional Sunni-Shia conflict, part of a wider confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In this narrative Lebanese Shia back Assad for primordial reasons: because he is an Alawite, itself an offshoot of Shia Islam, and because his principle ally is Shia Iran. Yet the reality is more complex.
This is my first trip to the south since before the 2006 war with Israel. My first experience of Lebanon was teaching at a summer school in the Palestinian refugee camp of al-Bass in Tyre in 2003, with the British charity Unipal. Some things have stayed the same: Hezbollah and Amal posters and banners are still hung all over the town. The blank faces of their ‘martyrs’ who have died fighting Israel still stare back hauntingly while smiling children play non-plussed underneath. Other things have changed. For one thing, Tyre feels wealthier. Impressive new structures have been built, including a new highway from Sidon, and there are a lot more visitors from Beirut – both Lebanese and western NGO workers – stretched out on the beach in bikinis in what remains a conservative town. The sun is shining and locals and visitors are enjoying the beach, the seafood, Nargilah and Arak.
People I speak to are strong supporters of Assad. Although they are Shia, sectarianism isn’t mentioned once. Instead one word comes up repeatedly: Israel. For the residents of South Lebanon the modern day Sparta south of the border is their real enemy. It is easy for outsiders to forget, but the 18-year occupation by the IDF, and the brief but brutal 2006 war are imprinted on the memory of the South Lebanese. One Shia I speak to, a secularist with no love of Hezbollah, was among the estimated 15,000 men his age to spend several years in Israeli prisons in the 1980s and 90s. Though it was (deliberately) destroyed by the IDF in the 2006, Hezbollah used to have a ‘museum of occupation’ in Israel’s notorious Ansar detention facility near the border that catalogued the grim conditions Lebanese prisoners faced. Hezbollah, though founded by Iranian Revolutionary Guards during Lebanon’s civil war, earned its spurs fighting Israel and pushing them out of the country, something for which most southerners remain eternally grateful. Assad, as Hezbollah’s ally and fellow enemy of Israel, has a similar level of support. Indeed, some supporters of Assad I spoke to, both in Tyre and Beirut, simply didn’t believe that the Syrian regime had committed the atrocities it is accused of. The idea that Israel and the US are leading a global conspiracy against Syria, spreading lies and propaganda against Damascus is widely believed.
Incredulous though this blind support sounds, a visit to the south helps to partly explain it. The physical and psychological scars of the occupation and 2006 war are deep, and the hatred towards the enemy that committed it strong. The average southern Lebanese has not experienced Assad’s atrocities, not been subject to his torture machine. They have, however, been subject to Israel’s aggression, losing homes and family in the process, and they are grateful to Assad, Hezbollah and Iran for defending and protecting them. Moreover, after the destruction wrought in 2006, it was Iran, not the fractured government in Beirut, that paid for the rebuilding. The new highway south, for example, is covered in Iranian flags to emphasize its role in financing. The traditionally poor and Shia south has been neglected and discriminated against by Lebanon’s leaders, both Christian and Sunni, for generations. In a region where conspiracy theories flourish, perhaps it is understandable that many of the South Lebanese are now reluctant to believe what those same leaders (in the case of the Sunnis) are now saying about the only people they feel have protected and stood up for them. Of course, a counter argument would be that, in reality, these ‘patrons’ have been manipulative of the south’s suffering – indeed often exacerbating it – to command loyalty in just the kind of crisis they currently face.