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Alexei Sarabyev

PhD in History, Chief of Research and Publishing Dept, RAS Oriental Studies Institute

A threat at a regional level, Islamic extremism is making new attempts to sweep through Lebanon – a country that continues to keep a fragile ethnic and confessional balance, albeit with varying degrees of success. Having survived the Arab Spring, Lebanese society is now being confronted with the difficult task of resisting jihadists both from the outside (the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front) and from the inside, amidst unstable legislative and executive branches and a dire humanitarian situation caused by economic difficulties and the influx of Syrian refugees.

A threat at a regional level, Islamic extremism is making new attempts to sweep through Lebanon – a country that continues to keep a fragile ethnic and confessional balance, albeit with varying degrees of success. Having survived the Arab Spring, Lebanese society is now being confronted with the difficult task of resisting jihadists both from the outside (the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front) and from the inside, amidst unstable legislative and executive branches and a dire humanitarian situation caused by economic difficulties and the influx of Syrian refugees.

The Lebanese army and weapons to Lebanon

The position of Lebanese authorities on the strategy to combat ISIS has been formed in response to real threats to Lebanon. It is based on the country’s own assessment of developments in the region. In July-August 2014, the threat of the steady advance of the Islamic State to the Mediterranean and the establishment of a Lebanese emirate affiliated with the so-called Islamic caliphate on Lebanese territory seemed very probable (Al-Monitor, February 17, 2015). The success of the Lebanese army in confronting terrorists in the border town of Arsal as well as the concerted action of Hezbollah fighters instilled hope in the possibility of holding strategic positions and roads and of preventing the enemy from advancing inland. In addition, at the end of 2013, shortly after the assassination in Beirut of a prominent Lebanese politician Mohamad Chatah (a Sunni), Saudi Arabia promised to donate $3 billion towards the purchase of French weapons and ammunition for the Lebanese army. In August 2014 this decision was reaffirmed (Naharnet, December 29, 2013).

The urgency of the issue of Lebanon’s joining the anti-terrorist coalition led by the United States is gaining momentum.

After ISIS intensified fighting in July 2014 and the battle for Arsal occurred in August, it became clear that the jihadists’ goals extended far beyond Syrian territories and posed a direct threat to the security of Lebanon. The county’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam has repeatedly insisted on the importance of military and financial assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces at various international forums of different levels, including his speeches at the 69th session of the UN General Assembly in New York in late September 2014 (CBS News, 26.09.2014) and in Berlin on October 28-29 (he was promised help worth $650 million there, Die Bundesregierung, 28.10.2014). In December 2014, he spoke with the French media and deputies of the French National Assembly (i24, 8.12.2014; RFI, 9.12.2014), and on February 7, 2015, he addressed the Munich Security Conference (Naharnet, 5.02.2015). Minister for Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil and Lebanese Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri have also urged the need to render assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces. Incidentally, the weapons and ammunition from France promised in the summer of 2014 have not yet been supplied. A modest batch of hardware and ammunition (worth $25 million) was delivered by the United States on February 8, 2015, following the request made at the Washington meeting of the commanders of the armies back in October 2014 (Reuters, 8.02.2015).

Meanwhile, the first half of spring 2015 witnessed vigorous efforts of the Lebanese military to prevent new jihadist operations of the al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra reaffirms its allegiance to the Al-Qaeda - Daily Star, 10.03.2015) and ISIS in Lebanon, whose important tactical target is to capture the Beqaa valley and to destroy the Hezbollah troops stationed there, as well as to gain control over the most important Beirut-Damascus route.

Evolution of fight against ISIS strategy

The urgency of the issue of Lebanon’s joining the anti-terrorist coalition led by the United States is gaining momentum. From the outset, the Lebanese leadership has chosen neutrality as the only possible policy towards the developments in Syria and clashes between the regime forces and the opposition. Otherwise, Lebanese society would inevitably have been divided on this sensitive issue, reviving the inter-communal and inter-party conflict, possibly escalating into overt confrontations. Accordingly, Lebanese politicians decided on an official level (France24, 29.09.2015) to dissociate themselves from the region-wide initiative of confronting ISIS and al-Nusra Front extremists, realizing that the established coalition was explicitly pursuing other goals which had little to do with the interests of the Lebanese people, in particular, the fight against the Syrian regime as well as the weakening of the so-called Shiite Crescent in the Middle East. This was the opinion of the Lebanese general public, including top-level church officials (Al-Monitor, 22.09.2014).

