Confronting the Islamic State: Lebanon’s tenuous success amidst growing threats

A shift in trajectory away from confrontation to unprecedented co-operation among domestic actors geared towards combating the threat of extremism has helped Lebanon manage the threat posed by the Islamic State

When Sunni Islamist fighters launched a series of deadly attacks in August 2014 against the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Internal Security Forces (ISF) in the Bekaa Valley border town of Arsal, the immediate repercussions for Lebanon and the wider region could have been extremely damaging. If the militant surge had been successful, those who carried out the attack, including members of the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), could have established a base for expanded violent operations within Lebanon. Simultaneously, the perception of IS’s ascendency and potency in the region would have been bolstered, further fuelling the group’s momentum and complicating efforts to contain it.

However, even as IS found success elsewhere, Lebanon was able to quickly repel the threat – due in large part to a shift in trajectory that predated IS’s surge into Iraq, away from political confrontation between domestic parties and towards unprecedented cooperation aimed at combating the threat of extremism. In a region in which security arrangements and political structures are widely and violently being deconstructed, Lebanon is now one of the few states that is able to produce and maintain a level of political coherence strong enough to move the needle against IS in the opposite direction.

This almost unique trajectory in the Middle East and North Africa has, at least for the moment, reversed the decades-old formula of Lebanon as a site for regional and international score-settling. The reasons for Lebanon’s success are fourfold and of relatively recent origin. The first reason is the unprecedented intelligence cooperation taking place between the United States and some European states with all of Lebanon’s security agencies, a dynamic that works in parallel with the military actions of the Shia Lebanese political party, Hezbollah, along the Lebanese-Syrian border. Secondly, rival parties in Lebanon now share a sense of grave, impending danger with regard to IS and violent Sunni extremists. The key parties here are the Hezbollah-led March 8 movement and the Future Movement, which leads the March 14 movement, an alliance that stands against both the Syrian regime and the March 8 movement. This temporary alignment began to crystallise more than one year ago when IS and JAN ramped up their attacks in Lebanon. Thirdly, these important actors have found a way to share key levers of power effectively, with the Sunni elite officially delegated the task of containing their domestic co-religionists. And fourthly, there is a regional and international desire – especially on the part of the US, Saudi Arabia, and Iran – to stabilise Lebanon in an arena of growing unrest and negative contingency.

If this convergence of interests had not taken place, it is quite possible that IS would have carried out an Arsal surge before the Mosul surge. But instead, a new government was formed in March 2014 that has successfully worked together to counter the threat. As part of the new agreement, the cabinet statement on Hezbollah’s perceived legal right to carry arms outside of the state was watered down, though not eliminated, and, most importantly, the Future Movement was given the Justice, Interior, and Telecommunications seats, portfolios that hold particular importance in Lebanon’s security and intelligence sectors. General Ashraf Rifi, a figure long opposed to Hezbollah (among other groups), who had served as director-general of the ISF, was appointed minister of justice. Shortly after the cabinet was formed, Rifi met directly with Hezbollah’s domestic security coordinator, Wafiq Safa, and concrete steps were taken across the country to target extremists and regain the upper hand on security, with the strong support of regional and Western states. Tripoli in particular saw an extraordinary turnaround, with leading fighters and political figures on both sides rapidly arrested or disarmed. In the weeks and months that followed, the LAF also expanded its presence in fortified positions along the border with Syria, including close to Hezbollah positions and smuggling routes – an unprecedented step along that particular border.

Up until the events of late July and early August that led up to and surrounded the battle for Arsal, the new arrangement largely worked. As the conflict in and around Arsal steadily subsided, Lebanese political elites found themselves in an even more advantageous position than in early July to build new alliances and arrangements that could maximise the fragile successes in the security field. The dramatic (though brief) mid-August visit to Lebanon of the Future Movement’s leader, Saad al-Hariri, after years of self-imposed exile, together with the apparent continuation of an Iranian-Saudi détente over IS in Lebanon, only consolidated this position further.

Unfortunately, although the various domestic and international actors that are invested in the current political-security arrangement hope to continue to buffer Lebanon’s status quo, this will likely prove extremely difficult without further consolidation of the existing political agreement (a tough sell given the animosity between different domestic actors) along with a substantial bolstering of the Lebanese Armed Forces. Lebanon faces an array of proliferating threats largely predicated on intensifying regional dynamics that are challenging the country’s fragile equilibrium. To take but one example, key Future Movement and Hezbollah leaders believe that Lebanon’s current arrangement would be substantially undermined if IS and its allies are fought in Iraq, not by other Sunni forces, but by a triple alliance of Iran, the US, and yet another chauvinistic, Shia-led government in Baghdad. This would only reinforce the regional sectarian narrative, which would resonate powerfully in Lebanon given its own internal balancing act.                  

Meanwhile, even if Iraq has some success in containing IS, the ongoing violence there and in Syria and the consolidation of territorial gains by IS, JAN, and other violent Sunni extremist groups will together represent a growing threat to Lebanon. At the same time, an out-and-out rupture in the (once again postponed) negotiations between Iran and the E3+3 (Britain, France, Germany, the US, Russia, and China) would also likely harm the existing arrangements in Lebanon. Such circumstances would, at the very least, disrupt the current internal political truce by moving Lebanon, once again, into a contested rather than a symbiotic space where conflict is used to promote each side’s interests, undermining the fragile cooperation now in place and providing new room for IS and likeminded groups to advance their interests.

These risks are further exacerbated by the fact that the present arrangement – which clearly benefits Hezbollah during a period of severe pressures – could, if not properly balanced by expanded power-sharing anda bolstered Lebanese Armed Forces, enhance Hezbollah’s intermittent desire and ability to exercise chauvinism, authoritarianism, and possibly violence in the domestic arena, potentially fuelling a backlash from Sunni extremist groups both within and outside the country and leading to a breakdown in the hard-fought cooperation that currently predominates. Be that as it may, the bottom line that has emerged is a particularly frustrating one for Hezbollah’s longstanding opponents. Whatever Hezbollah’s actions were in the past, and even if one believes that the group is wholly at fault for attracting the spectre of violent Sunni extremism to Lebanon through its direct support for the Syrian regime, historical arguments have lost much of their rallying power on the ground. Instead, this has been subsumed (for the moment) by a commonly held, greater threat hammered home by the Islamic State and its fellow travellers. 

Nicholas Noe is the co-founder of the Beirut-based Mideastwire.com and the editor of Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

This piece is one of a series of 14 looking at the regional dimensions of the IS crisis

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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