May 8 2014
Pay attention to the town of Tfail, a Lebanese enclave located in the Al-Kalmun mountain range in Syria, about a mile away from the Lebanese border. It is a town of about 5,000 people – all Lebanese citizens (though the town is located inside Syria), the majority of whom are Sunnis. Reportedly, following the recent battles in the region, dozens of thousands of Syrians fleeing the war in Syria found refuge on the outskirts of Tfail. Hezbollah argues that these refugees are not civilians, but rather Syrian rebels who fled following the recent fighting in the area of the Al-Kalmun. Reportedly, Hezbollah is imposing a siege on Tfail, blocking the road leading to the remote town and – according to one source – spreading mines around its perimeter. As an outcome, the Syrian refugees are totally cut off – they can’t get any provisions, food, medicine, etc. and they are suffering under extremely severe conditions.
Top Lebanese Senior Security Officials are conducting urgent discussions regarding the situation in Tfail. According to information evaluated as reliable, a senior Hezbollah official named Wafiq Safa (read more about him in Did A Senior Hezbollah Commander Escape an Assassination Plot published in February 2013) is also participating in the discussions.
The urgency the Lebanese authorities feel is entirely justified. Tfail is the tip of the iceberg of an evolving mutual chokehold in Syria and Lebanon between the Sunni axis and the Iranian-Assad axis.
What is the mutual chokehold, how and why it is evolving, how does it exhibit itself and what are its implications?
Let’s first look first at Syria. In the northwestern part of Syria the Iran-Assad axis is trying to create a strategic stronghold built upon the Alawite population, which will maintain and ensure the rule of the Assad regime, and thereby maintain the Iranian regime’s influence. Apparently, that stronghold will be bolstered from the south by Hezbollah in Lebanon. Some describe that entity as “Alawitestan.”
However, that stronghold may become the Achilles Heel of the Iranian-Assad axis because it could be taken hostage by the Syrian and the non-Syrian rebel groups and their supporting Sunni states primarily: Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. “Alawitestan” is vulnerable due the fact that its only safe gateways are to the West (the Mediterranean Sea) or to the South (Lebanon).
In March 2014, Syrian rebels launched rocket attacks on Alawite cities located in the northwestern part of Syria. That attack reflected a strategic shift and we should pay attention to the big picture that joint operation implies. There are good reasons to believe that these attacks reflect a meeting of interests of the major Sunni states mentioned (Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar) AND a joint strategy in their indirect war on the Iran-Assad axis.
On a tactical level, the attacks on the Alawite cities aimed to balance the recent military achievements of Iran-Assad axis in the Kalmun mountain range.
On a strategic level, the attacks convey a message that “Alawitestan” is vulnerable; it is the soft belly of the Iran-Assad axis and if the Sunni axis wants to, it can expand the attacks on “Alawitestan.”
In that scenario a mutual chokehold is created. Assad attacks Syrian cities (which are predominately Sunni) and rockets are fired on the Alawite cities.
The meeting of interests of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar is not an easy one. The three states have a very complex relationship:
Saudi Arabia and Turkey are historical rivals struggling over the leadership of the Sunni world. In addition, the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood are also at odds with one another and the current Turkish government is influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and strongly identifies itself with the Muslim Brotherhood adding to the existing tensions between the bitter rivals.
Qatar strives to position itself as a leading factor – thus challenging the Saudi supremacy. That aspiration puts Qatar on a collision course with the Saudis which most recently resulted in a diplomatic boycott of Qatar by the Saudis, Egypt and some Arab Gulf Monarchies. That crisis ended with a Qatari submission to Saudi demands – at least for now.
A number of events that took place shortly after the attacks on the Alawite cities provide indirect evidence of the meeting of interests and the joint strategy of the major Sunni states:
First, Saudi Arabia announced the inauguration of a new direct commercial flight route from Saudi Arabia to Turkey.
Second, Qatar signed a contract with a Turkish company to supply 17 speed boats that to the Qatari coast guard.
