Timothy Jenkins is Parliamentary Researcher with a particular interest in Middle Eastern and Central Asian politics. He writes in a personal capacity.
The battle to displace Assad in Syria has given violent militants an open playing field, free from law and sanity. On this territory, young men are being radicalised and armed with weapons and cash provided, in some cases, by wealthy Gulf sponsors. A critical mass of extremists, experienced in battle, has been reached.
It is this that allowed the Islamic State to consolidate their grip on vast swathes of territory straddling Syria and Iraq and to establish a self-declared Caliphate. The international community must be especially vigilant that Lebanon does not share the same fate.
Syria’s neighbours have been struggling to keep the sectarian blood from their streets, and nowhere is this danger more pronounced than in Lebanon. Lebanon is a country riven with sectarian rivalries that have been aggravated by the civil war in Syria. They are played out between the March 8 political bloc, who support the Assad-Hezbollah-Iran axis, and the broadly pro-Saudi Westward-looking March 14 bloc, who are aligned with Sunni rebels in Syria.
These two sides have yet to agree on the country’s next President – who, constitutionally, must be a Maronite Catholic – and the Baabda Palace has been empty now for over two months. This absence of both institutional leadership and Christian representation in Government could not have come at a more dangerous time.
Syria’s problems will inevitably involve Lebanon as the two are inextricably linked through religion, family, shared colonial history and, of course, Syria’s occupation of Lebanon and subsequent domination of its political scene.
But the symbiosis between Syria and Lebanon is not just a matter of history. Thousands of Sunnis cross from Northern Lebanon into Syria to join rebel groups, and Hezbollah has played a decisive role in keeping Assad on his throne. Lebanon has also been flooded with Syrian refugees who now make up a quarter of the local population – placing a huge economic strain on Lebanon’s paralysed Government.
This matters because there is a growing sense of disenfranchisement amongst Lebanese Sunnis, especially those in Tripoli’s Bab al-Tabbaneh district who are in constant tit-for-tat street battles with the City’s Alawite community in Jabal al Mohsen. Many Sunnis feel politically and economically marginalised. In their view, mainstream political parties, such as Hariri’s Future Movement, and religious institutions that traditionally provide leadership, such as Dar al-Fatwa, are no longer protecting their interests in a system that is perceived to be dominated by Hezbollah and those aligned with Syria.
Many of these young Sunnis are being radicalised and are turning to Salafism and violent Jihadi groups who provide identity, social services and perceived defence against Hezbollah, which, since the Taif Accord, is the only militia allowed to retain its weapons and even has semi-official status as part of the “Resistance” against Israel.
The consequences of this alienation are clear to see. Attacks on Lebanese armed forces by Sunni fundamentalists and the number of young men travelling to Syria to fight with al-Qaeda-linked groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra are both on the increase.
Since ISIS, now-renamed Islamic State, made its breakthrough in Anbar Provence there has been an escalation in the number of attacks in Lebanon – including a suicide bombing in Beirut – which have been attributed to the group. There are also reports that the Islamic State has appointed a man, named as Abdel Salam al-Ordoni, to be their “Emir”. In the first week of July, Lebanese Security Forces arrested 28 people for planning suicide attacks.
It was the sense of disenfranchisement felt by Sunnis in Iraq that allowed the Islamic State to both take and hold Mosul and Tikrit without resistance from the local population. These conditions are also found in Lebanon, which ought to make the Islamic State’s advances a cause of deep concern for Beirut’s decision makers.
It is imperative that a consensual Presidential candidate is found. Without a President, many of the vital domestic reforms cannot happen and donor countries will not deliver military and development aid to where it’s needed. It is also hard to see how Lebanon’s postponed Parliamentary Elections, coming up in November, can happen without a President in place. And, given that the Lebanese people have not voted since 2009, it is hard to place much trust in the country’s political institutions. Without democratic legitimacy, many more Sunnis will turn away from mainstream political parties and become vulnerable to the Islamic State’s calling.
The Unity Government of Tammam Salam has already implemented a security plan to tackle “Takfiri” terrorism, which is welcome step. However, this must be carried out in conjunction with action to improve socioeconomic conditions for Sunni neighbourhoods, address social grievances, and provide security for Sunnis to feel safe and not be tempted to join Salafist militias for self-protection. The Government must also empower Sunni religious authorities to combat radicalisation and provide greater guidance on religious education.
Lebanon’s next President must ensure that all signatories abide by the “Baabda Declaration”. The Declaration has been signed by all major parties in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, and commits its signatories to remain neutral in the Syrian Civil War and to prevent Lebanon from being dragged into the conflagration.
The Declaration has been universally ignored with Hezbollah, committing their considerable military resources to helping the Assad regime survive, and by Sunni fighters entering Syria to assist the rebels. Without a working Government that is capable of getting agreement on the Baabda Declaration, Syria’s civil war will inevitably spread over into Lebanon and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State will find a new area to spread its hateful distortion of Islam.