When Sunni Islamist fighters launched a series of deadly attacks in August in the Bekaa Valley border town of Arsal against the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Internal Security Forces (ISF), the immediate repercussions for Lebanon and the wider region could have been particularly 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), and other similarly minded groups could have established an open beachhead for expanded violent operations within Lebanon. At the same time, 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.
Yet, even as IS has found success elsewhere, most recently in parts of Syria and in Iraq (albeit blunted for the moment by a partial United States intervention), Lebanon was able to quickly repel the threat. Of course, with more than two dozen security personnel presumably still in the hands of Islamist fighting groups and ongoing military engagements along the Syria-Lebanon border, the threat remains significant. But in a region where security arrangements and political structures are both widely and violently breaking down, Lebanon can now be described, especially after the battle for Arsal, as one of the few states moving in the opposite direction.
Lebanon's almost unique trajectory in the Middle East and North Africa has reversed the decades-old formula of Lebanon as a drop-box for regional and international score-settling.
The reasons for this almost unique trajectory in the Middle East and North Africa – one that has, at least momentarily, reversed the decades-old formula of Lebanon as a drop-box for regional and international score-settling – are fourfold and of relatively recent origin: First, unprecedented intelligence co-operation between the US and some European states together with all Lebanese security agencies, a dynamic that works symbiotically with the military actions of the Shia Lebanese political party, Hezbollah, along the Lebanese-Syrian border. Second, a shared sense of grave, impending danger vis-à-vis IS and violent Sunni extremists in general on the part of rival parties, an aspect incubated more than one year ago when IS and JAN ramped up their attacks in Lebanon. Third, the ability of the main actors to effectively share key levers of power, with the Sunni elite exclusively delegated the task of containing their domestic co-religionists. And fourth, 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. Ultimately, had this quadripartite alliance of interests not been fully operationalised in March this year – manifested publicly with the installation of Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s cabinet in the same month – it is quite possible that an Arsal surge would have pre-dated the Mosul surge by IS that so captivated international attention and which has also led to a re-imagining of alliances region-wide.
Symbiosis and political compromise
Despite the EU's one-year-old branding of Hezbollah's military wing as a terrorist entity, symbiosis rather than the previous decades of mainly intelligence-centred conflict is now dominant.
The first leg of Lebanon’s relatively successful response to the threat of violent Sunni extremist groups has rested on a particularly ironic formula, unthinkable even a year ago: despite the European Union’s one-year-old branding of Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist entity (not to mention the US’s longstanding terrorist classification of the party as a whole), symbiosis rather than the previous decades of mainly intelligence-centred conflict is now dominant. Although top officials representing the different actors are keen to stress its indirect nature, anti-terrorist operations led by the LAF, whose military intelligence (MI) department is widely perceived as having grown particularly close to Hezbollah, have scored important victories. These early successes were made possible with vital assistance from European and US intelligence agencies, both of which had historically shied away from MI. At the same time, Lebanon’s General Security (GS) agency, also widely viewed as being close to Hezbollah’s key political allies (if not the party itself), as well as the Information Branch of ISF, perceived as being aligned with Hezbollah’s primary political foe (the Sunni Future Movement), have also thwarted a number of terrorist attacks and made significant arrests, including deep in Hezbollah-controlled areas, with key co-operation from the Americans, Europeans, and Hezbollah itself.
But the overall success and sustainability of these actions in the domestic arena – to the extent that Lebanon has moved, for the time being, from experiencing near constant terrorist attacks and security-related events in the last year to relative calm along the populated coastal areas – appears to also be critically dependent on the continued military progress of Hezbollah in its battle to buffer both sides of the Lebanon-Syria border from groups like IS and JAN. (Although, of course, Hezbollah fights more than just these groups in Syria, including some that are supported by the US and Europe.)
Importantly, these two aspects – wide intelligence co-operation paired with Hezbollah’s military actions – are not the only legs shoring up the current arrangement. A critical third leg has been Hezbollah’s ability to cede substantial power (after having usurped it on several occasions) to the most representative Sunni political movement in the country – the Future Movement led by Saad al-Hariri – together with the movement’s willingness to accept the new formula.
Hezbollah seems to have belatedly recognised the true value of its religious counterpart, namely that Lebanon’s Sunnis are overwhelmingly tolerant and pragmatic, a characteristic that was once viewed, on occasion, as a weakness.
