BEIRUT: The government’s resignation will deal a blow to the already precarious security situation, but Lebanon has yet to plunge into a full-blown conflict because it’s in the interests of all concerned players to keep the country calm for now, analysts said Friday.
“The security situation will definitely be affected and the frequency of incidents will surely intensify and their geographical scope will widen,” said Johnny Mnayar, a political analyst. “There might be more tension, there might be more clashes and terrorist attacks maybe, but not a war. Not now.”
“The option of a full-blown conflict should be excluded for now since it’s not in the interests of the U.S. to annex Lebanon to the Syrian conflict as it will have drastic repercussions on Israel and the overall situation in the region.”
Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced his resignation after Cabinet failed to agree on the extension of the term of the head of the Internal Security Forces, Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, due to retire on April 1 when he turns 59, the ISF’s maximum working age.
Ministers were also at odds over the establishment of an independent committee to oversee the 2013 polls, which will likely be postponed due to the lack of consensus over a new electoral law.
In his address to the Lebanese, Mikati said he backed the extension of Rifi’s term so as not to leave a key security post vacant during the delicate times the country was going through. March 8 ministers, who regard Rifi as close to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, opposed the extension of the police chief’s term.
International Crisis Group analyst Sahar Atrache explained that the situation was tainted by numerous uncertainties and hotspots were growing in number and were no longer limited to specific areas such as Tripoli.
“Lebanese political groups obviously have conflicting interests when it comes to domestic and regional issues and this will certainly engender chaos and translate into security incidents on the ground,” she said.
After a truce of almost three months, clashes renewed this week in Tripoli between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, killing six people, including one child and one soldier and wounding dozens.
The conflict in neighboring Syria has been mainly felt in Tripoli’s impoverished neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh, a Sunni stronghold, and majority Alawite Jabal Mohsen.
But in the last six months, limited sectarian violence erupted in Sidon, for example, where the controversial Sheikh Ahmad Assir has waged a verbal campaign against Hezbollah’s arsenal and its involvement in the Syria conflict.
In November, two men were killed during clashes between Hezbollah and Assir supporters in Sidon’s Taamir Ain al-Hilweh area. More recently, tensions boiled over in the city after Assir vowed to oust men he claimed were Hezbollah operatives monitoring his movements from apartments near his Bilal bin Rabah Mosque in the suburb of Abra.
In the capital, strife was narrowly averted earlier this week after groups from across the political spectrum condemned the simultaneous attacks on Sunni sheikhs in the Shiite neighborhood of Khandaq al-Ghamiq in Beirut and Shiyah, a southern suburb.
While the head of the Political Science Department at the Universite Saint Joseph Fadia Kiwan blamed the latest incident on a “fifth column,” Atrache frowned upon what she dubbed “conspiracy theories.”
“Attacking Sunni sheikhs in Shiite neighborhoods around the same time on the same day is not sheer coincidence,” Kiwan said. “There is a plot to instigate strife ... and the Khandaq al-Ghamiq incident ought to be swiftly investigated to determine responsibility.”
Kiwan maintains that the Lebanese example of coexistence goes against the Israeli model and other emerging extremist models in the region.
According to Atrache, the proliferation of tension is “seriously worrisome,” but she nonetheless ruled out any major explosions in the near future.
“There are several factors that will contribute to increasing rivalries even more,” she said. “The interference of Hezbollah, and to a certain extent the Future Movement and Islamists in the conflict in Syria – each in their own way – largely adds to the existing tension.”
Mnayar maintained foreign power brokers were still committed to calm on the Lebanon front.
“Let’s face it, the decision is not a local one but rather an international and regional one,” Mnayar added.
“Almost everyone has a proxy in Lebanon – the Syrians, the Iranians, the Saudis, the Americans, the French and the Qataris, to name a few – and so far these powers don’t want things to run out of hand in Lebanon.”
Atrache argues that except for Syria, all foreign players involved in Lebanon have played a “tranquilizing” role.
Last year, security agencies uncovered an alleged plot by former Information Minister Michel Samaha, the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, and the latter’s aide, identified as Col. Adnan, to assassinate religious and political figures and carry out attacks in north Lebanon.
Tension between Lebanon and Syria spiked recently after Damascus warned Beirut it would attack rebels in Lebanon if incursions into Syria continued.
Syrian jets and helicopters reportedly fired four rockets, hitting empty buildings inside Lebanon Monday. Damascus denied firing the rockets.
“Foreign players obviously cannot afford another conflict when the picture in Syria is still highly blurry,” she said. “The situation will become too chaotic for them to tolerate.”
Mnayar concurred, and said the decision to maintain relative calm had several motives. “They don’t want chaos because this will definitely have repercussions on peacekeepers in south Lebanon and consequently might lead to a flare-up on the Lebanon-Israel front.”
Atrache also believes that as problematic as it might be, Hezbollah’s arsenal was another guarantor of relative stability in Lebanon.
“Ironically enough, Hezbollah’s weapons guarantee that matters will not [spiral] out of control,” she said. “Whether we like it or not Hezbollah still has the upper hand on the military level and will win any confrontation.”
The analysts were also skeptical about the ability of the country’s security forces, and particularly the Army, to confront rising security threats.
“I really don’t know what the Lebanese Army can do,” Atrache said. “On the military level, it’s so weak it cannot even respond to Syrian airstrikes and on the level of decision-making, its makeup is a direct reflection of Lebanon’s divided political class.”