Is Lebanon Prepared to Repel the Islamic State?

On June 9th, Hezbollah met the “Islamic State” on the battlefield and for the first time ever the clash took place on Lebanese soil. Both Dae’sh and Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria) have a presence in the Qalamoun region along the Lebanon-Syria border—and have long aspired to make inroads into Lebanon in order to attack Hezbollah on its home turf. But this marks the first time that Dae’sh forces have successfully penetrated Lebanon in this manner, where they were confronted by Hezbollah in what have been described as intense clashes resulting in the death of an IS leader.

Lebanon is being targeted in part due to Hezbollah’s presence in Syria and Iraq, but also because Lebanon is considered an easy target for expansion. IS wants to apply pressure on Hezbollah and the Lebanese state, hoping it will fragment and ultimately collapse—exploiting any vacuums in governance or sectarian conflicts to expand their domain. But Lebanese factions may be more united and organized than IS believes.

The Lebanese Army and Its Benefactors

Lebanon has the fortunate (and unfortunate) distinction of receiving funds from Iran in support of Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia in support of the Lebanese Army, which could be another reason for the IS incursion: it may see Lebanon as a place where all its enemies, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Iran, have come together in supporting groups against it:

The Lebanese Army is set to receive three billion dollars worth of French military equipment over the next four years, paid entirely by Saudi Arabia as part of a modernization program. Essential anti-tank missiles, useful for stopping IS Suicide Vehicle (SVBIEDs) attacks, have already arrived. Saudi Arabia has not provided the funding out of the kindness of king Salman’s heart. The kingdom wants Lebanon to rely less on Hezbollah’s military might.

For the present moment, however, Saudi Arabia will accept Hezbollah’s killing of IS fighters in Lebanon, because it has an interest in seeing Lebanon remain stable. Also, the two recent suicide-bombing attacks against the Saudi Shi’ite community put the government on notice that the enemy is now within the gates. Internally, the sectarian posture by the Saudi government in regards to the war in Yemen and the broader Middle East, has taken a hit after the bombings. A Saudi official was even heckled by spectators at a press conference, for not doing enough to keep the public safe and for helping stoke sectarian tensions.

The United States has also thrown its hat into the Lebanese ring. On the same day as the clash near Ras Baalbek, the Lebanese Army conducted live fire testing of U.S. supplied and Saudi paid for, missiles. These are the anti-tank missiles that IS also possesses, but that the Iraqi Army lacked in Ramadi. The U.S. has spent years trying to bolster the Lebanese military and find ways to weaken Hezbollah, but now it seems that it too is increasingly supportive of Hezbollah’s strength, as long as it fights the “right” enemy (i.e. NOT Israel).

Sub-State Militias

After the 2006 War between Israel and Hezbollah, the Party of God and its Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, garnered much attention for outlasting the Israeli incursion. However, when Hezbollah entered the war in Syria on the side of President al-Asad, the group lost much of its moral support among the public in the region. Hezbollah’s now seen as just another tool, fueling the fires of sectarian conflict. Though, there is more to it. In Lebanon, it nurtures political alliances with Christians. In its charitable work, it helps assist the poorest of Lebanese citizens, regardless of religious affiliation. And even its actions in Syria it describes as defensive measures to help prevent the civil war from spilling across the border.

Though the group is involved in fighting in Syria and Iraq, their Lebanese nationalistic loyalties should not be underestimated. They didn’t spend the last thirty years fighting Israel, because of desires to win a popularity contest. Lebanon is still their home and they will defend it, regardless of any communal cleavages IS would like to exploit. But unfortunately for Hezbollah, and perhaps Lebanon, perception can often become reality—this is especially true with sectarianism.

However, while Hezbollah is perhaps the single most effective militia in Lebanon, it is far from alone: several segments of Lebanese society are prepared to take up arms in order to protect the territorial integrity of the nation. The Lebanese Communist Party, for instance, has started mobilizing a militia in order to, as it says, “fight extremists.” The group resides in several villages in the northern Bekaa Valley and stated that they would start patrolling areas in their region this month. Considering the major role leftists played in the Lebanese Civil War, rumors of them rearming themselves could strike as worrisome to some within and outside of Lebanon—a good deal hinges on how, and to what extent, these sub-state actors cooperate with one-another, and with the ever-ephemeral Lebanese government.

E Pluribus Unim? En sha Allah.

The common view of the Lebanese civil war and its legacy can often be deceptive. It’s tempting to see the war as a sectarian fiasco, and easy to suggest that these animosities linger still, waiting for the right spark to ignite them. However, recent scholarship has suggested alternative views on the reasons for civil conflict and especially the nature of it within the Lebanese context.

Observers must be cautious to think that nationalism is not ingrained in the hearts of Lebanese of all stripes. After all, they fought a fifteen-year civil war, in large part, to decide what it means to be Lebanese.  If the 2013 quelling of Sheiykh Ahmed al-Assir is any indication, Lebanon’s national identity is not something most want to re-litigate at this moment, despite the aspirations and efforts of outside powers to foment unrest.

So long as this unity holds, IS investments in the Lebanese theater will likely bear little fruit. If better pressed in Iraq and Syria, they may ultimately conclude Lebanon is a costly distraction, and divert their resources elsewhere. If, on the other hand, Lebanon implodes as a result of its internal and external pressures, the incursion may prove a masterstroke for Da’esh—with regional consequences which would be difficult to fathom.

Here’s to hoping for the former.

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