Some Hezbollah officials now privately acknowledge that, at the very least, the party made a crucial mistake in its treatment of the Future Movement and Sunnis in general in Lebanon. Indeed, with the arrival of IS and JAN at Hezbollah’s doorstep, the party seems to have belatedly recognised the true value of its religious counterpart, namely that Lebanon’s Sunnis are overwhelmingly tolerant and pragmatic,a characteristic that was once viewed, on occasion, as a weakness. The reality that Hezbollah can no longer escape, then, is that the Sunni community feels dangerously marginalised and threatened by Hezbollah's actions since at least the 2005 assassination of the former Sunni premier of Lebanon, Rafik al-Hariri, through to its ongoing military involvement in Syria.
The tipping point for this reassessment is ascribed to Hezbollah’s key role in overthrowing the government of Saad al-Hariri. By displacing the main Sunni leaders and their party in January 2011, Hezbollah virtually ensured that any new governmental arrangement would be unable to cope with existential threats, such as the accelerating violence of the revolt in Syria, which essentially paralysed Lebanon’s entire state apparatus.
True to form, Hezbollah and its partners in a government led by the independent Sunni billionaire, Najib Mikati, proved unable (and in some cases unwilling) to aid the normal functioning of the state or provide security, thus failing to buffer Lebanon from the spiralling violence in Syria for which Hezbollah had become a key driver. By early 2014, the situation had reached the breaking point, with Hezbollah facing an unprecedented series of threats, weaknesses, and violent conflicts, especially along the sectarian axis, which it had always considered as more dangerous than the military threat from Israel. Multiple, mass causality attacks against perceived Hezbollah/Shia targets, claimed by trans-border Sunni groups (including some Lebanese and Palestinians living in Lebanon), were only part and parcel of a larger breakdown in internal security capped by fighting in northern cities like Tripoli, in some Palestinian refugee camps, and in the Bekaa Valley.
Many are privately elated that Shia power has finally gotten a serious bloody nose.
Frightened by the possibility of losing control of the Sunni “street”, wary of its direct targeting as “moderate” Sunnis, and recognising privately that the main glue holding it together lies overwhelmingly at the intersection between power, commerce, and the allocation of resources, Future Movement leaders also bet – like Hezbollah – that Lebanese Sunnis overwhelmingly reject violent extremist trends, even while many are privately elated that Shia power has finally gotten a serious bloody nose. Significantly too, both the Future Movement and Hezbollah believed that their respective regional backers Saudi Arabia and Iran are fully behind an internationally-supported formula in Lebanon that views their sectarian leaders in power overseeing a clampdown on mainly Sunni-led threats.
As a result of these convergent estimates and interests, a new government was finally formed this past March. The cabinet statement vis-à-vis 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 wield particular importance in Lebanon’s security and intelligence sectors. Figures long opposed to Hezbollah, such as General Ashraf Rifi, who had served as director general of the ISF, was appointed minister of justice while Nouhad Mashnouq was appointed minister of the interior. Shortly after the cabinet was formed, Rifi and Mashnouq met directly with Hezbollah’s domestic security co-ordinator, Wafiq Safa, and concrete steps were taken across the country to regain the upper hand on security. Tripoli, in particular, saw an extraordinary turnaround, with leading fighters and political figures on both sides rapidly arrested, disarmed, or effectively expelled from the country. 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.
Surprisingly, an additional reinforcement has also been provided by Hezbollah’s unprecedented recognition – in private – that the US is now seen as having become a “factor for stability” in Lebanon.
Up until the events of late July and early August leading up to and surrounding the battle for Arsal, the new arrangement largely worked. Now, with the conflict in and around Arsal steadily subsiding, Lebanese political elites find themselves in an even more advantageous position than in early July to build new alliances and arrangements that can maximise the current, fragile successes in the security field. The dramatic (though brief) visit of Saad al-Hariri in mid-August after years of self-imposed exile, together with the apparent continuation of an Iranian-Saudi détente over IS in Lebanon, has only consolidated this position further. Surprisingly, an additional reinforcement has also been provided by Hezbollah’s unprecedented recognition – in private – that the US is now seen as having become a “factor for stability” in Lebanon, according to several leading officials, not least because of the intelligence co-operation offered to all security agencies. This view, likely furthered by the ongoing US-Iranian engagement, represents a remarkable historical departure for the party and comes at a point when Hezbollah still publically argues that IS and other violent Sunni extremist groups were originally created by America and Israel. An important corollary for this recognition has come from the Future Movement, which, among its elite, increasingly recognises that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for whom Hezbollah has served as a vital ally in the field, may have to stay if a durable security strategy for Lebanon is to be had.