In September 2014, the first conference of the Coalition to combat terrorism was convened in Jeddah, and it is not surprising that the representatives of Hezbollah argued against Lebanon’s participation in it most ardently (Asharq al-Awsat, 13.09.2014). Nevertheless, the Lebanese delegation did participate and confirmed the position of the country's leadership: neutrality with regard to the fighting in Syria, but a willingness to actively resist the threat of spreading the influence of extremists in Lebanon, which required help for the Lebanese army from the international community. The Lebanese official position was clarified by Minister for Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil in his interview with Al-Hayat in November 2014: "Lebanon is part of the international coalition against the Islamic State ... as well as other countries that are fighting against terrorism. Our position is to encourage the participation of everyone, not to be with some countries against others. This would cause an internal problem [coalition unity]. We want a consensus on this. We participated in Jeddah, Paris and Kuwait via cabinet decisions. And we will participate in Brussels.” He also added that Lebanon could not be against cooperation with the United States in anti-terrorist activities, but the seriousness of the latter’s intentions to combat terrorism had to be tested (Аl-Monitor, 28.11.2014).

Leading Lebanese politicians do not believe that the coalition wants to deploy enough resources or take adequate measures to curtail the spread of the jihadist threat (into the Lebanese territory inter alia).

The next meeting of the anti-terrorist coalition led by the United States took place in Brussels on December 3. There were quite expected attempts to diverge from the subject of the fight against ISIS: too much attention was being paid to the regional role of Hezbollah and the issue of assistance to the “moderate opposition” fighting against Bashar Assad’s regime. The Lebanese representatives restated their position, defining it as “self-distancing” from all the issues not directly related to the fight against IS and al-Qaeda extremists. The Lebanese even made an attempt to leave the conference hall: their concern was caused, in particular, by the attempts of the Turkish delegation to resume discussing the initial draft resolution, which read: “Participants have pondered with great concern the suffering of the Syrian people, who live under the brutality of IS and the shelling of the [President Bashar] al-Assad regime. Participants have stressed their commitment to support the Syrian people in their efforts to confront IS, and to a transitional period based on the full implementation of the Geneva Communiqué, including increased support to the moderate opposition.” (Al-Monitor, 20.12.2014). The discussion was very heated, and the stumbling block was the agenda. In the end, it was decided to confine the agenda to the issues of only combating jihadists, while the other problems were placed outside the framework of the final communiqué (See full text on US State Department website, March 12, 2014).

khamakarpress.com
Lebanese army soldiers stand guard at the
entrance to a coffee shop that was damaged in
a suicide bombing Saturday night, in a
predominantly Alawite neighborhood of the
northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Sunday,
Jan. 11, 2015

Already by mid-January 2015, Lebanon received an invitation from the Americans to attend the upcoming meeting of the coalition scheduled for the end of February in Washington (Al-Monitor, 25.02.2015). However, the situation became even more complicated due to the “Israeli factor.” On January 18, 2015, well-planned Israeli airstrikes against a convoy in the Quneitra District of Syria injured many members of Hezbollah and killed some key personalities of its military wing, namely Imad Mughniyeh’s (who was killed in February 2008) son “Jawad” Jihad Mughniyeh and cousin Jihad Mustafa Badr Al Din, field commander Mohammad Issa (who goes by the nom de guerre “Abu Issa”), among others. As a response to that attack, Hezbollah launched an ambush against an Israeli military convoy near the South Lebanon’s occupied Shebaa Farms, which, of course, caused a storm of criticism of Hezbollah’s actions. (See, for example, some such one-sided comments: RIAC, 4.02.2015). An Israeli delegation was also invited to the upcoming coalition meeting in Washington, while its format implied joint participation in working groups (including a discussion of the military aspects of tactics to combat ISIS. - Al-Monitor, 25.02.2015) by representatives of Lebanon and Israel, which are formally in a state of war. The Lebanese side failed to show a willingness to enter into this questionable compromise and did not accept the invitation to that conference.

