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Lebanon’s worsening strife

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Politically, the country is a melting pot of regional and highly localised concerns, playing out along axes of political opportunism, religion and economic necessity, with various religious groups operating as local militias.

Helen Mackreath
28 August 2013

The dark days in Lebanon continue to get blacker, and are occurring at an increasingly frequent rate. Serious loss of life at the hands of a series of deadly bombs has been felt in the two major cities, Beirut and Tripoli, within the space of little over a week. The same week has witnessed tit-for-tat rocket exchanges with Israel, the assassination of a Hezbollah operative in Tripoli, and continued clashes along the Lebanese-Syrian border. Those who predict full-scale civil conflict across the country may well point to this sticky week in August as catalysing an upscale in violence, one with a very unclear trajectory and no end in sight.

The totting up of numbers dead and injured has become common practice in the past few weeks. Last Thursday, the car bomb in Dahieh, where there are now 27 confirmed dead and over 330 injured was confirmed as the worst since the civil war. Friday’s twin bomb in Tripoli has outdone that unhappy milestone with at least 47 confirmed killed, and over 500 injured. Images of billowing smoke, burnt out cars and charred bodies are becoming all too familiar.

Familiar too are the rounds of accusations which fly around immediately after the catastrophe. Chief among them is that the explosions in Dahiyeh and Tripoli represent retaliatory sectarian strikes – the dual blast outside two Sunni mosques in Tripoli is seen by some as being a retaliation by Hezbollah for the blast which struck the heavily Hezbollah dominated Dahiyeh last week. That blast in Dahiyeh was claimed to be the work of a previously unheard of radical Sunni group calling themselves the Brigades of Aisha. Such sectarian sabre-rattling has, invariably, attempted to be quashed from all sides. Hezbollah have been quick to denounce the dual-blast in Tripoli, while MPs from all persuasions have condemned it as attempting to incite sectarian strife. Speaker of the House, Nabih Berri claimed that the same aggressor was behind both the Dahyieh and Tripoli blasts. The message being sought is one of Lebanese national unity against an outside ‘other’ (which has always traditionally been Israel). For most people, such an image of unity is a fallacy.

What have we learnt from this past week? Do these events presage merely a continued simmering of violence, as witnessed in the 2007/8 skirmishes between Hezbollah and their allied pro-opposition militias and the pro-government militias, or do they mark an upscale in the hitherto piecemeal low-scale violence across the country, which has been a mirror to clashes in Syria?

The geographical distribution of the bomb blasts, taken in the context of the low-scale and localised violence which has been occurring across the North and East Bekaa Valley and in Sidon city for the past year, go some way to proving the inadequacy of the ‘national’ image, both in political and geographic terms. Geographically, Lebanon is a patchwork of territories, nodes of violence which often play out their own realities within a localised scale. The bomb blast in the southern suburbs of Beirut last week registered comparatively little in the central Christian district of the city, a ten minute drive away. Chaos tantamount to warfare has engulfed the cities of Tripoli in the north and Sidon in the south for the past few years with barely a flicker of concern in Beirut. On a smaller scale, clan warfare and shootings between private militias occur in the intersection between one set of streets, with life carrying on along the adjacent ones. Violence and instability are woven deeply into the country at various scales, part of an unfortunate everyday life for some.

Up until now, localised acts of violence have not translated into a national response and, despite the rhetoric of national unity, the country has remained geographically disconnected and pockmarked. The occurrence of two bombs in the space of ten days may be a sign of an upscale of localised events to affect a broader swathe of the population. However, such an upscale would depend upon the commitment of all sides of Lebanon’s sectarian division, which none are prepared to publicly admit to. Privately, the opening of Hezbollah’s Syrian front leaves them vulnerable in Lebanon and, arguably, unlikely to want to fight on a second front (third, if Israel are added to the mix).

Politically, the country is a melting pot of regional and highly localised concerns, playing out along axis of political opportunism, religion and economic necessity, with various religious groups operating as local militias. The fractured nature of this politics, particularly the leaderless Sunni population, and lack of support for any MPs, is helping to create unpredictable trends in security as increasing numbers of small, private groups take action, which would hint at more rather than less violence.

While Lebanon is framed as a proxy country, with the interests of the Gulf, Iran, Israel and Syria being played out within its borders, this ‘excuse’ neglects the fertile interchange existing between actors at various scales. Tripoli is a microcosm of such a battleground, it’s Alawite faction in Jabal Mohsen, backed by Hezbollah and Assad’s Syrian regime, being countered by Sunni Muslims in the Bab al-Tabbaneh, who some claim are being financially supported by the Gulf states and Lebanese Sunni politicians, among them former President Miqati. The latter actors represent a reminder that Lebanon is not solely a passive proxy state, but an active shaper of its own trajectory, with its own politicians, religious leaders and citizens empowered and making decisions. Divisions which are created and exacerbated by international actors act in tandem with localised concerns – proven, perhaps, by the resilience Lebanon has shown in hitherto refraining from falling too far into the black chasm of politics opened by Syria. This complex web of actors and agendas has hitherto created low-scale rumblings of violence, as multiple trigger points have been constantly tense, but none have yet been set off at a scale which transcends the localised.

The simple binary between Hezbollah and the Sunni population hides the multitude of private operatives operating along varying lines, following both sectarian and other interests, which exist beneath and alongside this central tension. Tensions within Tripoli, which have been ongoing since the ‘end’ of the civil war, and have their roots in the 1976 entrance into the city by Syria (invited by Christian groups), fall broadly down Sunni vs Alawite (Shia) lines, but multiple fractured private militias exist beneath this division, and partnership with foreign intelligence agencies operate above it.  

A number of high profile Sunni leaders can count on the support of large swathes of followers, but belie the fact that the Sunni population in Lebanon is still essentially leaderless and operates through a patchwork of private groups. Salafist Sheikh Salem Rafei, who was leading a sermon inside Al-Taqwa mosque near where the first blast occurred, has been suggested as an assassination target owing to being a leading figure in Lebanon’s Salafis movement. Another influential Salafist Sheikh, Al-Assir, whose high profile provocation of the Lebanese army in Sidon city in May led to the deaths of 17 Lebanese soldiers, 35 Assir gunmen and two civilians, is currently in hiding. Motivations are not only religious, but also political in nature and translated differently among followers, increasing the potential for private actions. Previous incidents in the summer are also claimed to have been carried out by a mix of local and regional operatives, potentially working on their own accord. The rocket attacks on the same southern suburbs of Beirut in May which killed four people was claimed by a ‘previously unknown’ Sunni group, while an “independent military group fighting in Syria” claimed responsibility for carrying out the July car bomb in the southern suburbs of Beirut which wounded 50. Again, the complexity of layers of politics, religion and regional geopolitics, and their different levels of interconnection, is on display here.

Alongside religious fragmentation, the political landscape in the country is bleak, with a government yet to be formed and MPs increasingly seen as weak and untrustworthy. Alliances between parties are forged on personal political agendas rather than in any broader, ‘national’ interest, further broadening the chasm between politician and people and continuing to dissolve any semblance of political framework which previously existed.

What implications does all this have? Political, geographical factionalism, no operational government, an economy and infrastructure straining under the weight of refugees (who make up nearly a third of the population), criss-crossed agendas and private groups willing to play out both local and regional agendas. The continuation of low-scale violence is surely a given. The fear is that this week is the signal that the country has feared for the localised to be transcended to a national scale. 

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