by Robert Sharp and Sterling Jensen
The civil war in Syria has not yet unraveled Lebanon. Security breaches in Tripoli due to sectarian rivalries and high profile political assassinations have been connected to events in Syria, but have remained isolated. The political gulf in Beirut between the March 8th (Hezbollah-led) and 14th (Sunni Saad al-Hariri-led) Alliances has not helped insulate Lebanon from outside meddling. Parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2013 potentially further expose the political rift. Also, the Iranian regime continues to leverage the pro-Syrian camp within Lebanon. The same can be said for sponsors of Arab Gulf countries who use Syria and thus Lebanon as a base for their proxy war with Iran. It is easy to be pessimistic about Lebanon. But the trauma of civil war is still very much alive in this small country and in the short term a return to it is thus doubtful.
Despite the characteristic accusations, finger-pointing and near-sightedness of partisan politics, Lebanon’s ship of state has remained remarkably stable. This is largely due to a national rejection of returning to civil war coupled with a dynamic political system, and also the buoyancy provided by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). The LAF enjoy significant trust from nearly all political and sectarian components. Additionally, civil war along sectarian lines in Syria reminds many Lebanese of what they endured from 1975 – 1990: meaningless bloodshed. It took the regionally sponsored Taif Agreement in 1989 to end the zero-sum war after all factions were worn out and had exhausted all options. It will take more than disagreements on domestic and foreign policy to cast Lebanon adrift and ablaze again.
The growing size of Syrian refugees within Lebanon and the influx of arms to extremist Sunni groups could destabilize the country. Lebanon has an undeclared status quo relationship with armed groups and the Lebanese Government, through the LAF, does not enjoy a monopoly on the use of force. They must, therefore, maintain a working relationship with local warlord networks in order to confront threats. Hezbollah is better equipped than national defense capabilities and the Palestinian refugee camps are awash with weapons, too. However, despite Hezbollah leading the current government, the LAF have been able to gradually deepen its presence in Hezbollah’s heartland of Southern Lebanon. This demonstrates both the LAF increasing national stature as well as Hezbollah’s wiliness in respect to their flag and mandate.
The LAF -Hezbollah “relationship” was illustrated in early December 2012 during the Gaza crisis. Israel attacked Gaza while Hamas shot hundreds of rockets into Israel. Many were worried that Hezbollah, with Iranian guidance, would launch rockets into Israel from Southern Lebanon. Fortunately, no rockets were launched and the LAF were able to dismantle a number of them aimed at Israel. The LAF’s ability to avert Lebanese involvement in the Israel-Hamas fight was due to three main factors. First, the Lebanese public did not want to get involved. They had too many other domestic priorities. Second, the LAF are gaining strength and recognition; it has set its sail toward gaining a monopoly on the use of force. This is because the Lebanese public and government want the LAF to succeed and also because bold moves that avert national threats, such as would happen had Hezbollah shot rockets into Israel, increase their confidence. Last, it is not in Hezbollah’s interest to undermine Lebanon’s anchor, the LAF. Hezbollah saw it in its greater interest to allow the dismantling of rockets and to build greater public confidence in the LAF, especially within Sunni circles. Hezbollah knows it may need LAF support to protect its political allies from Sunni extremists in places like Tripoli. Those areas are out of Hezbollah’s reach.
If Sunni extremists acquire heavy weapons and control large pockets within Lebanon, the armed balance of power may shift. The LAF are only limited to tactical weapons, despite the recent addition of U.S. provided Huey II helicopters and a significant threat to LAF authority may undermine their ability to keep the peace and thus maintain public confidence. If the LAF are undermined, the militias will become the way to protect the public. The Christians, Druze and other communities will re-arm preparing for a high profile event that could trigger violence.
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees reports up to 150,000 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon. However, some Lebanese sources reveal that there are already far more refugees dispersed in the country. The majority of these refugees are Sunnis. Large numbers, up to 4 times the official figures, are being suggested, and, if true will have a significant demographic impact on a country of only 4.3 million.
It is in March 14th’s interest that Sunni refugees be temporarily integrated within Sunni communities as they approach parliamentary elections in June. Some Lebanese have suggested the March 8th Alliance is interested in building Syrian refugee camps to have better surveillance and reducing the threat of arming Sunni communities.
Lebanon will continue to hold itself together despite regional turmoil. The country is not ready for civil war and the LAF continue to be the state’s key instrument to keep the peace; Lebanon’s anchor. Longer term, things may change, but for now Lebanon will remain stable as its neighbors and major powers lose their way.