There is little doubt that internal discord among the coalition members account for Lebanon's reluctance to join its ranks. Leading Lebanese politicians do not believe that the coalition wants to deploy enough resources or take adequate measures to curtail the spread of the jihadist threat (into the Lebanese territory inter alia), to block the markets for smuggled oil or for pieces of virtue stolen in the occupied territories, or to shut off the supply of weapons and ammunition to ISIS and the al-Nusra Front. Coalition members are trying to strengthen their own position in the region by weakening their political rivals and overthrow the legitimate Syrian regime. As such, the fighters of the Lebanese armed forces with little if any outside help continue to resist the penetration of militant jihadists far inland. The Lebanese military enjoys sustained essential support from Hezbollah troops, which annoys those members of the Coalition who believe that strengthening the Shiite Crescent is the worst of all evils at the moment.

Lebanon as a jihadists’ target: the threat from within

Dependence on external actors remains great: the independence of leading Lebanese politicians appears to be seriously constrained by the interests of traditional patrons of respective communities or clans.

Periodic clashes between members of the Alawite and the Sunni communities in Tripoli have caused anxiety in the last several years. But at the end of October 2014, violent clashes took place between the rival neighborhoods of Alawite Jabal Mohsen and Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh, which involved Islamist militants. The situation was aggravated even further when two suicide murders blew themselves up in a crowded cafe in Jabal Mohsen; four days later another suicide bombing was prevented in that district (Daily Star, 10.01.2015). The Internal Security Forces have established the involvement of Roumieh Prison inmates in the preparation of the terrorist act, where persons suspected of terrorism and captured ISIS and al-Nusra Front militants are being detained.

A failed riot in the prison on January 12, 2015 and the resulting police crackdown to contain the outbreak and to restore order have drawn attention to this secret stronghold of extremists. Some local analysts believe that a military solution to the discipline problems in the block where terrorists were detained has put an end to a major source of the threat of an Islamist insurgency in the country (Аль-Ахбар, 13.01.2015).

REUTERS/ Sharif Karim
Mario Abou Zeid:
Lebanese Presidential Elections

The Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Saida has been considered another potentially dangerous place in this regard, and in 2007, it was involved in a confrontation between the army and special services on the one hand and the Lebanese terrorists from Jund al-Sham and Fatah al-Islam on the other (See: Middle East and the Present, # 34, 2008, pp. 267–290 [in Russian]). It is the largest refugee camp, giving shelter to up to 50 thousand Palestinians permanently residing there, and to about 20 thousand Palestinian refugees from Syria in the neighboring area. Traces of jihadists’ activity are found there on a regular basis, and some field commanders of the al-Nusra Front came from Ain al-Hilweh. The camp is controlled by Palestinian groups that balance each other. But in light of the inevitable conflict between the Sunnis who have remained in the southern regions (the majority of Christians were forced to flee in the 1980s) and the Shia Hezbollah, the camp may at any time be used as a springboard for Sunni Islamists, which already happened in the summer of 2007. However, this time the movement will be oriented against the Shia.

The plight of Syrian refugees, a potential source for the recruitment of new “oppositionists”, is an important factor behind insecurity and instability in Lebanon as well (see: НВО, 10.03.2015 [in Russian]).

The acute problems in finding a political consensus between the main political forces in Lebanon cast doubt on any rosy prospects for the fight against IS and the al-Nusra Front jihadism. Major differences in approaches to assessing extremism at the regional level are bound to have an impact on the internal political situation. The success of finding a compromise depends on narrowing the differences between the leading outside actors, who have their own leverage in the political arena in Lebanon.

Russia’s current diplomatic efforts in the Lebanese direction concentrate on mediation in finding a consensus among different political forces in Lebanon.

Unfortunately, the dependence on external actors remains great: the independence of leading Lebanese politicians appears to be seriously constrained by the interests of traditional patrons of respective communities or clans. Thus, the leader of Tayyar Al-Mustaqbal (the Future Movement) continues to stay most of the time in Riyadh, despite repeated announcements of his return, and even public calls of his political partners for him to finally return home (for example, by Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai - Daily Star, 20.02.2015). In late January 2015, leaders of Hezbollah played host to Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force (Al-Monitor, 3.02.2015), apparently to discuss tactical steps and coordinate strategies in the current environment. This has annoyed much of the pro-Sunni regional alliance of the Arab country-members of the Coalition.

These countries are interested in a candidate for the Lebanese Presidency who would isolate the country from Iran and Syria (НВО, 18.11.2014). In turn, Lebanese politicians that joined the March 8 Alliance (including the pro-Christian Free Patriotic Movement party) are trying to resist the attempts of their opponents from the March 14 Alliance and the Gulf countries to take complete control over the political arena.

