Lebanon: Fears of security breaches in the Bekaa and the North exaggerated

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Militants patrol an alleyway in the city of Tripoli. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Hiyam Kossayfi

Published Friday, October 3, 2014

Despite the growing fears of tension in Sunni-majority towns in both the Bekaa and the North, the risks at stake are preventing concerned parties from taking major action.

Lebanon’s security crisis is intensifying daily amid growing fears stemming from the interference of regional and local actors. Today, three main regions in Lebanon are under increasing security pressure: Ersal; the North (Akkar, Minieh, Doniyeh, and Tripoli); and the West Bekaa and al-Arkoub.

Heightened security alerts about the serious situation in these regions seem justified following the clashes that erupted in Ersal this past August. The clashes had major repercussions that are still affecting the security situation throughout Lebanon in light of daily scenes and reported protests and security raids.

Some political circles admit that a number of politicians and high ranking figures are aligning themselves with “Sunni” projects and ideas, which is raising doubts among people of other faiths. For example, the Council of Maronite Bishops called on official Muslim authorities on Wednesday, October 1, to declare a clear position on what they described as “a non-religious terrorist phenomena.”

In other words, the archbishops hinted in their monthly statement that Sunni leaders have yet to speak out clearly about these new phenomena plaguing the Sunni street.

The archbishops’ straight forward declaration was released a bit late, and despite many reassurances by the Sunni leadership that the sect is not supportive of any form of terrorism, other religious groups fear that the inclination toward extremism may not be restricted to individual cases but actually reflect a somewhat general sympathy with these groups, especially in sensitive regions in the North and the Bekaa.

Political circles called for treating the security situation in these regions with utmost care, fearing that some local communities may be disposed to accept extremist ideas. However, Sunni-majority towns are not likely to turn into “isolated security strongholds” for terrorist groups, or witness major rebellions like in some towns in Syria and Iraq thanks in part to a number of local features.

In Lebanon, the Sunni community does not have a dominating or unified militia structure, as was the case in Syria and Iraq. This does not mean that they lack ‘dispersed’ groups, which may be numerous and capable of taking actions on the ground when a security challenge comes along or some known security zones get destabilized.

However, despite the perils of these groups and the terrorist cells that may stem from them, they do not have the capacity to take over an entire region, and also lack a common leadership. These groups are not capable of starting a rebellion to take over any city or town, like many fear in Tripoli, al-Arkoub and Ersal.

Besides, these regions have their own unique security situations and parties aiming to take hold of them should take a series of political, security, social and sectarian factors into consideration.

In al-Arkoub and Western Bekaa for example, military developments on the Syrian side of the borders may have implications on the adjacent Lebanese territory. But which local or regional party is willing to risk escalating the situation in a region under Hezbollah’s security and military control in its capacity as a Resistance group (against Israel and others)?

Does anyone really believe that Hezbollah, which has an important presence in northern Bekaa and in Syria, would stand aside in case of a serious development?

Concerning the North, in Akkar, Tripoli, Minyeh-Doniyeh, is there a party capable of building a military power in regions adjacent to Christian-majority districts, which may have serious repercussions on the Lebanese power sharing and on internal and regional affairs?

This is added to two other factors:

The first is regional, as Saudi Arabia is keen on maintaining its control over Lebanon and keeping the status quo. This means that Riyadh is curbing the ambitions of any party seeking to attempt to gain control over a certain region, especially after the events of May 7, 2008 proved that armament is useless.

The second factor is of security and military nature, as the armed groups lack the capacity to bring in large quantities of arms and militants to achieve their plans, due to security measures taken inside Lebanon and along the borders [with Syria].

We should mention that the battle of Ersal started from outside the borders and was launched by militants coming from Syria. Apparently, it is no longer easy to logistically support armed groups planning major rebellions. However, this does not mean that these groups have been neutralized, which has been proven by the many security raids, the arrest of a number of militants and the caches of arms and explosives that were seized. These groups are still capable to cause security breaches or wage bomb attacks, but within a limited scope.

This puts the issue of Syrian refugees back in the spotlight. The daily raids in regions all over Lebanon further prove the risk of having Syrian gatherings that may be exploited by some parties who seek to have a bigger presence on the ground.

This calls to raise the alarm bell because any contact between Syrian gatherings in some regions with Lebanese parties or with elements from beyond the borders, like the case in Ersal, may lead to events similar to what happened in Syria and Iraq.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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