As the war in Syria continues into a third destructive year, the potential spread of violence into Lebanon that analysts long predicted seems to be reaching actuality. Everything from car bombs to suicide attacks have rocked pockets of Shiite residents in Beirut and Southern Lebanon. But there is a problem with the accepted mainstream analysis of the conflict, which presents the spread of violence as a “spillover”: it’s a narrative that not only isn’t accurate, but a narrative that local militant factors are exploiting to their considerable advantage.
A popular element of the spillover narrative is the shallow depth in which Hizbollah and al-Qaeda are reckoned. Hizbollah, an organization that maintains its own political, military, and social structures, has long asserted itself as a controller of Shiite territories in Beirut, Tripoli, and Southern Lebanon. Since their refusal to disarm at the end of the Lebanese Civil War in May 1991, the Party of God has amassed weaponry, political power, and social influence in a country striding great lengths to overcome sectarian challenges. And despite attempts by the Lebanese government and military to root out the group’s illegal activities, Hizbollah provides for its a supporters in order to cull influence and keep the sect strong and separate from Lebanese civil society.
Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, has collapsed from any sort of organizational hierarchy. Elements of al-Qaeda in Iraq physically rushed into Syria at the start of the crisis, forming Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). But their consolidated activities in Lebanon, and that of Jabhat al-Nusra’s, are extremely overestimated by the media. Al-Qaeda no longer functions by chain of command but rather by command of the specific emir, as evidenced by general disagreement between the Nusra front and ISIS. Even bin Laden’s successor Ayman Zawahiri has disavowed ISIS because of the group’s refusal to adhere to commands and their brutalization of innocent Muslims.
To think a group like Jabhat al-Nusra, who lack the tactical abilities of their ISIS cousins, could carry out concerted exploits of Lebanese security is improbable. Same goes for ISIS, whose recent strategy seems to focus on bolstering the security in their “liberated” territories and imposing an Islamic State based on strict takfiri salafism.
So why are analysts quick to point to al-Qaeda as the perpetrator of the recent attacks on Hizbollah strongholds and Iranian targets in Lebanon? While the motive fits, the physical spillover that the media presents is not very likely.
In Thomas Friedman’s account of his time in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” he details the deep-rooted problem of sectarian Lebanon: “The real problem with the Lebanese today is that they have gotten too good at this adapting game- so good that their cure and their disease has become one in the same. The Lebanese individual traditionally derived his social identity and psychological support from his primordial affiliations… these ad hoc family, neighborhood, or religious communal associations are [not] able to satisfactorily replace the Lebanese society that collapsed… [but] they make life in the Beirut jungle not quite as solitary, nasty, brutish, and short as might be expected.”
The Maronite, Sunni, and Shia elements of Beirut that Freidman encountered during the Civil War are elements deep-rooted in an individual’s identity, despite the great lengths of the Lebanese people to develop on national, unified identity. This deep-rooted inclination to root for a side is what gives many Lebanese their distinct opinions on today’s civil war in Syria. It is this dangerous narrative of a spillover that nudges these opinions into action.
Jabhat al-Nusra probably doesn’t have the operational capacity to carry out attacks. It is more likely salafist or even moderately radical Sunni actors in Lebanon who support Nusra front independently carried out the attacks without complete coordination or condonation. In the spillover narrative, a group like Jabhat al-Nusra claims the responsibility for attacks against Hizbollah targets, accompanied with a very public media frenzy of inflammatory speech. This unearths the sectarian roots in the region, despite the average Sunni’s disapproval of takfiri salafism. The violence becomes more acceptable, psychologically speaking, and makes more sense to the average onlooker; if the spillover narrative isn’t questioned, the active threat of rebel and pro-government forces running rampant in Lebanon is blown out of proportion. If people are more accepting of the violence, the reversal, unified efforts towards a peaceful solution, become more difficult for local and international powers.
Association with the factions in Syria matters, as the identification of the different militias is the first step to aiding so-called moderate rebels. Attacks on the Turkish and Iraqi borders, for instance, are being perpetrated by militias seeking to claim swaths of “liberated” land in Syria’s northwest. This type of attack should certainly classify as a spillover attack due to the perpetrator’s nature to ignore geopolitical boundaries and instigate total war policies.
Too much is at stake for Hizbollah and rebels in Syria, and the diversion of attacks in Lebanon are a threat too close to Hizbollah’s base of power for comfort, too close to inert ethnic ties for the unity of the state of Lebanon, and too close too Israel for the IDF to remain quiet for long. The powder keg from Syria didn’t spill over into Lebanon; it’s been lit.