The fruitful talks held between Hezbollah (Hassan Nasrallah), the Mustaqbal Movement (Saad Hariri), the Free Patriotic Movement (Michel Aoun) and the Lebanese Forces (Samir Geagea) in December 2014 testified to the emergence of a positive trend in the search for common interests. However, a number of external factors hinder the achievement of success in the presidential elections (the next, 21st attempt has been scheduled for April 2, 2015) and an effective discussion of electoral reform. These factors include, among others, incidents between Hezbollah and the Israeli, as well as new anti-Lebanon border provocations, namely violations of the Lebanese airspace by a drone and of its territorial waters by an Israeli gunboat (NNA, 11.03.2015 11:35, 11.03.2015 21:50).

Opportunities for cooperation between Russia and Lebanon in preventing the spread of jihadist influence across the region

Russian-Lebanese relations - trusting and benevolent in nature - provide ample opportunities for coordinating joint efforts in the fight against jihadism. Apart from frequent visits to Russia by leading Lebanese politicians, there are contacts between the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Government of Lebanon. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had meetings with Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam during the 69th session of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 25, 2014 and during the 51st session of the Munich Security Conference on February 7, 2015. The meeting in September revealed “the identity or similarity of the Russian and Lebanese approaches” in relation to confronting the threat of terrorism (MFA of Russia, 25.09.2015). In Munich, the emphasis was put on the Russian principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of both Lebanon and Syria, and on the fact that Russia and Lebanon adhere to the principles of the Geneva Communiqué issued on June 30, 2012 on the Syrian political and diplomatic settlement (MFA of Russia, 07.02.2015).

Russia’s current diplomatic efforts in the Lebanese direction concentrate on mediation in finding a consensus among different political forces in Lebanon. Moscow expresses “decisive support for the efforts of the Lebanese government and law enforcement agencies to counter manifestations of terrorism and extremism, including in the context of the goal of preserving the stability and unity of Lebanon and the security of its citizens.” (MFA of Russia, 16.12.2014). During the visit of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister M.L. Bogdanov in Lebanon in December 2014, he had meetings with key politicians and leaders of the major parties (the Progressive Socialist Party, the Marada Movement, the Lebanese Forces, and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party), as well as with the head of the Orthodox Forum. During these meetings, discussions were held on the interdependence of the political crisis and the risks of the domestic terrorist threat. During the meetings of M.L. Bogdanov with Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai and other Lebanese leaders, special attention was paid to the protection of Christians in the Middle East.

It is indicative that the issue of protecting Middle Eastern Christians was raised by the head of the Russian diplomatic corps at a high-level international meeting (Geneva, March 2, 2015). Within the framework of that event Sergei Lavrov held a separate meeting with his Lebanese counterpart Gebran Bassil (RIA-Novosti, March 2, 2015).

The current phenomenon of jihadism in the Middle East is a problem of perverse religious outlook and fanaticism nurtured amidst the global crisis of culture and ethics, as well as one of information and ideological chaos.

The current phenomenon of jihadism in the Middle East is not so much a problem of terror, purchased ideology and social protest, as a problem of perverse religious outlook and fanaticism nurtured amidst the global crisis of culture and ethics, as well as one of information and ideological chaos. Therefore, it is difficult to disagree with the fact that the problems of the armed struggle against terrorists and of cutting off their supply channels are just as urgent as the task “of preventing the jihadists from captivating the minds and souls of younger people and from recruiting them into their ranks,” which necessitates “opposing, by concerted efforts, the attempts of extremists of all kinds to desecrate and distort the high moral principles of the great world religions.” (MFA of Russia, 02.03.2015).

Of course, Lebanon now urgently needs weapons and hardware, military equipment and ammunition for sustaining resistance to the seizure of the country. But the country is also in need of diplomatic support in order not to be torn apart by regional leaders contesting the role of the patron of the Lebanese people and to resist the attempts to involve it in an ambiguous struggle for the interests of others, which is far from the real needs of Lebanon. Contacts are also needed at the level of religious leaders, as exemplified by the visit to Moscow in February 2015 of John X, Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, (The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society Website, 25.01.2015).

Perhaps, regular consultations and joint projects between Lebanese and Russian Muftis and Ulemas, as well as the platforms of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and other associations could contribute from within to the solution of the problem of jihadism, which is of paramount importance for contemporary Islam.

 

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