BEIRUT: The violence in Lebanon is unlikely to descend into full-scale civil strife that mirrors the conflict in Iraq, but steps must be taken to reduce tensions by forming an inclusive government and isolating the country from the Syrian conflict, experts and analysts said Monday.
Sectarian violence may still escalate amid the absence of a strong state, but such tendencies will be tempered by the leaders of the Sunni and Shiite communities who mostly wish to avoid conflict, they said.
“All the major parties and communities want stability,” said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
Twin car bombs exploded in the northern city of Tripoli Friday, claiming at least 47 lives and injuring hundreds. The attacks followed two car bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs, which killed 30 and injured dozens.
The attacks on both Sunni and Shiite areas raised fears of the “Iraqization” of Lebanon – a cycle of tit-for-tat sectarian violence which could plunge the country into anarchy.
Though experts say Lebanon shares some similarities with Iraq – such as a weak central government, a factionalized polity, clan networks and a complicated lattice of regional and sectarian loyalties – the differences are yet more significant.
Iraq had just endured a war and the removal of Saddam Hussein’s government, and faced a long-term occupation and a major insurgency that included elements of the former regime and, later, Al-Qaeda.
In Lebanon, experts said, there is “basic consensus” over the form of the political system, even if there are short-term disagreements and tensions, and little desire to jeopardize this system on either side.
“The conflict in Iraq was a conflict over control of the state – in Lebanon the state, and the identity of the state, seem far less relevant,” said Fanar Haddad, author of “Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity.”
Moreover, the desire to provoke violence in Lebanon is limited to a minority of extremists.
Regional and international powers do not wish to alter the status quo, said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. In addition, Hezbollah remains in control of the country and is not interested in its descent into chaos.
Even the Syrian regime can scarcely muster the resources to cause much damage, said Khashan, adding that neither the Sunni nor Shiite communities in Lebanon wish to provoke strife.
Sunnis in Lebanon are mostly moderate and lack the “structure” or leadership to engage in local conflict, he said. Control of the Shiite community is maintained by Hezbollah to an extent that also checks any impulse toward conflict with the Sunnis.
“As long as the two communities are in agreement, one explosion here and another explosion there will not be sufficient to create civil strife,” he said.
Aymenn al-Tamimi, a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum who has written extensively on sectarianism and Islamists in the region, agreed that the country was unlikely to descend into civil war, though there was a risk of continuing sectarian violence in Lebanon.
Tamimi pointed to the different historical dynamics that governed Iraqi and Lebanese civil conflicts.
For instance, in Iraq, Sunni insurgents fought for control of Baghdad believing they were a demographic majority, but were ethnically cleansed from many of the city’s neighborhoods, leading them to believe in the need to cooperate with the government, he said.
On the other hand, Lebanon has more political players and factions.
“I don’t get the impression that any single faction or ethno-religious group in Lebanon thinks it has a demographic majority and can rule the whole country at the expense of others.”
Still, the risk of escalating violence remains. “There is a risk of seeing in Lebanon what is happening at the moment in Iraq: that is Sunni-Shiite or Alawite sectarian violence in a tit-for-tat fashion, and that will grow over time,” he said. “That may not necessarily mean a return to civil war, but hotspots like Tripoli in particular risk turning into lawless zones.”
Tamimi pointed to expressions of support in Tripoli for the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, the regional branch of Al-Qaeda, on social media outlets and the rise of sectarian tensions in past months in areas of Lebanon’s second largest city.
He said Lebanese leaders should work to reduce tensions.
Isolating Lebanon from the crisis in Syria and emphasizing co-existence is necessary to reduce tensions by discouraging fighters from going there and by trying “to emphasize that mutually assured destruction means all factions have to live together and cooperate,” he added.
Carnegie’s Salem said tension could be defused in Lebanon by having an inclusive government of national unity and a security policy that grants supremacy to the state.
Greater support should also be given to the Lebanese Army and the Internal Security Forces, which command more credibility and respect than either the Iraqi Army or police.
Indeed, Haddad said the weak state institutions in Lebanon always meant there was a risk of escalating sectarian violence, in addition to the inevitable influence of the conflict in Syria.
But he said the “Iraqization” concept applies more broadly to the Arab world as a whole rather than just to Lebanon, since regional conflicts are often seen from a sectarian lens.
The sectarianism of the Middle East post- Iraq War projects itself in Lebanon, where Salafist anti-Shiism has emerged as part of the backlash against Hezbollah, while the party touts its Shiite identity more explicitly today even though its intervention in Syria has nonsectarian causes, he said.
“Unfortunately 10 years on [from the Iraq War], the sectarian prism has taken on a reality of its own.”
Still, while security incidents are likely to continue, Lebanon’s instability is often exaggerated, Salem said.
“People can plant bombs, the government and security agencies are not strong enough to stop it all,” said Salem. “[But] if the country really were on the brink, a couple of bombs would have pushed it over the brink.”