State Failure is Fertile Ground for Islamic Extremists.
The people of Lebanon tend to regard their country as a failure. The 15-year-long civil war has left its mark and the previous balance has not been completely restored to this day. Southern Lebanon is dominated by the Shi’a terrorist organization Hezbollah while UN peacekeepers help to ensure a ceasefire with Israel, and from the north there is an invasion threat from the so-called Islamic State (or ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham). Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the country’s four million population has been swollen by over one million Syrian refugees. Thus far a new civil war has been avoided and, compared to other countries in the region, Lebanon is relatively democratic, free and tolerant. But for how long?
A Fragmented State
Lebanon is divided by a number of different religions and sects, which makes state-wide government difficult. Shi’a Islam, Sunni Islam, Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Druze are the largest of the 18 different religions or sects officially recognised in the country. There is no accurate data on the size of one sect or another, because the last census was conducted in 1932, and none of the sects wish to conduct a new census for fear of another civil war. At different times Palestinian and now also Syrian refugees have been added to the already existing groups. Moreover, Lebanon is located in a complex region, where external forces try to influence internal politics.
After the civil war of 1975–90 it was difficult to assess what had happened because the parties to the conflict changed repeatedly throughout. The conflict was simultaneously ideological, between sects, and manipulated by neighbouring countries. As in the earlier French protectorate, the National Pact, adopted during the establishment of independence in 1943, divided up the leading political positions among the different sects. According to the agreement, the president had to be a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the Chairman of the National Assembly a Shia Muslim, the deputy chairman a Greek Orthodox and the commander-in-chief a Druze. The seats in the parliament were also divided between the sects based on quotas. In 1943 Christians were the largest demographic group, but their proportion in Lebanese society decreased over time, due to a relatively low birth rate and emigration. In contrast, the proportion of Sunni and Shi’a increased. Against the backdrop of these demographic changes, the Maronites seemed to be over-represented in politics in comparison to other sects.
At the same time, Lebanon tried to find its place in the context of the Cold War. The Christians supported the Western countries, while the Muslims fancied Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s notion of pan-Arabism. To counterbalance the supporting forces of pan-Arabism, the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party supported the idea of Greater Syria. In domestic politics there were also various ideological movements, such as the Communist parties, that transcended the sects; for example, a local faction of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Marxist-Leninist Party of Armenia operated independently.
Lebanon was heavily affected by the outbreak of the Jordanian civil war in 1970, after which Palestinian refugees, including members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were deported from the country. The PLO leadership wanted to continue the fight against Israel from Lebanese territory. The Palestinian refugees, who did not have Lebanese citizenship, accounted for almost ten percent of the overall population and, since the PLO was heavily armed, other sects felt threatened and began to arm themselves. In the already complex multi-ethnic and religious situation, the influx of the Palestinian refugees threw things out of balance and led to the outbreak of a civil war.
Several neighbouring countries played a crucial role in the conflict. After the Jordanian civil war, relations with Israel worsened when the PLO relocated to Lebanon. Palestinians attacked the northern Israel province of Galilee from south Lebanon. In 1982, Israel conquered southern Lebanon for self-defence purposes. Israel’s actions were supported by some Maronites, who were disturbed by the activity of the Palestinian rebels. At the same time, the Israeli occupation worsened relations with the mostly Shi’ite community living in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah rose to prominence as an anti-Israeli occupation organisation, and was supported by both Iran and Syria.
The Syrian interference was also driven by problems related to the Palestinian refugees. Maronites were worried about the Palestinians’ wish to take over Lebanon, so they asked for help from Syria. Soon the Syrian forces switched sides and started to fight against the Christian nationalists. When Israel occupied southern Lebanon the Lebanese president asked Syria for help. In the last year of the civil war, the Maronites and Christians fought against the Syrian forces and wanted them to draw back from Lebanon. Syria soon managed to organise an exchange of power in Lebanon and replaced Michel Aoun’s government with a more Syria-friendly one. Since Syria participated in the Gulf War, the rest of the world looked away when president Hafez al-Assad refused to withdraw its forces from Lebanon.
In the light of the new demographic situation, the Taif Agreement, signed at the end of the war, adjusted the political system. For purposes of national reconciliation, after the end of the war the parliament adopted a law granting amnesty to all perpetrators of political crimes. Nationally this was the only possible solution—it would have been impossible to hold only one group accountable, since all groups had at some point changed their allies according to their sectarian or political views. All sects agreed to give up their weapons—with the exception of Hezbollah, which considered it its duty to free the territories occupied by Israel.
