Is Lebanon spiralling out of control?

Violence has erupted as weak government institutions leave ‘controlled chaos’ at flashpoints across much the country.

Sunni militants in Tripoli
Armed Sunni groups have fought with pro-Hezbollah groups in Tripoli and elsewhere in Lebanon [AFP/Getty]

Beirut, Lebanon – Violent clashes erupted again in Lebanon on Tuesday, leaving two people dead and several wounded, as armed supporters of controversial Sunni cleric Ahmed al-Assir engaged in gun battles with the Resistance Brigades, a pro-Hezbollah group, in Lebanon’s southern city of Sidon.

Masked gunmen were seen on the streets of Sidon, while RPGs and machine-gun fire could be heard emanating from the Abra neighbourhood, where Assir and his supporters were located. Residents fled the neighbourhood as the Lebanese army deployed in an attempt to defuse the situation.

On Wednesday, Sheikh Assir held a press conference setting a deadline for certain apartments in the area, which he accused of belonging to Hezbollah, to be evacuated. Otherwise, he said, action would be taken: “The military option is one of several available to us should our demand fail to be met.”

Assir has publicly acknowledged in the past that he had set up his own armed group, in light of what he called the failure of the state to protect him and his supporters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement.

Tuesday’s confrontation was not the first flare-up in this tiny Mediterranean country – nor will it be the last. Only two days previously, in the Bekaa Valley, four Shia men were murdered in what residents of the area called a revenge attack. They blamed residents of Arsal, a neighbouring Sunni town, after one of their townspeople was killed.

People living in Labweh, where some of the men were buried, told Al Jazeera that, regardless of what security decisions were taken to restore calm in the area, “the issue will not be resolved until the blood spilled has been avenged”.

Last week also saw Syrian rebels launch several rockets into the Bekaa, a predominantly Shia area, while the Syrian army used helicopter gunships to fire on Arsal – an area largely sympathetic to the armed Syrian opposition and seen as a gateway for both rebels and weapons to cross into and out of the country – to root out “terrorists”.

Tensions continue to rise in flashpoints across the country, namely the northern cities of Tripoli, the Bekaa, and Sidon.

As the security situation deteriorates, many lay the blame on weak government institutions and lack of political legitimacy following the collapse of the government in March, the postponement of general elections, the extension of parliament’s term until autumn 2014, and the inability of the Constitutional Council to convene to rule on the term extension’s legality.

‘Military zone’

Earlier in the week, Marwan Charbel, Lebanon’s interior minister, spoke about the potential for creating a “military zone” in the Bekaa to prevent a further escalation of tensions.

Yet experts have dismissed this idea as “near impossible”, due to the logistics involved.

“A military zone is highly critical. You can’t control it, you have to deny anyone carrying weapons, you would have to introduce curfews, and there would be the heavy presence of security forces and the army,” Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese army general, told Al Jazeera.

“Also, when you suggest it in one region, then why not all the others too?” he said, referring to other hotspots where clashes have broken out.

Furthermore, the lack of political legitimacy makes any decision regarding the deployment of the army much more difficult. “Generally speaking, it is not easy to obtain political cover for deploying the army anywhere,” said Hanna. “Now there is no government, and one is still in the process of being formed, so there is currently no central authority which can make these decisions.”

But others say the presence of the army along the border in the Bekaa, purportedly to limit the smuggling of weapons and fighters, is crucial to prevent the deterioration of Lebanon’s security situation.

Sami Gemayel, a Christian MP with the opposition Kata’eb Party, called on the president to deploy the army to the border. “It is the duty of the government, even if a new government is being formed, to protect the people and towns against any attacks, either from the Free Syrian Army or the Syrian Army,” he told Al Jazeera.

“You just need to give them the political green light, which the president and government are not doing, because [Hezbollah] are using [the situation] for their own interests.” Hezbollah have admitted to fighting alongside the Syrian army in the battle for the strategic Syrian town of Qusayr.

Civil war?

Gemayel says Lebanon has all the main conditions necessary to spark a civil war. “There are the presence of weapons with all the Lebanese, the state is very weak, there is a civil war already raging next door, and there are huge tensions between the Sunni and Shia community,” he said. “If no-one is attempting to prevent these, and try and control the border, we’re going straight to a civil war.”

He says the responsibility lies squarely on the government’s shoulders, and more specifically Hezbollah, which he argued was manipulating the Lebanese state to advance its own interests, thus putting the country in greater jeopardy.

Yet the deteriorating state of security is more complex than just one party being responsible. Due to the political vacuum created by the collapse of the government, many institutions here are incapable of functioning at full capacity.

Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, refers to the country as a “semi-failed” state. “Even when the state is functional, it is very slow and weak in decision-making because of the power sharing structure,” he told Al Jazeera. Lebanon is ruled by a sometimes fractious coalition, while the government’s confessional structure mandates that the president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim, while the parliamentary speaker is always a Shia Muslim.

“Today that weakness has been made worse, because now there is a caretaker government rather than an actual government, and parliament is being extended with controversial constitutional legitimacy,” said Salem.

The state is further weakened by the lack of solid leadership within the security apparatus. Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces are currently led by an acting head after the previous chief retired.

And although the Lebanese army has a leader, several members of its military council, which takes decisions on going to war, have also retired and have yet to be formally replaced.

Due to this lack of leadership, the political legitimacy needed for both the army and the Internal Security Forces to take action has become more difficult to obtain – leading to ongoing security concerns.

‘Isolated incidents’

Following the murder of the four Shia men in the Bekaa, dozens of clan members in the area took to the streets, armed with heavy weaponry, seeking retribution – despite the presence of the Lebanese army.

In an ironic twist, Hezbollah also deployed to the streets in an attempt to prevent the clans from storming Arsal, a town vehemently opposed to Hezbollah. Hezbollah has stated that such an escalation would not be in its interest.

“In the Bekaa, no-one is in control, but it has always been like that,” said Radwan Mortada, a journalist with the Lebanese daily Al Akhbar, who has been following the movement of armed groups across the country. “The clans are in charge over there, and with the killings that happened there will definitely be revenge.”

Clan members have warned they will give authorities a limited period of time to catch the culprits responsible for the murders, before taking matters into their own hands. “If the tit-for-tat killings continue, it will definitely lead to chaos,” Mortada said.

But Mortada is not so pessimistic about the situation, claiming that the climate could be a lot worse. The presence of armed Sunni gangs is limited to specific areas, and they have not yet attempted to spread elsewhere.

“You’ll find them in Arsal, Tripoli, and some of the Palestinian refugee camps like Sabra, Shatila, and Ain el Helweh,” he said. “They are present and active, but haven’t had the opportunity to really do anything because they don’t have the capability… they are well aware of what would happen to them if they get caught.”

Despite all these factors, Lebanon is not on the brink of total collapse. “Right now, the political will of all the players in the country want Lebanon to be stable, so you’ll only be seeing isolated incidents,” Mortada said. “But if they want things to escalate, then they will.”

That sentiment was echoed by Hanna, who described Lebanon as being in a state of “controllable chaos”.

“There is a controllable level of violence and deterioration, because no-one wants Lebanon to be in chaos,” he said. “Not Hezbollah, not the United States, not Russia, and not Saudi Arabia.”

Follow Nour Samaha on Twitter: @Nour_Samaha

Source: Al Jazeera