Lebanon has historically been perceived as a refuge for those displaced by Middle Eastern conflicts. But now Lebanon's proximity to Syria and the appalling condition of Lebanese refugee camps are contributing to a failure to cope with growing domestic jihadism. In such a context the question is whether Lebanon will resist the rise of ISIS or whether the group will exacerbate the country's sectarian divisions. The international community must pave the way for inter-communal reconciliation before Lebanon turns into yet another battleground in the fight against ISIS.
Lebanon's internal fractures erupted into the spotlight most recently in the border town of Arsal. On 1 August, the ISIS-affiliated Fijr al-Islam brigade took control of the town in retaliation for the arrest by Lebanese military forces of its leader Imad Jomaa. The government refused to bow to the jihadis' request for his release, which provoked the beheading of two captured army officers, one Sunni and one Shia. Enraged Sunni and Shia clans subsequently hijacked the issue, retaliating against alleged ISIS sympathisers with kidnappings and attacks. They particularly targeted Syrian refugee camps.
"A commitment is needed to rein in sectarianism at the grassroots level."
The violent sectarian response is particularly concerning in light of Lebanon's often overlooked 'confessional' social tapestry. The country's different religious groups pursue diverging and often conflicting political agendas, with ready access to weaponry escalating conflicts. So far, the effort to develop a viable security apparatus in the country has produced meagre results. The Lebanese army is caught in a crossfire between many Sunni – who see it as a tool in the hands of Hizbullah – and Shia, who are divided into a plethora of communal militias.
Reinvigorating the army in a bid to fight ISIS, while weakening Hizbullah and the maverick tribal militias, is a step in the right direction. But it will mean little without a commitment to rein in sectarianism and radicalisation at the grassroots and community level.
The fact that Lebanon's Sunni, Shia and Maronite Christian groups have become increasingly divided since the arrival of ISIS is apparent in the way the communities have responded to the soldiers' deaths.
The murder of Officer Ali Sayed sparked protests in his native Sunni region of Akkar, an area close to the border where weapons flow freely and thousands of Syrians find refuge. Alarmingly, the rallies did not inveigh against ISIS, but rather attacked Beirut's shortcomings in addressing the spillover of the Syria conflict. As locals lose faith in the government they are increasingly organising themselves into 'civilian militias' or finding themselves drawn into radical networks.
The region is also a transit area linking Syria to Tripoli, a bastion of support for the Syrian rebellion, which perceives the Lebanese army as supporting Hizbullah's backing of Assad. As this narrative spreads, the streets are gradually blackening with ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra flags. The same is occurring in Arsal and the Sunni pockets of the mainly Shia Bekaa valley.
The urgent need to defuse sectarianism is also demonstrated by a recent incident in Beirut's Achrafiye district. On 30 August protesters from the mainly Maronite district burned ISIS flags in retaliation for the killing of the two army officers. Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi – a Sunni with strong ties to Saudi Arabia – called for their prosecution for desecrating a flag that read 'no God but Allah'.
The issue quickly led to a confessional standoff, as the Maronite Free Patriotic Movement accused Rifi of protecting Sunni co-religionists even when they are members of ISIS. Moreover, the Movement offered legal support to the prosecuted Maronites and accused Sunni moderates of failing to distance themselves from the jihadists. This dispute intensified further when Maronite Tripolitans found that their churches had been sprayed with slogans reading 'the Islamic State will break the Cross'.
"Divisions directly impact on Lebanon's fight against ISIS."
Shia groups are not immune from divisions, directly impacting on Lebanon's fight against ISIS. The execution of Abbas Medlej just two days after his fellow officer sparked an immediate response of the Shia Medlej clan, who threatened to storm nearby Syrian refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley. Similar episodes occurred in Tyre, Baalbak and Beirut's Dahiye district where Shia tribes released statements demanding Syrians leave: a threat reminiscent of previous Shia displays of tribal power, including an incident in the summer of 2012 when the Meqdad clan kidnapped Turkish and Syrian nationals in revenge for the abduction by the Free Syrian Army of one of their members.
Even Hizbullah – which has tried to downplay the ISIS threat – was forced to declare its position. Throughout the summer Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's leader, preferred to divert attention to Gaza, fearing that a fierce media attack on domestic Sunni jihadists would jeopardise the group's attempt to reconcile with Sunni factions in Palestine. Nevertheless, pressured by events, the party broke its alleged 'neutrality' in September. Ali Fayyad, a Hizbullah member of parliament, stated that the group is ready to defend Lebanon against ISIS and that it considers the presence of Syrian refugee camps as exerting "negative effects" on the country's stability.
The fallout from Arsal also forced the international community to realise its reliance on Lebanon in the fight against ISIS was dependent on Lebanon's stability. In September Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil met with his counterparts in Paris to discuss Beirut's role in the international coalition against ISIS, a bloc which comprises more than 20 nations from the United States to the Arab world. Tellingly, the meeting placed domestic dialogue processes among its priorities, signalling the coalition's fear that Lebanon might crumble from within precisely when it is needed most.
It is time to address Lebanon's internal religious tensions once and for all. Lebanese leaders must make it clear that Beirut's strategy against ISIS is a separate issue from the country's stated neutrality towards the Syrian conflict. Political and religious leaders must engage in an intensive and inclusive inter-factional dialogue to pave the way towards a strong, self-reliant state capable of defending itself against domestic and international jihadism.