Sara Fregonese, Waiting for the spillover. Why reinforcing borders won’t strengthen Lebanon’s sovereignty and keep it out of conflict.
August 16, 2013 3 Comments
Despite the lack of clear intervention by Western governments in the Egyptian crisis and the Syrian conflict, recent weeks have witnessed noticeable steps from some international actors towards Lebanon—a country that the UK government, among others, thinks is dangerously about to be engulfed by the ongoing conflict in Syria.
On 22 July 2013, the European Union blacklisted Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organisation. Hezbollah’s supporters in the EU will no longer be able to send money to the Party of God, while its assets in the EU will be frozen. The move came after the disclosure of evidence of Hezbollah’s involvement in the bombing of a bus in the Bulgarian Black Sea resort of Burgas in July 2012, which killed five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian driver. Its clear involvement in the Syrian civil war in support of Bashar al Assad’s army and militias, only accelerated the EU’s decision. The EU is hardly the first international actor to take such a step, with the USA, Israel, Canada and the Netherlands already recognizing Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have also deported or threatened deportation for some of the approximately 360,000 Lebanese expatriates working in the Gulf. In June 2013 alone, 18 Lebanese were expelled from Qatar and at least 10 from Saudi Arabia. Bahrain blacklisted Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation in April 2013.
The blacklisting followed a second significant intervention towards Lebanon, this time by the UK government. On 27 June, the Foreign Office communicated details of a 120 million USD “stability package” to support Lebanon’s military, with 15 million USD specifically dedicated to reinforcing the country’s border with Syria. British Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher promised “actions not just words” as he unveiled the program to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and parliament speaker Nabih Berri on 17 July.
The package consists of:
1) $15 million to equip Lebanon’s Army to protect borders.
2) $75 million to help respond to the influx of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria.
3) Redoubling of efforts in support of Lebanon’s politics of coexistence, supporting the formation of a neutral government, and the better delivery of “security, justice and opportunity.”
4) International collaborative efforts to prevent the spread of the Syrian conflict to Lebanon, and to maintain the latter’s sovereignty and neutrality.
5) Increase of UK/Lebanon trade, building on the one-third increase in bilateral trade in the last year, and conveying the idea that “Lebanon remains open for business.”
These are all crucial matters for Lebanon’s stability agenda, and points 1) and 4) are particularly revealing of the geopolitical vision held by the UK and other Western countries about Lebanon’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In line with classical perspectives on sovereignty, this vision centres around the border as a crucial site where state territoriality is preserved through the policing of mobility. A solid border (especially to its north and east) can keep Lebanon out of the conflict in Syria and prevent it from becoming “an arena for other people’s war,” although nothing is said about Hezbollah fighters flowing from Lebanon into Syria. Protecting and reinforcing state borders is a sensible and widely accepted practice in international policy to reinforce domestic sovereignty and extend a state’s control over its whole territory. But in Lebanon, this focus on the border and the “spillover” discourse is misleading. Here are 3 reasons why:
1) “Spillover” conveys the idea of a trespassing from a zone into another, contiguously, through a clear rim or border. But the Syrian conflict is not trespassing into Lebanon linearly through the Syrian border. It has been instead emerging from within, in a non-linear, patchy way. This emergence derives and is exacerbated by events that shook the Lebanese political scene well before the first protests in Daraa and the following conflict in Syria. The killing of Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al Hariri in 2005 has been followed by now almost a decade of restructuring political alliances, governmental deadlocks, polarisation and civil turmoil. All this has also been aggravated by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006. The most significant phase of domestic turmoil was in May 2008, when part of Beirut, Tripoli and the Shouf saw deadly clashes between Hezbollah and their allied pro-opposition militias, and the pro-government militants – quickly overpowered. While Western diplomacy and media were focussing on the wider power game in the Middle East and considering these clashes as a proxy battleground of the Iran/Saudi Arabia regional rivalry, at the local level the conflict produced deep and tangible urban frontiers, especially between the Sunni and Shia population. The polarising events of 2008 have made the ground inside Lebanon fertile for the exacerbation of the current Sunni/Shia rivalries over the conflict in Syria. More and more often, the ground goes ablaze.
2) Although Sunni/Shia is by no means the only sectarian rift running through the Middle East, clashes, shootouts and retaliatory kidnappings have repeatedly taken place at the frontlines between Sunni and Shia residential areas within Lebanese cities, where divisions often come down to the width of a street. So while the UK government keeps looking outwards to the border, the focus should be inwards, on cities. The main urban battlegrounds where armed groups recurrently confront each other are (sad irony) on Syria Street in Tripoli – the frontline between the neighbourhoods of Jabal Mohsen (Alawite) Bab el Tabbaneh (Sunni); the watersheds between Beirut’s Sunni dominated Tariq al Jdeedeh neighbourhood and the beginning of Shia-dominated Dahieh south of it; and, more recently, the quarter of Abra in the southern city of Sidon. Although Syria Street is not a new dividing line, there have been hundreds killed in Tripoli in at least 9 rounds of fighting since the start of the Syrian conflict. In Beirut, the army has been deployed several times in recent months to defuse clashes between Sunni and Shia armed groups and reopen roads blocked by barricades and irregular checkpoints. In Abra, clashes happened in July 2013 between supporters of local hard-line Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmad al Assir and Hezbollah, resulting in at least 50 dead.