Third, Turkey sent an armed force of 300 soldiers to secure the tomb of Suleiman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Turkish Ottoman Empire which is located inside Syria some twenty miles away from the Turkish border. The Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan said that the tomb is a “symbol of utmost emotional significance for Turkey.” That description has a subtext – it is a message to Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah who argues that Hezbollah is involved in the war in Syria to “protect Shiite sacred symbols located in Syria.”
Lebanon has been “on the edge” for a long time. Hezbollah’s involvement in the war in Syria is causing the situation in Lebanon to further deteriorate for a couple of reasons:
First, so far, more than one million Syrians have fled to Lebanon. That wave is changing the demographic balance in Lebanon – a country of about 4.5 million people (not including the million refugees). Until recently, the Shiites were the biggest sect in Lebanon (statistics vary but it is believed that roughly forty-percent of the entire population of Lebanon is Shiite). The influx of the Syrian refugees – most of whom are Sunnis – changes that balance. In addition, the growing number of Syrian refugees puts increasing pressure on the already weak Lebanese economy – which is resulting in growing and deepening unrest.
Second, due to Hezbollah’s involvement in the war in Syria, Syrian rebels – and mostly Militant Islamic groups – are retaliating by attacking Hezbollah, Shiite, and Iranian targets in Lebanon through rocket attacks, suicide bombers, explosive cars, IED’s, etc. These attacks have resulted in the death of dozens of Lebanese (mostly civilians), causing panic and growing fear in Lebanon. More and more Lebanese – including Shiites – openly criticize Hezbollah for dragging Lebanon into the war and demand they pull out of Syria.
Third, the Sunnis in Lebanon are furious with Hezbollah and their rage is approaching the boiling point. Up until now, their anger has been exhibited by limited, sporadic clashes, mostly in the city of Tripoli – the biggest city in northern Lebanon which is predominately Sunni. Dozens of people have been killed in clashes between Sunnis and the Alawite minority in the city, the Lebanese army tries to impose order, but the city is in a constant state of tension.
The situation in Tfail and the mutual chokehold I have described above should be viewed in the context of an interesting incident that happened only a few weeks ago in a town called Arsal.
Arsal is a Lebanese Sunni town also located next to the Syrian border. Like Tfail, Arsal was put under siege by Hezbollah. Hezbollah argued that the town was a base from which terror attacks were being launched on the Hezbollah stronghold Al-Dahya, located in the southern quarter of Beirut. The Lebanese army imposed a siege on the town and Hezbollah militants formed an external ring further cutting off the town.
In response, Sunnis in Tripoli threatened to renew the attacks on the Alawites. The Supreme Leader of the Salafi movement in Lebanon hinted that “Arsal and Al-Dahya should enjoy the same rights.” That was a clear hint to Hezbollah and the Lebanese government. If Arsal’s people cannot enjoy a normal life then the people in Al-Dahya will not enjoy normal life. The siege was lifted.
(Please go to my blog – A New Middle East Requires a New Understanding to read previous articles I have written about the ramifications of the war in Syria on Lebanon).
The story of Arsal provides an interesting observation. The war in Syria has resulted in a reality characterized by a “mutual chokehold” both in Syria as well as in Lebanon.
Hezbollah, sinking in the Syrian mud, is disturbed with the possibility of facing a military confrontation in Lebanon that will include Sunnis and very likely Palestinian militant Islamic groups as well that are deployed in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Hezbollah hopes that its military might is enough to deter and prevent the realization of that scenario.
The Sunnis are aware of Hezbollah’s concern and they are taking advantage of that to gain political achievements at Hezbollah’s expense. Hezbollah had to make some considerable concessions in the process of assembling the new Lebanese government. Furthermore, for the first time after many years, the Sunnis in Lebanon have created a deterrence in the relationship with Hezbollah – Arsal is an example.
Will Arsal repeat itself in Tfail? If Hezbollah decides not to back down this time will it lead to a rapid escalation and generate a quick deterioration leading to a massive eruption in Lebanon?
It is likely that a solution similar to the Arsal case will be made. All sides involved do not have an interest in escalation – as of now.
However, given the fragile, flammable reality in Lebanon, situation in Tfail could spin out of control and ignite huge fire.
The situation in Tfail should be monitored very closely.