Lebanon awoke on August 2, 2014 to the “invasion” of Lebanese territories in the rugged outskirts of Arsal, eastern of the Bekaa valley along the Syria borders. Violent clashes swept the region as a Sunni extremist uprising tried to take over Lebanon. Dozens from the military were killed, others captured, and civilians taken hostages. An area inhabited by Christians and Sunnis, the uprisings caused unparalleled fear among the citizens as the threat launched by the Islamists was now at their doorstep.
Although Arsal seems to be settled today, the fight with the Islamists is not over. Their presence in Lebanon has been tangible in the past couple of years with suicide bombers, fights on the Lebanese borders and Jabhat al-Nusrah “graduating” from the Palestinian camps. It caused anguish and incited pre-emptive measures from security and military bodies. Yet, those incidents were sporadic and seemed contained. What is happening today in Arsal somehow highlights a particular plot against Lebanon: spreading the caliphate belt to include Lebanon. A conspiracy that would be believable and even achievable, had Lebanon not been so socially and religiously different. A mosaic that for so long has been a handicap to Lebanese politics, today might have just saved it.
Sunni extremists in Lebanon do not make up for the majority of Sunnis in the country. According to a political expert, the extremists, willing to kill, fight and seeking the establishment of such a fundamentalist state, reach up to 5-6% of 27% of the Lebanese who are Sunnis and they are dispersed across the country.
Mosul fell overnight. It didn’t take much to instill the rule of the Islamic State (IS) and unleash its trend of ethnic cleansing. Street after street folded due to the surrender of the military, fear of its residents and the support of Sunni tribes, opposing a Maliki-led country.
Such a domino effect is not as evident in Lebanon. The variety in religious backgrounds, the socio-economic diversity within the same sect, and the keenness of individuals to prosper in their businesses, make Lebanon far from a homogenous society, able to unite against one ruler and fight for one cause. According to a political source, the extremists’ idea was to overthrow the current Lebanese state through a coup. Their hope was for the Bekaa region to be controlled by IS-Nusra by engaging in endless battles with the Lebanese army. With such ongoing clashes, the fundamentalists’ expectation was for other Sunni (extremists) areas such as Tripoli – where more times than not the IS flag was raised high – and the Palestinian camps to unite under the banner of the Islamist cause and steadily advance their plan. While the Lebanese army is investing in a long war in the Bekaa, one that will most probably escalate or remerge at some point, Lebanon is not as close to the IS threat as it may seem.
The Lebanese army has done an effective job in the Bekaa by fighting the militants and containing the situation, but spreading its forces in three different areas would have proven to be challenging if not even catastrophic. According to a military expert, the army has been cooperating with several governmental bodies throughout this period, but no matter what the assistance will be, stretching their forces at this time, would not be an advantage. Although Hezbollah publicly denied its involvement in the Bekaa, the same military expert said that the party has been cooperating with the military in providing intel and assisting in locating the militants. The Syrian army, from its end, has been ramping up its presence on its borders with Lebanon and fighting IS.
As for Tripoli, the city has been succumbing to militants’ fights and wills, and finds itself today quarantined as the military closed the main highway leading to it. With a heavy military presence, the Lebanese army cordoned off the city turning it into a no-entry zone. What seems to be an extreme measure by the army, is simply containing the situation and isolating the city from any upheaval. “Let them raise the ISIS flag, they are not getting out of here… the army will regain these streets. Just wait” said the same military expert.
The Palestinian camps in Lebanon have long been a source of tension and fear for the country. Acting like a state within a state, the camps are often filled with weapons and fueled with anger. It’s not difficult to think that Jabhat al-Nusra fighters emerged from within. The fundamentalists’ hope, that desperate Palestinians will raise the IS flag and fight in the name of extremism, has been stalled by the silent intervention of Hezbollah. According to a source close to the party, “weapons have been immobilized in the camps and the situation is being controlled by the party. The camps will cause no distress to the army and will not be a variable to drag Lebanon into an endless abyss of fighting and bloodshed.”
Lebanon has been handicapped for decades, no cause has been able to unite the Lebanese. Yet today, the army is the main flagship that Lebanese hail to, alongside to the nostalgic idea of a prosperous Lebanon. People in Arsal opened their homes to the military, assist them still however they can
and launch campaigns, all through Lebanon in support of the army and its fallen heroes. The fear of IS is becoming a major concern to the Arab world with the apparent support of the Saudi King to the Lebanese military.
There are many scattered interests in this small country and seeing eye-to-eye is truly farfetched. This has been Lebanon’s curse for too long, but today’s blunt religious and socio-economic divisions might just save it. With the majority of Lebanese concerned more with individual well being than confessional allegiances and most of them united behind the army IS finds itself fighting the whole of Lebanon, not just the military and thus unable to implement its Mosul-model on Lebanon territories.
Published in L’Indro: http://www.lindro.it/il-libano-non-cadra-come-mosul/