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18.04.2015 Author: Stanislav Ivanov

Situation in Lebanon Against the Background of Crisis in Syria

932ace88-1089-4110-81df-8fc41e45f4d6_16x9_600x338 (1)Though the domestic political situation in Lebanon is relatively stable, its possible worsening in the near future should not be excluded. The interference of external forces and persistent split of the Lebanese society over the events in neighboring Syria where the violent civil war is still ongoing along with active external intervention (by the USA, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, etc.) may be the reasons for this worsening. Influenced by their foreign “allies”, the Lebanese are increasingly, against their will, involved in armed confrontation in Syria – militant and political group Hezbollah fights for Bashar al-Assad (3,000 to 5,000 well-trained and armed fighters), Lebanese Sunni groups support the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA). It should also be taken into account that there are many radical Islamist groups in Syria, with Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant being most powerful. The latter has repeatedly announced its plans to invade Lebanon and has even mentioned this country in its group name. The ISIS’ leaders make no secret of their intentions to extend boundaries of the Islamic caliphate proclaimed in summer 2014 on the occupied territories of Syria and Iraq, by way of annexing Lebanon. The increased activity of ISIS’ envoys recruiting fighters for ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra has been observed in the country.

What is the domestic political situation in Lebanon today?

The country, small in population (about 4.5 mil people), but with important geographic and strategic position in the Middle East, is known for a large number of ethnic and confessional social groups which often have opposing political views and are strongly influenced by external forces (Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, France, etc.). Until now the Lebanese, though not without difficulty, have managed to preserve the established internal “status quo” and balance of political powers. All this became possible due to the legislative principle of confessionalism applied in appointing members for key posts in the parliamentary republic, where the Parliament is headed by a Shiite Muslim (currently Nabih Berri) and the Prime Minister is a Sunni Muslim (Tammam Salam). Unfortunately, since May 2014 the Parliament has been unable to elect a new President of the country from Maronite Christians, and at the moment the Government temporarily discharges his functions. The posts in the Government are assigned more or less in accordance with the same scheme. The candidates, nominated during this period by Parliament members, failed to secure the required majority during parliamentary voting.

It should be noted that it has been long since the country’s major religious communities nominated a single candidate to key posts in the state. All the religious denominations are split into smaller parties, groups and movements. And the latter, in their turn, are united into competing political blocs. Two major political coalitions with similar names – the March 8 Alliance and the March 14 Alliance – continue the dialogue on the search for a compromise candidate for presidency. The March 8 Alliance, supporting the current authorities in Syria, is in fact headed by Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah; and the Shiite party Amal headed by Nabih Berri and Christians from Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement also form part of the alliance. The March 14 Alliance, assisting the Syrian opposition, is headed by the leader of the Sunni Future Movement (Al-Mustaqbal) Saad Hariri (the son of a tragically deceased Prime Minister Rafik Hariri) who is supported by Saudi Arabia and France. Apart from his party, a number of Christian organizations, also mostly Paris-oriented, form a part of this alliance. In addition to two main alliances fighting for power and influence in the country, there are also centrists represented by the Socialist Party with its leaders Walid Jumblatt (Druze) and Najib Mikati (Sunni).

General Michel Aoun, aged 79, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), political ally of the Hezbolla’s Shiite group, is considered to be the main candidate for presidency in Lebanon. He may become a compromise candidate for the most of major political powers in the country.

The presence of 1.5 mil Syrian refugees in camps in the north of country and in the Beqaa Valley, some of which arrive in Beirut and other cities, has a certain destabilizing effect on the overall situation in Lebanon. The levels of street crime and unemployment are increasing, the epidemiologic situation is worsening. The social unrest is growing. At the same time, there are still 6 camps of Palestinian refugees with up to half a million people in Lebanon. And it is in these camps where the activities of recruiters from various radical Islamist groups are observed.

As for the official foreign policy of the Lebanese Government, Beirut tries to stay neutral in all regional and international affairs. At the same time, Lebanese officials condemned the attempts of Saudi Arabia and its allies to intervene in the Yemen domestic affairs and to resolve the internal Yemen crisis by way of military intervention. Moreover, all Lebanese political forces unanimously take anti-Israeli position. The Lebanese party claims that the agricultural facilities (the Shebaa farms) occupied by Israel in 1967 belong to Lebanon and the Israeli troops therefore need to be withdrawn from there.

The rising influence of radical Islam forces in the region, the real threat of their take-over in Damask encourage the political forces of Lebanon to overcome internal disagreements, search for compromise and mutual concessions on the most pressing domestic political affairs (for example, Hezbollah disarmament). Today, this group’s military units number up to 40,000 fighters and another up to 40,000 people may be mobilized in case of the situation gets worse or war conflict escalates. These figures are comparable with the size of Lebanon’s permanent forces. Hezbollah, just like some other Lebanese groups, also has its own security services.

Based on the above, the local establishment proposes to strengthen central power of the country by way of creating the National Security Council and to focus more on modernization and reinforcement of the Lebanese army. The patriotically minded part of the Lebanese society assumes that the rise of central national security, defense and law enforcement agencies, and the improvement of their activity coordination, including through a closer cooperation with the party’s security agencies, will become a reliable preventive measure in case the situation in the country and in neighboring regions gets worse.

In general, we can state that today Lebanon plays an ever increasing role in preventing the threat of further radical Islam expansion and in stabilizing the overall situation in the Middle East. Beirut understands that any violent overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria can not only hurl this formerly flourishing country into chaos and medieval obscurantism, but also adversely affect the situation in Lebanon itself. At the same time, the main Lebanese political forces still face the external pressure (from Paris, Riyadh, Tehran) aimed at achieving these countries’ own – purely national – goals in the country and in the region. It is this pressure that can trigger yet another domestic political crisis and throw the country into a new civil war.

Stanislav Ivanov, senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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