In his sixth public appearance since 2006, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah spoke earlier last month to defend Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. Nasrallah called on the Lebanese to recognize that he allegedly has no intention of promulgating a sectarian divide in the region, although protecting Shiite people and landmarks against Sunni militants was Hezbollah’s public stance when entering the conflict back in 2012. He also warned, with significant defensive posturing, of the ramifications of a third Lebanese war, focusing on Hezbollah’s deterrent power and the risks to air and sea travel should Hezbollah need to prepare for war in Lebanon.
Yet war in Lebanon seems nearly inevitable at this point.
Abu Mohamad al-Golani, leader of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, responded within hours of Nasrallah’s speech with threats to Lebanon’s peace and security. The main media take-away from the interview with Golani noted, “The real war in Lebanon is yet to begin and what is coming is [so] bitter that Hassan Nasrallah will bite his fingers in remorse for what he has done to Sunnis”.
They appear to be making good on that promise. Jabhat al-Nusra still holds 27 Lebanese soldiers hostage, and Army Commander General Jean Kahwagi claims that both al-Nusra Front and IS are trying to gain access to the sea via Lebanon. Three of the soldiers held hostage have already been murdered in an attempt to show ruthless determination by the militant Sunni groups who hold them. Hezbollah has lost dozens of fighters to Jabhat al-Nusra’s attacks.
There is substantial fear that Lebanon’s current political instability will not be able to weather the attacks by Jabhat al-Nusra, and that the country risks “descent into chaos” as insurgent ideology becomes more appealing to Lebanese citizens who are witnessing an unbelievable number of refugees entering their borders where no current chief executive exists to take on mounting crises caused by the Syrian conflict. Lebanon has already seen violence erupt in Beirut, Tripoli, and within the Bekaa Valley, a region close to the Lebanon-Syria border and Lebanon’s most important agricultural region. An anonymous source described as an official within Lebanese security was quoted saying, “It’s hard to say it, but the fact is these events are far bigger than the Lebanese state’s capabilities. The army is paralyzed. Politicians are feeble. The state is anything but a state. [There has been] no president for almost five months. The Cabinet is in a state of care-taking and the parliament on an extended term. It’s a miracle life goes on.”
Al-Nusra Front’s presence in Lebanon can be traced to early 2013. A man using the name H.A. Dergham claimed responsibility for a Feburary 2013 attack on the Lebanese town of Ersal, proclaiming allegiance to the al-Nusra Front in Syria and declaring his intention to form a “branch” of the organization in Lebanon. The al-Nusra branch in Lebanon has allegedly declared that Hezbollah’s forces along the border were to be targeted, and they have engaged in a number of suicide attacks in Lebanon, including car bombings in Beirut. Lebanon has been experiencing increasing levels of violence since Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, and the al-Nusra Front is largely responsible for them.
Hezbollah sees itself as the protector and savior of Lebanon, but already up to 5,000 Lebanese Sunnis have crossed the border, taken up weapons, and joined IS or al-Nusra groups in Syria. Hezbollah has failed to deal with the million refugees from Syria currently living in Lebanon, draining it of resources and jobs. There lacks any stable government authority to address any of the problems, and despite Hassan Nasrallah’s claims that Hezbollah would be prepared should Israel decide to invade within the next few weeks, they are remarkably stretched thin by their involvement with Syria. They have 5-7,000 troops in Syria, thousands manning the strongholds along the border, and very few left to address the strife back in Lebanon. Lebanese Christians are taking up arms and fortifying their homes while Lebanese Sunnis are defecting. Lebanese Shiites remain angry that Hezbollah got Lebanon so deeply entrenched in the Syrian conflict in the first place. Hezbollah may now lack the popular support to remain the “savior” of Lebanon, but what does that mean once war breaks out, alongside internal turmoil and increased Sunni militant attacks? The people are turning against Hezbollah, but in that case, there remains few, if any, options left to organize for war.
By Sarah Ireland
Sarah Ireland is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations. She is currently pursuing her M.A. in Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, where she is specializing in Foreign Policy Analysis and the Middle East.
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