North Africa, West Asia

On Lebanese sovereignty

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The issue of what sovereignty means, and how it can be enforced, should not be confined to the defensive sphere alone. Increasing resentment against Syrians in the domestic sphere, and offhand statements about the army versus the law, do not augur well.

Helen Mackreath
26 March 2014

The issue of sovereignty is becoming an increasingly pressing concern in Lebanon today. The borders of the country are ever more ambiguous, as increasing stretches of these areas are physically integrated into the Syrian conflict. The increasing tensions over the presence of Syrian nationals suggest a growing self-consciousness about the vulnerability of Lebanon as a national body.

Meanwhile, as violent clashes continue in Tripoli, and sporadic incidents occur in Beirut, the strength and imperviousness of the Lebanese Army continues to be upheld as the most consistently reliable sovereign entity in the county. Nevertheless, throughout, the ways of securing Lebanese sovereignty continue to be interpreted differently by divided actors.

The border regions of Lebanon, particularly Arsal (a Sunni border town) and Walid Khaled in the northeast, are directly targeted by Syrian warplanes. The seeping of an increasing number of rebel fighters, many Islamists, into Lebanon has paved the way for these zones to be considered legitimate targets by the Syrian regime. Last week Arsal was effectively placed under siege when their only ‘exit’ road was blocked, reportedly by Hezbollah fighters keen to prevent a flood of Syrian rebel fighters entering the rest of Lebanon. This, combined with the almost daily air raids around Arsal from Syrian warplanes, has effectively turned the border town into a physical zone of conflict.

Meanwhile clashes in the perpetually unstable Tripoli are intensifying, with many fearing that they will be stoked even further by increasing numbers of highly-trained Syrian rebel fighters descending on the city following the Syrian regime's recapture of Yabroud town and Crac des Chevaliers in Syria. The clashes between Tripoli’s predominantly Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh and mainly Alawite Jabal Mohsen have killed 29 people and wounded over 180 in the last ten days. Tensions over Syria are also becoming manifest in Beirut, with one killed and thirteen injured in clashes over the weekend when a personal dispute between a supporter of Bashar Assad’s regime and Salafists escalated.

Throughout these localised escalations, the Lebanese Army has been called upon to restore ‘order’, confirming its status as the saving grace of Lebanese sovereignty. Long regarded as the most solid and respected national institution, their continued presence throughout the nine month political paralysis, when Lebanon was without a government, remained one of the few signs of the existence of the Lebanese state. Today they are the channel the international community is using to support the protection of Lebanon against the further encroachment of the Syrian war.

The United Kingdom last week unveiled new funding in the form of training, land rovers and a watch tower on the Syrian border, provided to the Lebanese army; and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has recently urged a meeting of Arab Foreign Ministers to support the army financially and with equipment, in order to safeguard their own countries from any ‘terrorism’ which may spill out from Lebanon.

While many still decry their influence (Tripoli residents claim that the army are not protecting them enough), they still remain the most potent expression of the state. And, significantly, they have the support of both March 8 and March 14 political parties – Lebanon’s Army Chief, Army chief Gen. Jean Kahwagi, is one of the few consensus presidential candidates, owing to the unanimous support for the army.

But while the Lebanese Army undoubtedly remains a positive force in the country, some are wary about the extent of their influence. Nadim Houry, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch in the Middle East/North Africa, drew attention during an American University of Beirut panel discussion, to the “worrying” sentiment expressed by Speaker Nabih Berri in a televised cabinet debate, in which he seemed to imply that the army is above the law. In an offhand comment, Berri had described the army as being always right even if it was unjust. Prioritising the military arm over the legal arm of the state displays a particular notion of sovereignty grounded in security rather than law.

Meanwhile, fears over the ‘encroachment’ on Lebanese sovereignty are becoming more manifest in other contexts. The sustained and increasing numbers of Syrians living across Lebanon are starting to take their toll. Tensions have always been present - three years of conflict alongside high unemployment is exacerbating frustrations - but they are now becoming embedded and increasingly framed in a ‘nationalist’ and ‘security’ light.

In Achrafieh, the predominantly Christian neighbourhood in East Beirut, a curfew has been suggested, under threat, for any Syrian to be off the street after 8pm. While this has not yet been imposed, the message is stark. Such a curfew already exists in parts of southern Lebanon. Increasing numbers of Syrians are finding their requests for residency visas denied, their ability to rent flats constrained, and their movements more closely observed by neighbours. More concerning, indicative of a small but charged group of individuals, is the setting up of a Facebook group vilifying Syrians, entitled “Neo-Nazis Against Syrian Refugees”, which couches resentment in fiercely nationalist, and highly dangerous, terms. This rhetoric is disquieting, particularly as the influx of Syrians in the country shows no signs of abating.

While such broad brush strokes should not be painted across the whole country – in many regions in the north, south and east, refugees are being hosted with relative equanimity, either by Lebanese family members or complete strangers - the increasing economic stagnation and duration of the situation are taking their toll. And in these areas too, despite assistance, refugees report continual feelings of resentment and a clear division between the two nationalities. (The historical context of Lebanon being effectively occupied by Syrian forces long after the ‘end’ of the civil war is important to remember here).

No longer seen as a short term ‘emergency situation’, the Syrian population are here to stay in Lebanon for the foreseeable future. And politicians trying to win popular support and political leverage find an easy target in the scapegoating of the refugee population, thereby sending out a message that such language is legitimate. Former Telecoms Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui has said that the issue of Syrian refugees is a matter of “preserving our being”, and Gebran Bassil voiced similar thoughts with the words “It is not only about social, economic, political, security or national [concerns] for Lebanon; it concerns [the country’s] existence, its entity and its components”.  

Such rhetoric seeks to reify a concept of Lebanese sovereignty which, for many people, continues to remain transient. While Hezbollah have always been divisive in their view of how best Lebanese sovereignty should be protected (their attempts to justify intervention in support of Assad’s regime in Syria as safeguarding Lebanese interests have drawn criticism from those who claim they are paradoxically dragging Lebanon further into the war), the issue of what sovereignty means, and how it can be enforced, should not be confined to the defensive sphere alone. Increasing resentment of Syrians in the domestic sphere, and offhand statements about the army versus the law, should also be treated with caution, and provide a reminder that the exercise of sovereignty takes many guises. 

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