Although the various overstressed domestic and international actors invested in the current political-security arrangement may hope to muddle through and sustain the status-quo buffering of Lebanon, this may not be possible. Lebanon faces an array of proliferating threats, largely predicated on intensifying regional dynamics that could force some of the actors’ hands before any of them would like. To take but one example, key Future Movement and Hezbollah leaders believe that Lebanon’s arrangement would be substantially undermined if IS and its allies are combatted 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, thereby reinforcing the regional sectarian narrative.
Meanwhile, even if Iraq finds 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 an expanding threat to Lebanon. At the same time, a breakdown in the negotiations between the E3+3 (Britain, France, Germany, plus the US, Russia, and China) and Iran would also likely harm the current arrangements in Lebanon, at the very least by moving it, once again, into a contested rather than a symbiotic space where conflict is used to promote each side’s interests and undermine one’s enemies.
American and European policymakers should carefully consider the way forward. This is especially important given that the current arrangement – which clearly benefits Hezbollah during a period of severe pressures – could, if not properly balanced, enhance the party’s intermittent desire and ability to exercise chauvinism, authoritarianism, and possibly violence in the domestic arena. At the same time, it is clear that much more needs to be done in the immediate term to shore up the country against the growing threat of IS and like-minded groups.
First, a wide range of Lebanese political actors believe that sustained pressure by the US and European states is now crucial in order to finally elect a president and further stabilise the country’s political system. For many, the US and Europe have simply dropped out of the process of helping to hammer out a consensus since at least the last Lebanese president stepped down in May. No matter who Lebanese lawmakers ultimately select, without external pressure to fill the void, there is little hope in Beirut that a new head of state will be seen this year. As a second step, critical in shoring up the country’s stability would be an immediate economic stimulus programme for the impoverished and mainly Sunni northern part of Lebanon from where much of the internal unrest of the last three years has emanated.
The LAF is the only actor that could reasonably contain Hezbollah’s power overtime by peacefully displacing its political argument that it is the only true defender of the country’s security.
The third ingredient in any effective reinforcement of the current arrangement must focus on improving the LAF’s capabilities and expanding its presence farther along the Lebanon-Syria border. Unfortunately, even though Saudi Arabia and the US have both announced substantial promises of unspecified aid, expectations are understandably extremely low in Beirut that anything meaningful will come of such announcements, save a few more Hellfire missiles that can be launched from the LAF’s hopelessly out-dated Cessna Aircraft. Although the LAF has made clear over the years exactly what it needs, longstanding US concerns over Israeli objections to any qualitative arming of an enemy state have repeatedly stood in the way of meaningful progress. In this regard, the US and Europe should finally recognise that, despite Hezbollah’s growing closeness to the army’s MI, the LAF remains the most formidable, neutral actor in Lebanon – one that can uniquely accomplish an array of security-related tasks beneficial to Lebanon’s stability and Israel’s security as well. The LAF is also the only actor that could reasonably contain Hezbollah’s power overtime by peacefully displacing its political argument that it is the only true defender of the country’s security.
If these paths are pursued, then the distinct prospect exists that Lebanon could be a rare example of an Arab state, rankled by sectarian conflict and the metastasising threat of violent Sunni extremism, that can maintain relative stability and political compromise, even if it involves a symbiotic truce with actors long regarded by the US and some European states as both hostile and brutal. Either way, Hezbollah is now playing a lead role in the emerging regional containment strategy for IS, despite its terrorist labelling by some.
In fact, the bottom line that has emerged is a particularly frustrating one for Hezbollah’s longstanding opponents, large and small: whatever its actions were in the past, and even if one believes that Hezbollah is wholly at fault for attracting the spectre of violent Sunni extremism to bear on Lebanon through its direct support for the Assad regime, historical arguments have lost much of their rallying power on the ground. Gone, too, are the days when there was at least a discussion about Hezbollah’s independent weaponry or its alleged role in the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri. Instead, this has all been subsumed (for the moment) by a commonly held, greater threat hammered home by the Islamic State and its fellow travellers.
Nicholas Noe is a visiting fellow with ECFR. He is the co-founder of the Beirut-based Mideastwire.com and the editor of Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.