Sectarianism in Lebanon

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

Sectarianism in Lebanon

Posted on: 16th July 2014
Raphaël Lefèvre
Carnegie Middle East Center, Visiting Fellow

Sectarian violence in the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli and in the Bekaa Valley is a daunting reminder that the Syria crisis has severely affected the co-existence of Lebanon's 18 officially recognized religious communities. This should come as no surprise.

Much of the tension today dates back to the assassination of Sunni former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri - an act blamed on the Shia group Hizbullah. The country has since been split into two camps, the gap between them widening after the Arab Spring. The March 14 Alliance consists mainly of Sunnis in opposition to the Syrian regime; the rival March 8 Alliance is largely made up of Shia loyal to Bashar al-Assad – in some cases going to fight for his regime. Christian parties are evenly split between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions.

Exacerbating these differences has been the arrival of over one million Syrian refugees. Various estimates indicate that the toll could rise by the end of 2014 to between 1.5 and two million – amounting to nearly half Lebanon's population. This has led the country's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil to state that the Syrian crisis, and particularly the refugee issue, constitutes an "existential threat" to Lebanon. This may reflect growing anxiety in his – Christian – community at the Muslim background of most Syrian refugees. But it also offers a hint of the rising tension between Shi'is and Sunnis which threatens to engulf the whole country.

According to UN data, 95% of registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon are Sunni. In the absence of formal refugee camps, they primarily reside in Lebanese Sunni districts. In northern Lebanon, for instance, 83% of refugees have settled in Sunni-dominated cities and villages while only 17% have gone to Christian-majority areas. But, as the flow of refugees has increased the socio-economic pressure on local communities and strained the provision of basic services, Syrian refugees have recently started to settle in other areas. The Shi'i Beirut suburbs and southern Lebanon particularly have witnessed a rapid increase in Syrian refugees drawn by cheaper rent and basic commodities. In these areas, the funerals of Hizbullah fighters who died fighting for the Syrian regime have stoked sectarian tension and resentment. Violence has flared up on multiple occasions in the mixed areas of the Bekaa Valley and Tripoli. A stalemate in Syria could help spread these tensions further.

Most of the Syrian refugee community does not have any desire to import the war to Lebanon. The leader of a network of Syrian NGOs in Tripoli explained that "most of the refugees left Syria precisely because of the war and the destruction – they are looking to rebuild their lives and find jobs rather than resume the fight". But as constraints on resources and jobs bite, criminal and extremist groups will find it increasingly easy to recruit. Already, this year has witnessed the birth of local chapters of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), two of the most powerful Islamist groups in Syria, and which have openly called on Sunnis to strike all of Hizbullah's strongholds in Lebanon. These groups are particularly adept at recruiting Syrian men struggling to make ends meet and young uneducated Syrian refugees. Worryingly both categories are posed to grow exponentially in the months ahead unless the Lebanese government takes bold action.

One such step could involve temporarily removing the $200 fee that refugees must pay in order to renew their stay in Lebanon after one year. UN estimates suggest that 72% of Syrian refugees are "vulnerable" – meaning they urgently need food and medical assistance – and that 30% have gone into debt to pay for rent and basic commodities (on average by between $200 and $600). This makes it unlikely that they will be able to pay for the renewal of their documentation, but failure to do so will severely restrict their access to state-provided services and to the judicial system. By the end of 2014, 800,000 Syrians will have to re-register as refugees in Lebanon. It is likely that many of them will become "illegal" and thus more vulnerable to the message of extremist actors. This trend is combined with a dramatic rise in the number of young Syrians raised on Lebanon's streets without a proper education. There are only 85,000 places in Lebanese public schools for around 500,000 young refugees. This has pushed many Syrian parents to enrol their children in private Islamic institutions. Jamaa al-Islamiya, the Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood, already enrols 13,000 Syrians in its national network of schools, but it is likely that a growing number of Syrians will start attending cheaper and more radical Islamic institutions which can count on financial support from the Gulf.

The Lebanese Armed Forces recently launched an ambitious "security plan" aimed at calming tension and discouraging sectarian violence. But for the plan to win the hearts and minds of Lebanese and Syrians alike, it will have to be accompanied with concrete measures to address the underlying causes of suffering and of violence.

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