Lebanese army troops patrol near the Syrian border . AFP / STR
While the world’s attention has been focused on the combined efforts of Arab and US forces attacking ISIL in Iraq and Syria, there is a third front in the war against this violent extremist group unfolding in Lebanon, which has received scant attention. Because Lebanon has been so overwhelmed by the fallout from Syria’s civil war, aggravating the country’s fragile sectarian balance, the threat of ISIL poses an existential challenge that must not be ignored.
Despite being the smallest of Syria’s neighbours, Lebanon is currently hosting 40 per cent of Syria’s refugees. With a population of just under 4 million citizens, the presence of 1.2 million displaced Syrians means that about one in every four persons residing in Lebanon is a Syrian. This is causing severe stress on Lebanon’s resources and its social order. While the refugees are dispersed across the country, some Lebanese towns have been overwhelmed by Syrians with the impact being felt in severe shortages in housing, medical services, water and electricity. Classrooms are overcrowded. And with the refugees willing to work for less pay, many Lebanese are finding themselves priced out of the job market.
The international community has been generous in providing support to the refugee population – though far short of the needs that exist. But the host communities have not received adequate support to provide for Lebanese who have been negatively affected by the surge of refugees. All of this has caused enormous stress.
In June 2012, all of Lebanon’s political groups agreed on a policy of “disassociation”, pledging not to become involved in Syria’s war. While individual Lebanese crossed the border to fight either for or against the Al Assad government, the first formal break in the “disassociation” policy came with Hizbollah’s entry into the Syrian war in 2013. While Hizbollah’s justifications for their action varied from protecting Shia holy places from being overrun by Sunni extremists to supporting their ally in Damascus, the net result was to aggravate Lebanon’s Sunni population thereby inflaming the country’s sectarian fissures.
Over the past year, Lebanon has been simmering. There have been mass bombings in both Shia and Sunni neighbourhoods and not a day goes by without reports of small scale, but still lethal, sectarian attacks.
The most dangerous situation is unfolding in Lebanon’s north-east, in the border town of Arsal. As a result of the Syrian war, Arsal’s Lebanese population of 35,000 people swelled to more than 100,000. Preying off the obvious discontent created by this untenable situation, a combined force of Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIL overran Arsal in early August.
A week later, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) reestablished control, driving out the two militant groups. Losses were great: 19 LAF soldiers died in the battle, and 38 were captured. Since then, a terrifying and dangerous drama has unfolded, with the extremists threatening to behead the captives unless the LAF withdrew.
It is important to note that the LAF is held in high esteem among all sectors of Lebanese society. It is Lebanon’s one truly national institution with near equal portions of Sunni and Shia in uniform, joined by a substantial number of Christians. A recent poll showed that while the public gave extremely low ratings to their parliament and government, 70 per cent gave a positive rating to their army.
The extremists have ruthlessly exploited the captives, calling the soldiers’ families telling them to pressure the LAF to withdraw from Arsal and then engaging in public executions of the soldiers to demonstrate their cruelty and resolve. Lebanese officials have decried this barbaric display and have complained that some elements of the Lebanese media have contributed to the extremists’ efforts by sensationalising the parents’ appeals.
To date, three LAF members have been executed, but the army and government have withstood the pressure and refused to surrender Arsal back to the control of the terrorist groups. As one Lebanese official recently put it, “the choice they are giving us is to trade 38 captives for the entire city of Arsal”.
Lebanon has signed on as a partner in the Arab and US coalition to combat ISIL. But they won’t be fighting in Syria or Iraq. They have their own front in this war. Their efforts need recognition and international support. The LAF requires advanced weaponry to fight more effectively. And Lebanon requires much more assistance to provide not only for the massive influx of refugees but for Lebanon’s host communities.
It would be a tragedy if in the process of combating extremists in Iraq and Syria the world ignored Lebanon, thus allowing ISIL to gain a foothold in that country, or if it allowed the tactics of ISIL or Jabhat Al Nusra to provoke tensions within Lebanon thereby sparking a sectarian civil war.
The key to avoiding either outcome is to strengthen the LAF so that it can control the country’s borders and to demonstrate to the Lebanese people that the world is attentive to their plight. Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
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