Last week intense clashes broke out in the Lebanese border town of Ras Baalbek between the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shia militant group fighting in Syria on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered government. This is the latest in a series of battles against ISIS and the Nusra Front that have threatened to force the conflict over the border into Hezbollah’s home territory. Hezbollah’s militant rhetoric in response threatens to set in motion a series of events that could destabilize another of Syria’s neighbours.
Hezbollah’s ongoing battle with the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamist group, and ISIS in Syria’s strategically important Qalamoun region highlights the threat it also faces from Nusra and ISIS fighters posted in the Lebanese mountains outside the northeast border town of Arsal. The presence of these fighters, together with the prospect of losing control over Qalamoun has led Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to ramp up his militant rhetoric at home, declaring ISIS and Nusra to be an ‘existential threat’ to Lebanon.
In recent weeks, Nasrallah has been making frequent, provocative speeches about this threat, with the implicit warning that if the army is not able to defend the country from jihadists, then Hezbollah will act alone and step up military recruitment among its supporters. Hezbollah’s battles against jihadists have so far been almost exclusively in Syria. The battle last August to drive the same fighters out of Arsal into the nearby mountains was led by the Lebanese army with Hezbollah’s logistical support. Now, however, the army could be constrained from fighting Nusra in Arsal’s outskirts. Lebanon’s cabinet, which would have to authorize the operation, is bitterly divided, and the army is widely perceived as a far less effective fighting force than Hezbollah. In addition, Nusra leaders have declared that the 16 soldiers it captured during the August battle will be killed if anyone moves against them.
Security impacts in Lebanon
In 2013 and early 2014, there were frequent suicide bombings against Shia areas and Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon, prompted in part by Hezbollah’s 2013 entry into the Syrian war on the side of the Assad government. In the past year, however, tacit security coordination between the Lebanese Armed Forces, with their parliamentary allies, the March 14 alliance, and Hezbollah, and their March 8 political alliance, has helped maintain relative calm in the country.
But now Nasrallah’s militant speeches have provoked angry responses from the leaders of March 14 parties and army officials. Relations between Hezbollah’s March 8 alliance and March 14 were already tense due to disagreements about the appointments of a president and a new chief of the army. Unilateral military action by Hezbollah in Lebanon could finally force a breakdown in their tacit agreement.
Without security coordination, there would be a notable increase in jihadist attacks in Lebanon. ISIS and Nusra have in past infiltrated communities and paid poor youths, often motivated by financial need, to attack targets chosen for political effect. For example, the January suicide bombing of a café in an Alawite neighbourhood of Tripoli, where the young bomber was reportedly paid $60 for carrying out the attack, was designed to provoke sectarian tensions in an area where communal relations between Sunni and Shia are typically not a significant problem.
In the worst case scenario, a Hezbollah offensive could spark armed reactions by anti-Hezbollah fighters loyal to March 14, who would fear for their own security in the event of a Hezbollah mobilization and might even choose to launch pre-emptive attacks against the group. If Nusra were then to kill their hostages in retaliation for Hezbollah attacks, this could further galvanize anti-Hezbollah sentiment around Lebanon.
Many argue that the political crisis in Lebanon will not be resolved until the Syrian war is over. But now there should be grave concern that Hezbollah’s military setbacks in Syria could inflame a calm political stalemate into outright war.
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