The Unresolved Problems of the Civil War
Despite the fact that the civil war is officially over, the problems in Lebanese society that led to the war have not been resolved to this day and the political atmosphere is still tense. Relations between sects have improved, but governmental crises are frequent and the political system is still paralysed. There have been no parliamentary elections since 2009; those due in 2013 were postponed because the parties could not agree on the reform of electoral law, and an acting president has been in office since spring 2014. Politics deals with less important issues, such as the regulation of cannabis cultivation, because there is no consensus on the important issues and a new civil war is feared.
In addition, relations with neighbouring countries are also still complicated and their influence on Lebanese domestic politics causes concern. In 2005, Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated. Since the investigation pointed to Syrian involvement, riots broke out in the streets, calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops. International pressure following this “Cedar Revolution” forced Bashar al-Assad to extract his troops from Lebanon, but Syrian influence on Lebanon’s politics remains strong. Both Syria and Iran have close ties with Hezbollah, which helps to influence what is happening in the country. Syrian intelligence controls activity in the Beqaa Valley and it is alleged that the president of Lebanon cannot be appointed without the approval of the Syrian head of state.
Since 1978 the Israel–Lebanon border has been controlled by UN peacekeepers. The aim of the UN peacekeeping mission (UNIFIL—United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) has been the withdrawal of Israeli troops and ensuring peace and security in southern Lebanon. Estonian troops participated successfully in UNIFIL from December 1996 to May 1997. Israeli troops were extracted in 2000 and in general UNIFIL has managed to prevent major conflicts. The last major conflict between Israel and Hezbollah took place in 2006, when the active military campaign lasted for a month. Some minor skirmishes still take place, but the parties are mostly kept in check thanks to skilful diplomacy. In 2006, the mandate was amended with UN Security Council Resolution 1701 specifying aspects of the mission, including strengthening Lebanese Army and UNIFIL positions in southern Lebanon.
The problem is that Hezbollah controls southern Lebanon, the Beqaa Valley and some parts of the city in Beirut. Hezbollah operates like a state within a state and does not obey the central government. Bringing home the Estonian cyclists kidnapped in 2011 was also difficult because they were abducted in Hezbollah territory, where the control and influence of the Lebanese central government was weak. For a long time it was not known whether the cyclists were even in Lebanon or had been transferred across the border to Syria. Hezbollah is extremely popular in southern Lebanon because it has also taken on social responsibilities. During the war in 2006, Hezbollah immediately sent builders to rebuild bombed-out houses, and helped the local population in every way. Hezbollah is difficult to control, because it is an official political party represented in the parliament and has a strong support base among Shi’ites. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that is it considered by the USA and the European Union to be a terrorist organisation which aims to destroy Israel and has conducted several attacks against Jews across the world.
Impact of Syrian Refugees
Tensions have further increased in Lebanon due to the Syrian civil war, as the economic situation has deteriorated and dissatisfaction with the situation increases. Until the beginning of this year, Syrian refugees could enter Lebanon freely, as a result of which there are 1,154,593 people officially registered with UNHCR, the UN refugee organization, but it predicts that the actual number of refugees is just under one and a half million.
The first refugees came to Lebanon to join their families, and brought their savings with them. Now, however, there are so many refugees that many have located to the old Palestinian refugee camps, and others just live under the open sky. The Lebanese government does not want the refugees to remain permanently, which is why it has not been willing to build official refugee camps. As of 2013, there were at least 1,400 unofficial refugee camps and now there are probably more.
The existing infrastructure cannot cope with the number of refugees. Neither electricity nor water networks were working effectively beforehand and losses were great, but the influx of refugees strains the system even further. In many places, the water is polluted, there is not enough electricity, the roads and public transport cannot cope with the greater demand, and garbage collection is insufficient. In unsanitary conditions, contagious diseases that have been under control in Lebanon for years have begun to spread among the refugees. The health of the deprived people is weak, and diseases spread fast. Pressure on the healthcare system has grown rapidly, and hospitals are not able to serve a population that has increased by a fifth. Similarly, schools are also overcrowded and lack qualified staff. The proportion of children attending school in Lebanon is not very high and, according to a UN estimate for 2015, 57 per cent of the children that do go to school are Syrian refugees.
