It has been a difficult few weeks for Lebanon. Perpetually unstable, the suicide bomb attack on the Iranian embassy on 19 November, the placement of the second city, Tripoli, under army protection, and the assassination of one of Hezbollah’s top commanders last week; all these events have demonstrated that the winter months can be as fraught as summer ones.
While the attacks against Hezbollah may represent trigger points, and the ongoing ‘mini-civil war’ engulfing Tripoli may be seen as a physical manifestation of otherwise relatively latent tensions, these events serve more to deepen existing fault lines rather than carve new ones. On the face of things little has changed; the country remains a patchwork of operatives and agendas, peace and conflict. But the deepening of fault lines further increases the number of pressure points, and the asymmetrical nature of threats both internally and externally create further unpredictability.
Internally, private groups; some radical and backed by more established external operatives, and some more localised and spontaneous (such as those setting up checkpoints within central Hamra), are increasing in number and confidence – owing no doubt in part to the eight-month absence of government. Speaker Nabih Berri last week compounded suspicions that a new government is a long way off by warning that the deepening political deadlock will remain until presidential elections take priority at the beginning of next year.
It is open knowledge that Al-Qaeda as well as other Takfiri Salafist groups, are operating in various ‘black holes’ across the country, namely Tripoli, Sidon and the north-eastern border regions with Syria. If Al-Qaeda are spreading their transnational tentacles ever more widely into Europe and Russia, as is widely reported, they are enjoying the very accommodating environment in Lebanon (and Syria) to help them on their way. In particular the Palestinian refugee camps are fertile spaces for infiltration. These are spaces where Lebanese sovereignty and law are not directly enforced but operate through multiple Palestinian political factions. Tensions run at a perpetual high here, largely unreported by mainstream media, heightened by the networks of criss-crossing agendas of various localised factions. This week has witnessed a slight increase of tensions in the Ain el-Hilweh Palestinian camp (always prone to instability), just outside the southern city of Sidon, as clashes between members of Jund al-Sham and Fatah groups led to the death of a man and wounding of several others. The subsequent funeral was then marred by a bomb attack, widely blamed on ‘people with foreign objectives’.
The situation in Tripoli is also concerning. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), long accused of ‘ignoring Triploi’ by the city’s residents, have now placed the city under their control in an attempt to appease serious sectarian violence which has been ongoing in the past fortnight, leaving 11 dead.
All of this serves to illustrate the fractured ground which exists across the country. Fragmentation caused by localised forces are easily coopted by fundamentalists. The LAF’s intervention in Tripoli attempts to reassert the presence of the Lebanese state, but has encountered various protests and is not guaranteed to last. Moreover, the increasingly fluid borders in the north of the country, as arms, soldiers and refugees drift between Syria and Lebanon, and fighting or shelling are becoming increasingly indiscriminate between the two sides, suggests the increasing geographical rupture of the country. Arab Tawhid Party leader Wiam Wahhab has even suggested that Syrian warplanes might well raid areas of Tripoli if the Alawite area of Jabal Moshen comes under attack – an unfeasible claim, probably, but demonstrative that the north is becoming ever more closely physically integrated into the Syrian conflict. This would signal the end of Tripoli merely being a proxy of Syria.
Inevitably Hezbollah still remains the key actor in the country. The Iranian embassy which was bombed is located in a Shi’a district of Beirut – Iran is Hezbollah’s staunchest ally – and its attack is widely viewed as a clear message against Hezbollah; the assassination of Hassan Hawlo al-Lakkis, claimed to be a senior military figure is an even more clear-cut attack. But Hezbollah’s reaction has been strategic - with their hands tied in Syria, they can ill afford to ratchet up sectarian tensions in Lebanon. Attempting to quash sectarian inflammation, Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, made the strange decision to blame the suicide attack on the Iranian embassy on Saudi Arabia, despite an Al-Qaeda affiliated Sunni group, Adballah Azzam Brigades, claiming responsibility. The accusation against Israel for the assassination of Lakkis was less surprising, although the various dubious (and probably false) claims of responsibility from previously unknown Sunni groups expose the number of internal enemies to Hezbollah wanting to take some of the ‘glory’ of responsibility.
Does this display a slight change in Hezbollah’s dynamic within the Lebanese state? More significant than the actual attacks (which are perhaps inevitable), their fallout has allowed the slight reshaping of Hezbollah’s identity. Unwilling to retaliate against these provocations, their role may be seen as taking on that of a stoical victim, upholding order whilst being attacked from all directions by petulant and impatient enemy forces. They can claim some form of high ground in this exchange, albeit one which is logistically necessary – their self-serving desire to preserve some unity in Lebanon improves their credence as a natural ‘sovereign’ protector. Meanwhile the number of localised Sunni groups claiming attacks against them display the ever widening network of small-scale, private militias willing to make a name for themselves, and highlight that the Sunni population in Lebanon is still essentially leaderless and fragmented.
Where does this leave Lebanon? The environment continues to be highly fractured, with geographical enclaves hosting increasingly entrenched conflicts which are spewing out more private groups threatening to create greater national disunity. While Hezbollah continues to provide a ready target both for those unhappy with its activity in Syria and those taking advantage of its distraction, the number and agenda of actors hostile to it are increasingly unpredictable and increasingly likely to be co-opted. This is bad news both for Lebanon, and opponents of extremism.