30.06.2015 Author: Viktor Titov

Lebanon: The Calm Before the Storm

543453412333Despite the fact that Lebanon has somehow escaped the wave of “color revolutions” and civil wars that has been plaguing the Arab world, the situation in the country remains rather difficult. At any given moment a sectarian conflict can break out in Lebanon followed by a massive wave of terrorism. This situation is aggravated by the fact that Israel may start a military operation in Lebanon at any given moment, in an attempt to counter Hezbollah. The calm before the storm – this is perhaps the best way to describe the situation in Lebanon today.

The problem is that the rapidly changing regional dynamics is creating preconditions for the growth of underground terrorist groups that soon may be posing a major threat to national security. The complication of the internal contradictions in Lebanon is aggravated by the ongoing military conflict in Syria. A total of 1.5 million Syrian refugees are swarming neighboring countries, which allows ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra infiltrate those under the guise of victims of war.

The Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah is playing an important role in the collective efforts to protect Syria’s legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad. According to various sources, a total of three thousand of Hezbollah members is taking part in operations aimed at suppressing the Islamist threat in Syria. This led to armed clashes in Lebanon, especially in the vicinity of the second largest city of the country – Tripoli that remains sort of a Sunni stronghold that houses pro-Western and pro-Saudi parties and movements. Lebanon is split in two by the supporters and opponents of the sitting Syrian regime, led by Bashar al-Assad.

Among the supporters of Damascus one can find Shia Muslims, Alawites, and the majority of the local Christian community along with certain Sunni politicians. These forces recognize the fact that once radical Islamists claim victory in Syria, their next stop will be Lebanon itself. And it is not a secret for any of these people how ISIL Islamists are treating non-Sunni groups: beatings, plunder, rapes and beheadings are a common thing in the Islamic State.

Among Lebanese opponents of Bashar al-Assad one can find a Sunni movement Mustaqbal headed by Saad Hariri, Salafi associations, a number of Christian parties along with Lebanese Druze united around the Progressive Socialist Party, even despite the fact that Syrian Druze are supporting Assad. Apparently, the Sunni forces that are grouped around Saad Hariri are influenced, if not pressured, by Saudi Arabia, since Saad Hariri himself is not supporting the ideas of extremist Islam, but his business activities are closely related to Riyadh.

It is reported that local Islamist terrorist groups are more than capable of provoking a new war in Lebanon, but so far they’ve been refraining from doing so. First, they are being restricted in their activities by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the West that understand that the opening of a new “front” in the Middle East can lead to dangerous consequences. Hezbollah and its allies can strike a heavy blow against the local fifth column forces. This could be prevented by a direct military intervention of Israel that may drastically change the balance of powers, but the Israelis display no desire to share a common border with Islamist radicals. On top of all, certain Lebanese are used by militants for rest and medical treatment after fighting in Syria.

However, the situation is deteriorating rapidly, especially in the areas close to the Syrian-Lebanese border and near Tripoli. The number of militants is growing steadily, and many of those do not obey any commands, which leads to ongoing clashes between such “rebels” and the local security forces. Lebanese authorities are forced to use regular army units to suppress such clashes. Islamists from ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra that are arriving to Lebanon from all across the Arab world are carrying their regular terrorist activities here in an attempt to split the Lebanese society along confessional lines.

Another source of constant troubles is yet another Sunni terrorist group – the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. This group is closely aligned with Al-Qaeda while it commanders have pledged their allegiance to the leader of this global militant Islamist organization – Ayman al-Zawahiri. The primary targets of Azzam’s terrorists are Iranian diplomatic missions and cultural centers, along with Lebanese army checkpoints.

In these circumstances, Hezbollah is forced to maintain a considerable amount of combat capable units in Lebanon, unable to send them to fight in Syria. What is making this situation even more explosive is the high probability of armed clashes between Hezbollah and Israel. In these circumstances, Lebanese army and police units remain the only force capable of countering the spread of terrorism and extremism in Lebanon, while their combat capabilities remain extremely limited. They need both the fresh blood and modern weapons to remain effective.

On thing is crystal clear today – Lebanon is a hostage of the situation in Syria. Should the government of Bashar al-Assad fall in this neighboring country, disastrous consequences would follow in Lebanon, which has not fully recovered from the last civil war that lasted for nearly 20 years.

Viktor Titov, Ph.D, is a political commentator on the Middle East, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”.

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