The refugees’ situation is becoming increasingly more difficult as their savings are starting to run out and they have to start looking for jobs. Since refugees now make up a fifth of Lebanon’s population, there are not enough jobs for everyone. Unemployment has also increased among the Lebanese, who are competing for the same jobs with better-educated Syrian refugees. Since the labour force is so much greater than the number of vacancies, salaries have risen sharply and employers do not have to worry about how they treat their employees. According to International Labour Organization estimates, up to 92 per cent of Syrian refugees work unofficially and their average salary is 418,000 Lebanese pounds (LBP), while the national minimum wage is LBP 675,000. This competition for jobs increases tensions in the already complex balance between the different sects.
Risk of Civil War in Lebanon
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah has covertly supported the government of Bashar al-Assad. Alongside Iran, Syria is the biggest supporter of Hezbollah, which is why the latter’s troops are engaged in military activity on Syrian territory. Hezbollah is forced to help its supporters in Syria because Iran sends weapons to Hezbollah via Damascus.1 However, the involvement in Syria has to some extent reduced Hezbollah’s popularity in Lebanon, because it is feared that it ruins the relationship with the local Sunnis who support the moderate Syrian rebels, such as the Free Syrian Army. Many find that supporting the already failed Assad regime is not worth the risk of a potential new civil war.2 At the same time, the Sunnis have become the largest community in Lebanon, as nearly three-quarters of the Syrian refugees are Sunnis.
As the Islamic State is trying to broaden its grip over the entire Levant area, its attempts to infiltrate Lebanon have intensified. Attempts to invade Lebanon come mainly from the north and east, where the major Sunni cities are located and social tensions are more acute because of the number of refugees. For example, 40,000 Syrian refugees live adjacent to 35,000 Lebanese in the border town of Arsal, which was attacked in August 2014 by Islamic State and troops from the al-Nusra Front (the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda). Lebanon’s mainstream Sunni political parties have a negative attitude towards extremist movements such as the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front, but their popularity has nevertheless recently begun to increase slightly. Growing unemployment and fear for the future have given the extremists’ ideas a new opportunity.
Bombings have recently become more frequent in Sunni regions, such as northern and eastern Lebanon and southern Beirut, where a large number of Syrian refugees live. In January two suicide terrorists attacked a cafe in Tripoli. The al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility for the attack but, according to Lebanon’s Ministry of the Interior, Islamic State was behind the explosion. The bombings have created negative feeling towards refugees in the local population, and several refugee camps have been attacked, since it is thought that terrorists are hiding among the refugees. The refugees, however, are not the ones importing extremist ideas. Instead, corruption, economic inequality and unemployment create a favourable environment for extremist ideas to spread. Thus, cities where poverty, lack of education and unemployment dominate, such as Tripoli, need a strong political commitment to push through much-needed reforms without which the spread of Islamic State in Lebanon becomes more likely.
Paradoxically, fear of the extremist movements has helped the Sunnis and the Shi’ites to look past their differences.3 In 2014, a new broad-based government coalition was established in which, in addition to Hezbollah and others who support Assad, moderate anti-Assad Sunnis are also involved. The coalition is truly inclusive: the largest Maronite Christian political parties, moderate Shi’ites, Sunnis and Druze all participate. Being in one government, the Sunnis and the Shi’ites are jointly responsible for the security and stability of Lebanon, so it is likely that tensions between the communities will decrease. A united front is the best protection against the Syrian civil war being transmitted to Lebanon.
It is hard to believe that the current government will last long but, so far, they have managed to do well, even in potentially difficult situations. At the end of January, there was a threat of a new conflict on the Israel–Lebanon border. Six Hezbollah fighters and one Iranian general were killed in an Israeli drone strike on Syrian territory. Hezbollah responded by attacking Israeli troops and, in the exchange of fire that followed, one Spanish peacekeeper was also killed. Any further escalation was avoided, because neither side actually wanted a war. Lebanon endured yet another crisis, but it is difficult to predict how much longer it will manage to do so.
1 Zeid, Mario Abou. 2014. “Lebanon’s Precarious New Government.” Carnegie Middle East Center. 19 February 2014. carnegie-mec.org/publications/?fa=54570 (last visited 4 February 2015)
2 Saab, Bilal Y. and Byman, Daniel. 2014. “Hezbollah in a Time of Transition.” Atlantic Council. 17 November 2014. www.atlanticcouncil.org/images/publications/Hezbol… (last visited 4 February 2015)
3 Kenner, David. 2015. “Amid Raging Violence in Syria, Lebanese Sunnis Turn Backs on Islamic State.” Foreign Policy. 13 January 2015. foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/13/amid_raging_violence_… (last visited 5 February 2015)
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.