From storm to calm: How Lebanon became a shelter in the Levant

From storm to calm: How Lebanon became a shelter in the Levant
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Lebanon maintains its stability as parties benefit from the current situation and protect the status quo. A guest post by Martin Krastrup, Co-founder and Head of Programmes for Atlas Assistance.

The united fight for the status quo

Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011 many journalists, expert pundits, and politicians have continuously proclaimed Lebanon to be on the brink of collapse or even another bloody civil war. Such projections grew dramatically following widespread public protests in 2015, which further expanded the list of eye-catching doomsday headlines. The apocalyptic scenarios never materialised, and today’s Lebanon in fact shares very few similarities with that of the civil war era.

The country is unquestionably challenged by overlapping socio-economic and humanitarian crises as well as by political infights paralysing the legislative and executive branches of power. However, sectarian tensions are simply nowhere near the 1975-1990 levels when utter hatred between Lebanese communities gave way to near-daily shootings, kidnappings, bombings and all-out massacres of civilians.

Despite still having strong sectarian foundations, the Lebanese political parties have for more than a decade been divided across sectarian lines in a pro-Syrian ‘March 8th and an anti-Syrian ‘March 14th‘ bloc, which unintentionally but effectively has helped prevent a return to inter-religious conflict. Additionally, all the major national parties, including Hezbollah, today have a significant vested interest in defending the status quo represented by the unity government. This stands in sharp contrast to the run-up to the civil war where Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites were evidently marginalised by the Maronite Christians and were willing to fight for 15 years before the Taif Agreement ensured a more equal distribution of power.

The current, united fight for preserving the status quo (at times reminiscent of outright inertia) has been repeatedly demonstrated in recent years and most obviously so during last year’s garbage crisis when the political elite stood together in rejection of public demands for genuine reforms and political resignations. This unity could even be strengthened in the coming period as the two leading candidates to end the two-year long presidential vacuum are Christians from the pro-Syrian March 8th bloc, who will most likely both have to appoint the Sunni leader of the anti-Syrian March 14th bloc, Saad Hariri, as prime minister in order to rally the votes needed to be elected. The Lebanese political elite will then, in spite of its inter-factional animosities, become de facto more united than at any other point in the past half century.

While many observers are also calling attention to the destabilising spill-overs flowing into Lebanon from the various ongoing regional conflicts, the reality is that the country has never been more spared of destabilising foreign interference than what is the case today. With most of the countries previously interfering in Lebanese affairs currently occupied with internal upheaval or more pressing regional issues, Lebanese sovereignty and monopoly of violence have grown to remarkable high points. From the 1970’s till the mid-2000’s, various foreign powers actively used Lebanon as an arena to settle regional scores via both armed proxies and direct interventions. Today the opposite is taking place as international powers stand united in a joint diplomatic and military effort to insulate Lebanon from the regional turmoil.

Additionally, Hezbollah has refrained from responding militarily to continuous provocations from Israel, allowing for a steady calm along on the southern border, and has shown immense restraint in their responses to recent rhetorical, economic and bureaucratic attacks by Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries. Simultaneously, the Shia party’s main national Sunni adversaries have prudently chosen to opt for political stability rather than simply imitating their Gulf backers. Although Lebanese politicians have never agreed on much, it now finally seems that at least some are ready to put national stability before sectarian strife.

A historic calm

After seeing a notable deterioration following the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, the overall Lebanese security situation has over the past two years returned to pre-2011 levels and now remains remarkably stable. Paradoxically, one could say that Lebanon currently is to be considered among the safer countries in a region otherwise tormented by state collapse, insurgencies, war and terrorism.

Notable security incidents in Lebanon have since the fall of 2014 almost exclusively taken place in a few geographical hot spots plagued by radicalised groups and insufficient presence of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). This was the case in the county’s second largest city Tripoli, which in October 2014 saw heavy fighting between militant Islamists and the LAF that left dozens killed and more than 100 wounded. Since then, an expanded LAF presence has maintained an unprecedented calm in the city.

Lebanon.2

Lebanese risk-zone map with the most common risk markers. Compiled by Atlas Assistance.

Similarly, the LAF has markedly expanded its presence in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley, infamous for its clan groups engaged in organised crimes such as robberies, kidnappings, as well as the production and trafficking of narcotics. Where these ruthless clans previously had more or less free reign in most areas of the valley, the implementation of LAF security plans in 2015 has effectively blocked many of the groups’ transportation routes, while continuous waves of arrests, raids, confiscations, shootouts and interrupted kidnappings have significantly curbed their overall operational manoeuvrability as well.

A state of lawlessness however remains in Lebanon’s various Palestinian refugee camps. This especially so in the southern camps of Ain al-Helweh and Mieh Mieh near Saida that regularly experience armed clashes between the secular Fatah faction and militants from various islamist groups. The camps are however more or less self-governing and the clashes have had very little impact beyond the intra-Palestinian rivalries, which also explains why the LAF have stayed very reluctant to interfere there at all.

Another threat to Lebanese sovereignty and to the country’s wider stability has been the extremist Sunni militants with affiliations to Syrian terrorist groups operating in the north-eastern border areas. In 2014 Lebanon was shocked when militants from Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State overran the town of Arsal and took 37 Lebanese servicemen hostage. Since then, a joint effort by the LAF and Hezbollah’s armed wing has, however, managed to re-establish LAF control of the town and keep the remaining militants holed in its barren outskirts under daily artillery fire.

A coordinated counter-terrorist effort by the LAF and the other Lebanese security agencies has additionally been very successful in pre-empting most attempts by radical Islamist groups to carry out major attacks in the country. Since late 2014, Lebanon has only seen two major attacks: in November 2015 in Beirut’s Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs and in June 2016 in the north-eastern border town of al-Qaa, and the country has thus been widely spared from the continuous and indiscriminate terrorist attacks tormenting the rest of the region.

Contrary to the dominating media narrative that Lebanon is on the brink of collapse or worse, the country has actually seen real security improvements in recent years as its political paralysis paradoxically has ensured an unprecedented joint commitment to maintaining national stability. Although Lebanon will never be able to completely suppress its internal sectarian divisions or isolate itself entirely from regional turmoil, commentators should at least acknowledge that the country currently enjoys a historic calm.

Martin Krastrup is Co-founder and Head of Programmes for Atlas Assistance, a Beirut-based risk management company that provides analytical reports, security consultancies and trainings to organisations across the Middle East. He is dedicated to dispelling exaggerated threat perceptions and specialised in enabling operations in even the most hostile environments.

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Guest Post

This article was published as part of the GRI Guest Post Series. GRI guest posts come from leading experts in business, government, and academia. The series strives to bring a diverse range of perspectives on the critical issues of our time. The views expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of GRI.