Lebanon: The Game of Destabilization Continues
By: Nicolas Nassif
Published Thursday, June 21, 2012
The security breakdowns witnessed in Lebanon in recent days are seen by state officials as further illustrations of the linkage between the country’s stability and the troubles in Syria. Their premise is that President Bashar Assad’s regime faces a prolonged crisis, and by extension so does Lebanon. It is becoming more complex by the day, as the regime grapples with multiple dilemmas, with no near prospect of it either being overthrown or achieving victory.
The succession of incidents involving the Lebanese Army at the Palestinian refugee camps of Nahr al-Bared, Beddawi and Ein al-Hilwe were the first direct response to the “Baabda Declaration.” These do not directly implicate the Lebanese interlocutors at the National Dialogue roundtable, or make it possible to judge their commitment in practice to this Declaration – or their seriousness about insulating Lebanon from what is happening in Syria, and curbing the incitement of turmoil in the North as a step toward turning the region into an exclusion zone. The Dialogue was convened in the aftermath of the clashes in Tripoli, Akkar and Beirut, and the political wagers that were placed on them, to counter the drive towards anarchy. But events since have shown this to be easier said than done.
The participants in the Dialogue endorsed the option of “neutralization” and separating Lebanese political divisions from the fighting in Syria, and provided the army with broad cover to translate that into practice. Yet the latest incidents show this was not realized. The linkage remains strong. Developments there have repercussions here: both when the violence rises, and when it subsides.
The state officials note that the linkage is also reflected in the nature of much of the debate raging between Lebanese groups. Some have done their best to entrench divisions over the Syrian crisis, whether over Assad’s regime or Hezbollah’s weapons, or by using unrest that has social causes to fuel domestic tensions.
The officials speak of attempts to contrive pretexts to undermine the country’s stability, and cite three main cases.
1 - Turning the army into a party in the current political disputes by making it new enemies with every round of disturbances. First it finds itself confronting the Future Movement in Tripoli, then the Salafi groups in the city and in Akkar, then the Palestinian camps in the North and South. With each successive incident, the army’s authority is undermined as its personnel and checkpoints are attacked, its discipline is criticized, and it is compelled to back down for fear of causing strife. It is prevented from using force against those who cause disturbances, on the grounds that things could get out of hand and the country be plunged into the unknown. The military is routinely told that quelling any disturbances by force could have unforeseen consequences.
The army and security forces have been placed in an unenviable position. The officials say that in some parts of the North, soldiers have been barred from leaving barracks alone when in uniform. They have been told to travel in groups or wear civilian clothing when passing through towns that have become hostile territory for the army, contrary to what the political leaders assert.
2 - Although Palestinians in the refugee camps are outwardly aggrieved by the measures the army takes at the camps’ entrances, and its checks, surveillance and control over movement in and out them, the timing of the expression of these grievances is not innocent. The army has not stepped up these measures nor significantly altered them since they were introduced at Ein al-Hilwe in the early 1990s and Nahr al-Bared after 2007. They were designed to prevent the flight of gunmen or wanted fugitives from the two camps, and to keep an eye on and prevent the supply of weapons to terrorist cells based in them. That remains the army’s purpose.
Yet following the events in Tripoli and Akkar, and their knock-on effects elsewhere in the country, an attempt is apparently underway to extend the confrontation with the army into new areas. After the attacks on its checkpoints at the Palestinian camps in the North and South, it wonders if they, too, are planning to join the intra-Lebanese fray.
Like the Lebanese, the Palestinians in the camps are divided in their attitudes towards Syria and its regime. The camps also have their own equivalents of the hardline Sunni groups which have been making their influence felt in the North. Most of their leaders are fugitives from justice and many of their followers are wanted in connection with terrorist crimes. These groups, the officials add, are now minded to escape siege within the camps and make for the battlefield beyond.
3 - While the blocking of roads with burning of tyres is not overtly connected to events in the North or attitudes towards the Syrian crisis or regime, it is a complementary feature of the security breakdown. Officials were surprised to find that Shia groups have been the most active in blocking roads in areas under their influence, especially the vital arteries in and out of the capital, for various reasons.
They note that orders are given in this regard. A group of people are despatched to bring down tyres and set them alight and close the road, then they are withdrawn and replaced with others to carry on the task. Two days ago, those blocking the airport road made a lucrative business, charging hurried passengers a fee per head for allowing them through the lines of burning barricades.
Thus, under the pretext of the electricity shortage, living conditions, or the abduction of Lebanese in Aleppo, tyres have become weapons with which to spread the chaos. The security forces are compelled to react cautiously to avoid the political and security cost which would be incurred if they were to take on the instigators. They want to avoid an incident that could repeat the killing of Ahmad Abdel-Wahed and his companion in Akkar or the killing of eight people in Mar Mikhael in 2007, and would place the army in the thick of the confrontation.
Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.