by Omer Einav
The balance between the contradictory trends of moderation and radicalization currently underway in Lebanon will dictate the direction of the country for the near future.
After a long period of relative deadlock, Lebanon has recently witnessed a number of political and security-related developments that are likely to have substantive implications for the future of the country. In contrast to 2014 – when Lebanon experienced a number of formative events, most notably the non-election of a new president, increased Hezbollah involvement in the war in Syria alongside the Assad regime and Iran, and the abduction of Lebanese soldiers by the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in the border town of Arsal – 2015 was relatively uneventful. The most important event of the year was actually the civil protest that emerged surrounding the issue of trash collection in the Beirut area and ultimately evolved into a fierce protest against the establishment. However, the end of the year brought with it significant developments that, taken together, comprise a fascinating state of affairs: a terrorist attack on November 12, 2015 by the Islamic State in the Beirut neighborhood of Dahiya, which resulted in the death of more than 40 civilians; the release of the security forces who had been held prisoner by the al-Nusra Front since August 2014 as part of a deal between Lebanon and the al-Qaeda branch in Syria; and possible progress in the process of electing a president to enter the Presidential Palace in Baabda, which has stood empty since May 2014.
Abducted Lebanese soldiers, released after an
exchange deal between Lebanon and the al-Nusra
Front, are welcomed at a government palace in
Beirut, December 1, 2015.
Photo: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
The fact that a figure such as Frangieh, who is so closely associated with the March 8 Alliance and a supporter of Hezbollah, is considered a realistic option for the presidency by both camps is far from self-evident. One explanation is the willingness of Saad al-Hariri, who heads Tayyar al-Mustaqbal (the “Future Movement”) – the leading party in the March 14 Alliance – to trade a president from his camp for assurances regarding his appointment as Prime Minister (after not serving in the position since 2011) or the appointment of someone on his behalf. Such a compromise, whether implemented or not, would be an expression of the strong desire within the Lebanese leadership to conclude the ongoing presidential affair. While it is still too early to know whether the effort will succeed, the positive momentum is a promising step toward stabilization and the prevention of further deterioration of the Lebanese state system.
Another positive development was the prisoner exchange with the al-Nusra Front on December 1, 2015. In exchange for 16 members of the Lebanese security forces that were taken captive in Arsal, Lebanon released 13 prisoners, including the ex-wife of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The prisoner release raised spirits across all sectors and political camps in the country, and in addition to national level-headedness, the deal’s implementation can be credited to the media struggle and the struggle over public opinion. Many details are still unclear, but it is known that Qatar served as a mediator between the parties (according to reports that have been officially denied, Qatar even paid the al-Nusra Front a large sum to secure the release) and credits the success of the long process to its diplomatic expertise. Hezbollah quickly claimed credit for its role in completing the deal, emphasizing Secretary-General Nasrallah’s role in the negotiations, alongside that of Abbas Ibrahim, the General Director of General Security, who is associated with Nasrallah. Hezbollah’s conduct in this context is understandable in light of its ongoing struggle over its image in the Lebanese domestic arena as a protector of the state, particularly in response to accusations of embroiling the movement in the Syrian civil war and creating a tragic dependence on the Assad regime. This struggle for public image takes on significant internal Lebanese and regional significance when Hezbollah works vis-à-vis Qatar, which may not be the patron of the March 14 Camp (a role currently played by Saudi Arabia) but is a Sunni state with ties to Sunnis in Lebanon that is opposed to Iran and its allies.
In contrast to these developments, which suggest a warming in sectoral relations in Lebanon, Lebanon’s campaign against the Islamic State signals radicalization. The al-Nusra Front was party to the deal, but the Islamic State was left out of the picture, and as a result, continues to hold nine Lebanese captives that were abducted in Arsal, with their release seemingly nowhere on the horizon. This has stemmed from the escalation in Islamic State operations in Lebanese territory, as reflected in the Dahiya attack of November 12, 2015. This was not the first time the Islamic State struck at targets within Lebanon, particularly those associated with Hezbollah, Syria’s bitter enemy. However, in this case, the intensity of the attack, which was carried out between the downing of the Russian plane over the Sinai Peninsula and the terrorist attacks in Paris, may indicate an overall change in the policy of the Islamic State toward action outside of Syria and Iraq against rivals whom it is fighting within these countries. Its weakening – caused by the entry of Russian forces into the campaign, which has forced it to withdraw forces from territories it had previously held – leaves it with little alternative if it wishes to maintain its deterrence within the Middle East and the international community. Against this background, Lebanon, and especially its Shiite population centers, constitutes a target that is a high priority of the Islamic State.
The balance between the two contradictory trends currently underway in Lebanon will thus dictate the direction the country pursues in the near future. On the one hand, Lebanon has witnessed positive developments, which were made possible by a degree of apparently obligatory cooperation between the rivals from the two sides of the political map. On the other hand, it has also seen an intensification of the threat posed by the Islamic State, reflecting developments on the battlefield in Syria. The unfolding positive trend serves national interests, primarily the preservation of internal stability and movement away from the traumatic scenarios associated with the years of the Lebanese civil war. At the same time, however, this trend is playing into the hands of Hezbollah, whose chief interest is drawing Lebanese attention to the two struggles it regards as truly important: the struggle against takfiris (infidels to Islam, such as the Islamic State and other Salafi jihadist movements) and the resistance, i.e., the struggle against Israel.
For its part, Israel must recognize that internal stability within Lebanon could provide Hezbollah with greater confidence in its struggle against its enemies. Although no balances have changed in the northern sphere in recent years, and although neither Israel nor Hezbollah has good reason to initiate a military confrontation, the mutual caution attests to the fragility of the status quo. On December 1, 2015 the al-Manar television network reported that a listening device in the Marjayoun region of southern Lebanon had been blown up by Israel, and one day later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged that Israel operates in Syria to prevent the transfer of arms from Syria to Lebanon and the construction of Iranian infrastructure in the Golan Heights. This is not evidence that the strategic situation in the north has changed. However, Israel must understand that Hezbollah, after a difficult period, is currently attempting to strengthen itself against Israel through the stabilization of the internal systems inside Lebanon, which can then act as a strong, supportive force for the Shiite organization.
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