As the Lebanese political parties and competing armed groups are regrouping after June’s violence in Sidon, the country’s stability has received an additional jab which may bring the knockout blow even closer.
With Saad Hariri self-inflicted exile and the virtual fall of a moderate Sunni political class, Lebanon is now indirectly in the hands of radical parties. Increasingly sure of its strength Hezbollah is no longer hesitating to use the Lebanese Armed Forces to corner and eradicate its adversaries. The division of Beirut along sectarian and confessional fault lines similar to the ones experienced in decade long civil war that crippled the country is almost completed while dozens of violent incidents happen weekly.
Considered as the backyard of the current Syrian civil war, Lebanon is receiving increased attention from all actors supporting Shi’a and Sunni armed groups. Iran understands that a loss of ground in Syria coupled with a weakening of Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon would result in a major strategic blow to its Near Eastern posture while on the other hand Qatar and Saudi Arabia see in the power vacuum left by the extinction of the moderate Sunni political class the opportunity to further their regional goals. Since the self-proclaimed Party of God has made official its support for the Assad regime and its intention to bring an all-out war against the Syrian rebels, the near-to-zero Lebanese national sovereignty will soon be even more decreased as the final act of its neighbor’s civil war will enter the streets of the Lebanese cities.
As the local society is bracing for the possibility of an upcoming war, Israel has a reason to worry since this round of Lebanese violence may be like nothing seen so far. In fact, the mix in place has all the ingredients to have a truly regional nature.
Along with the Sunni/Shi’a ongoing conflict in Syria and Lebanon, one should not disregard the influx of Syrian refuges crowding Palestinian camps in Lebanon. For the last decades, the Palestinian camps in Lebanon have been a hotbed of radical and armed violence. At the source of the Israeli intervention in the country in 1982, the Palestinian camps provide a fertile ground for fundamentalist movements benefiting from weapons and combat training to prosper. Moreover, Syrian war veterans who cross the border to regroup and rearm cannot but further endanger the overall security of the Jewish State.
This developing reality should not be overlooked by international policy makers and analysts. While the Israeli Defense Forces have been preparing for possible spillovers over the Golan, little attention has been paid to the eventuality of a full scale Lebanese civil war. The common understanding is that Syrians in Lebanon and local adversaries are for the time being focused in an intra-Arab fight which should keep the situation stable for Israel over the coming year. This is nevertheless a risky bet as it has been proved time and again that whenever a state neighboring Israel loses some control over its territory, terrorist groups try to break into it and cause damage to the Jewish State. May it be in the Sinai, the Golan, Gaza or Southern Lebanon the rationale remains the same: when competing factions are battling one another, radical groups, sponsored by outside actors, use the power vacuum to wage terror attacks against Israel.
In this upcoming scenario a further element should not be forgotten: the Lebanese Armed Forces who have demonstrated their lack of technical means Nahr Al Bared and Sidon are increasingly crippled by Hezbollah’s interference and a very limited governmental ability to conduct meaningful operations. This may be translated on the ground with the fact that even if the Lebanese government does not intend to escalate the situation with Israel the situation can quickly get out of institutional hands. The individual characteristics of Lebanese soldiers can in fact do very little while facing Hezbollah or the Syrian rebels This means that the country’s institutions have already virtually surrendered its territories to the will of non-governmental armed groups and their intentions in regard to the stability of the region.
As verified in the summer of 2010, Hezbollah has infiltrated the command and control structure of the LAF and is able to operate jointly or under the cover of the Lebanese Army which creates a targeting problem for Israel in the event it needs to conduct interdiction raids against terrorist networks inside Lebanon.
As the situation develops, it is crucial for Israel and for international policy makers to set up urgent contingency plans aimed at two distinct targets: limiting the influx of weapons to Lebanon and preparing for the necessity to conduct strategic raids against spoiler groups whose goal would be to target the Jewish State.
Unlike 1982, a ground intervention from Israel would not, in the medium term, be necessary as it would imply a direct confrontation against Hezbollah, a confrontation which Iran would play all its chips not to lose face in.