BEIRUT: Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s return to Lebanon will strengthen the military’s cohesion in its fight against extremists, analysts said, as he reprises his role as scion of a frustrated Sunni community that has seen its political power decline in the years since the fall of his Cabinet.
Hariri’s return could also herald a shy rapprochement and dialogue with Hezbollah’s ally Speaker Nabih Berri, as Lebanon grapples with inscrutable political challenges like electing a new consensus president, though Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria will likely hinder reconciliation until the party’s withdrawal, the analysts said.
However, he will also face an uphill battle in rolling back the influence of extremists who flourished in the vacuum of the last three years in his absence.
“It was necessary to maintain the cohesion of the Army,” said Sami Nader, the director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs. “The Sunni-Shiite conflict is still on the rise, Syria’s war is still going on, Hezbollah’s arms inside Lebanon are still disrupting the equilibrium.”
“And these are feeding the resentment of the Sunni community, and this would jeopardize the cohesion of the Army,” Nader said.
Lebanon’s former premier returned last week after three years abroad for security reasons. He left shortly after ministers allied with Hezbollah resigned from his national unity Cabinet in early 2011 over the imminent indictment of members of the party by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in connection with the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
He arrived as the Lebanese Army laid siege to Arsal, a Sunni-majority border town nestled in the mountains that straddle the border with Syria, after it was occupied by militants from the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), two groups with links to Al-Qaeda fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Analysts have long claimed that Hariri’s absence left a vacuum of leadership in Lebanon’s Sunni community, allowing the emergence of more extreme voices such as fundamentalist preachers in Sidon and Tripoli as leaders of their communities.
One example was Ahmad Assir, the firebrand sheikh who fought the Lebanese Army in Sidon but who was praised before the battle broke out for standing up to Hezbollah.
The crackdown on Assir, as well as other extremist figures in Tripoli and Arsal, has prompted Sunnis opposed to the Army’s measures to accuse it of targeting the Sunni community and collaborating closely with Hezbollah.
Hariri’s return, armed with $1 billion of assistance from Saudi Arabia intended for the military and speaking out in support of the Army’s mission and against extremism, is intended to shore up support for the military. But such support can only be a band-aid, with grievances like Hezbollah’s fighting in Syria left to fester.
“His comeback and his position backing up the Army is helping the cohesion of the Army because it was under threat, [but] the sources of the problem are still here,” Nader said.
Mario Abou Zeid, an expert on Lebanese politics at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said the fighting in Sidon, Tripoli and Arsal generated hatred toward the Army and boosted recruitment for extremist groups.
“This has generated hatred toward the Army and was used as an advantage to mobilize Sunni militants toward extremist groups,” Abou Zeid said.
Abou Zeid said militants used such claims to call on officers to defect or be complicit in fighting the Sunni community alongside Hezbollah.
Assir, in recordings since he evaded capture by the Army in Sidon, has played on these themes while addressing soldiers and questioning the religious legality of them serving in the Army. Videos allegedly showing officers defecting to groups like the Nusra Front have often cited such accusations.
But Abou Zeid said Hariri’s unequivocal support for the Army and the Saudi funding are signals of support for the military and the state, and a pledge to aid the institution in the face of Sunni extremists who emerged to “fill the void” as Sunnis felt disempowered in the wake of the fall of Hariri’s Cabinet.
“This mere positioning means he is pushing more toward a moderate Sunni community,” he said.
Philip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland who writes Hizballah Cavalcade, a blog on Shiite militant movements, said Hariri would have been able to mobilize moderate Sunnis earlier, but had been blocked by Syria and Hezbollah.
“The momentum for militant Sunnism in Lebanon has also been taking a radical direction for a while, particularly due to the war in Syria,” Smyth said. “Regardless, Hariri’s physical presence in Lebanon will likely firm up his base.”
But Hariri faces an uphill battle in boosting the moderates and winning back the support of Sunnis who felt abandoned in his absence.
“Those extremist figures took a large piece of the Sunni street,” Abou Zeid said.
“His departure created a vacuum, and that vacuum was filled by a kind of chaos,” Nader said.
Nader agreed that Hariri’s return and statements of support for the military would help preserve perceptions of its neutrality.
“The Army ... cannot afford not to be at equal distance, and not to be perceived as being at equal distance, from all the communities,” he said.
In addition, Hariri’s presence provides a legitimate and moderate partner in place for the other factions in the country, Nader said.
But that does not mean relations with rivals Hezbollah will suddenly improve in the short term.
Nader said such reconciliation requires a broader regional rapprochement between Sunni and Shiite powers in the region.
Moreover, many of the sticking points, like Hezbollah’s arms and intervention in Syria, remain in place.
Smyth said evidence that reconciliation is not yet imminent is the fact that Hariri has continued to criticize the party, and has not subscribed to its rhetoric that it is fighting terrorism on behalf of the Lebanese.
“Hariri has stuck to his guns in opposition to Hezbollah,” he said. “Since he’s been very critical of the group in recent weeks, especially his comments about how they have ‘brought bombs’ to Lebanon and his refusal to affirm the Hezbollah-crafted narrative about Syrian rebels and the spread of Sunni extremism in Lebanon, I doubt there could be a greater level of cooperation between the two, at least for the moment.”