One person who highlighted the strategic importance of cities and their functioning as an extension of state borders is no less than Bashar Al Assad. In an interview on 30 May with Hezbollah TV channel Al-Manar, Assad linked the May 2008 clashes in Beirut to the battle then being fought in the city of Al Qusayr in Syria. The battle, he said, shared the same goal as Hezbollah’s battle for Beirut in 2008: to resist “the agents of Israel.” According to Assad, the ‘Hizb’ is battling not only at the (southern) border of Lebanon, but everywhere: in Beirut, Qusayr, or any other city. What Assad hints to and international observers detect, is Hezbollah’s shift from a border resistance force into a body with more sophisticated urban warfare skills, thus diffusing the geography of its warfare. At least until 2006, Hezbollah’s main battleground was the countryside of southern Lebanon at the border with Israel, where training was limited to ambushing in dense vegetation and vast open terrains. During the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah entered numerous southern Lebanese towns like Bint Jbeil, mainly in defensive mode. In Beirut in 2008, Hezbollah shifted to offensive mode and conducted a systematic and organized, but brief, takeover of the city, without encountering much resistance. Al-Qusayr, however, has been the first major urban operation for Hezbollah’s elite forces, after training was gained in mock-urban terrains in Iran and Lebanon. Hezbollah divided Qusayr into 16 target areas, buildings were coded, and engineers backed the fighters by clearing booby-trapped buildings and neutralising tunnel networks built by the Syrian rebels. Hezbollah also adopted the tactic of blowing holes in walls between buildings in order to avoid booby traps while advancing – a tactic used by the Israeli Defence Force in the occupied territories.
3) It is not always clear where the ‘resistance’ ends and the state army begins. In Lebanon, the state does not have the monopoly of political violence and sovereignty is practiced by hybrid actors with characteristics and resources proper of both state and non-state actors. These include militias that are irregular but de facto ‘allowed’ to operate (like Hezbollah) as well as militias that are irregular but exist de facto and get mobilised at the service of Hezbollah and other legitimate political parties. The army’s ‘neutral’ position towards Lebanese domestic sovereignty is an important part of these hybrid sovereign formations: during the 2008 clashes its position ranged from stepping aside ‘in neutrality’ to practically coordinating with Hezbollah the takeover of Beirut and the shutdown of government-affiliated media. In the more recent events in Abra, the army was accused by many parts especially in the Sunni extremist sphere, of being backed by Hezbollah. Although this was forcefully denied by the army, it still stirred up controversy and imperilled once more the neutrality of the Lebanese army, especially when Sunni extremist leaders ordered Sunni soldiers to defect.
What conclusions – and possible indication for international aid – can we derive from these three interconnected reasons why Lebanon, in many ways, is already embroiled in conflict?
1) Borders are no longer where sovereignty is at stake. While preventing the spreading of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon has become the priority for the UK government, sovereignty in Lebanon is dissolving from within, through specific foyers of polarisation and exacerbation of geopolitical rivalries negotiated locally. More international action is needed where these foyers are. Mending the polarisation inside Lebanon has to involve expertise in conflict resolution, peace building and prevention of extremism initiatives at the urban frontlines. The reinforcement of Lebanon’s politics of coexistence included by UK the aid package is certainly the kind of policy that should find more space in aid towards Lebanon.
2) It is not easy to draw lines between state and non-state actors and we need instead to account for hybrid sovereign formations that manifest themselves in urban dividing lines, security zones, overlapping systems of private surveillance, territorial encroachments through real estate acquisition, and last but not least, the problematic neutrality of the army.
3) At the moment, the UK is injecting money into the army in the hope it overpowers Hezbollah, while sponsoring the creation of a neutral government. This is a quick-fix that does not tackle the deep-rooted controversy about Hezbollah’s capability to a militia in Lebanon despite the Ta’if accord that ended the civil war ordered the disbanding of all Lebanese and non Lebanese militias. International aid to Lebanon should be used first and foremost to activate a political dialogue about the problematic relationship between Hezbollah and the army.
 The difference between the EU sanctions and the GCC, North American, Dutch and Israeli approach is that the former distinguishes between a political and a military wing in Hezbollah and blacklists only the military wing, while the latter consider Hezbollah as one single entity.
 The rivalry and polarisation between the two neighbourhoods started with the Lebanese civil war, when Jabal al Mohsen allied itself with the Syrian army against Islamist Sunni Tawheed movement based in Bab el Tabbaneh. During the 2008 clashes, the rivalry re-emerged, with Jabal Mohsen aligned with the opposition militants including Hezbollah and Bab al Tabbaneh with pro-government militants.