With Iraq and Syria in tatters, will Lebanon be the next to collapse? That may be somewhat less than likely, but a combination of factors are putting great stress on this troubled country—and putting it at risk of civil war.Lebanon is fending off ISIS and other militants on its mountainous eastern border. Those attacks have necessitated a large degree of tacit cooperation between the Lebanese national army and Hezbollah, and the prominence of the Assad-allied Shi’a group has fed resentment among Lebanon’s Sunnis. This weekend saw the eruption of a particularly fierce fight in the northern Sunni-majority city of Tripoli, where almost a dozen soldiers have been killed and army helicopters deployed against Sunni militants.The Tripoli militants are reputed to be connected to ISIS, which, as the WSJ reports, is becoming increasingly popular not only in Tripoli, but among Lebanese Sunnis as a whole:
[ISIS] is posing an insidious threat from within. Among Lebanon’s Sunni community—27% of the population, according to the Central Intelligence Agency—the violent movement is finding fertile ground in the same kind of resentment and alienation that propelled its meteoric rise in Syria and Iraq. […]“There is a big problem: the situation is imbalanced,” said Nohad Machnouk, the interior minister in Lebanon’s coalition government and one of its leading Sunni politicians. “The Sunnis feel as if Hezbollah in Syria is fighting them. They always feel that they are not allowed to do so and so and so, and on the other hand other parties, like Hezbollah, can do all these sos.”
According to the WSJ, the Lebanese army expects an ISIS/Nusra Front breakout from the border toward Tripoli—which would become ISIS’s first seaport, though the chances that ISIS will succeed in capturing it are slim. As Hezbollah and the national army continue to cooperate to prevent such an assault, however, they are likely to increase the support for ISIS in Tripoli itself, among Sunnis constantly worried about any shift in Lebanon’s confessionalist balance of power.That balance is also threatened by the huge number of Syrian refugees Lebanon has taken in. In a country of less than 5 million, including some 500,000 Palestinian refugees, there are now 1.2 million registered Syrian refugees, with an unknown and possibly huge number of unregistered refugees. (Looking to hedge further exposure to the Syrian crisis and avoid a demographic disaster, Lebanon closed the border to refugees earlier this week.)To top it off, the alienation of Lebanon’s Sunnis has begun to affect even the national army, which has seen soldiers defect to join ISIS or al-Nusra. And even without the threat to morale that defections pose, the Lebanese army isn’t in the best of shape; it doesn’t have the financing to properly equip itself. As Al Monitor says in a separate article:
In terms of equipment, the Lebanese army has been suffering from the absence of a comprehensive armament plan for years….[P]arliamentary sources told Al-Monitor that such a plan was put in place 30 years ago, in 1983. Ever since, the army has made do with donations and sporadic or arbitrary aid that do not fall in the framework of a comprehensive study of its needs as a function of the duties required of the army. However, the Lebanese government tried to approve a special budget for the rearmament of the army just over two years ago, on Sept. 19, 2012. The budget was set at $1.6 billion, divided over installments for five years.
Some of the shortfall has been made up by a series of multi-billion dollar grants from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon to buy French guns, most recently in August. But cash injections from the Gulf won’t amount to much when the Lebanese army has only an effective strength of 8,000 men (versus its nominal size of 40,000).The small, poorly equipped, untested Lebanese army leaves Lebanon dangerously vulnerable to ISIS—and to the fast-growing threat from within its own borders.