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Image: Flickr/World Bank/Dominic Chavez
I arrived in Lebanon in early June this year and was immediately struck by the calm mood of the people. Since 2015 fear of an ISIS invasion had receded, in part because of Syrian and Iraqi armies regaining large swathes of ISIS territory. The garbage crisis that predominated in 2015 has been resolved to an extent (though I noted no one was able to tell me to where the garbage had been taken). In the south, traditionally a spot of high tension, all was calm. Neither Israel nor Hizbullah have any desire to alter what is known as ‘the balance of terror’ and commit to a new conflict. Both actors have their sights firmly set on what is happening in Syria. Furthermore, the Syrian refugee situation did not at first glance appear to be causing any more tension than it had in earlier years.
As such, my first weeks in Lebanon didn’t feel like I was in Lebanon at all. No political tension? No major security threats? But then, slowly but surely, the reality of Lebanon’s fragility asserted itself once more.
On 12 June a bomb went off in the headquarters of Blom Bank in Hamra, West Beirut. Despite major structural damage no-one was injured, as the bomb was deliberately timed to detonate when local residents would be eating Iftar after Ramadan and the streets around the bank would be empty. It became clear the following day that Hizbullah was responsible for the bomb attack. The purpose behind it was a warning to Blom Bank, whose strict interpretation of the new anti-money laundering legislation issued by the US had resulted in ordinary Shi’ite civilians being unfairly targeted, affecting their business transactions. Violence, it seems, still talks in Lebanon; the following day the major banks got together to discuss how to ameliorate the effects of the legislation on the Shi’ite community.
In the weeks that followed, a very different kind of attack took place in the tiny Christian village of al-Qaa, on the border with Syria. On 27 June eight suicide bombers from Syria attacked the village, killing five civilians and injuring 15. The shockwaves of this event reverberated throughout the country, particularly in the Christian areas in the north, around Mount Lebanon.
The major cause of shock was the fact that the terror cell had managed to rustle up no less than eight suicide bombers (one of whom blew himself up in a field rather than be taken by the Lebanese Armed Forces). For the Lebanese, and particularly Lebanese Christians, the message was clear: Syrians can no longer be trusted in Lebanon. The change in attitude has been astounding. Syrians in Lebanon have always generated minimal respect from the Lebanese, as many work in menial jobs and are in lower socio-economic strata of the population. Now, however, the situation is changed; fear and distrust have replaced disinterest and mild contempt.
Syrian workers (some of whom who have lived in Lebanon for years) are now under curfew in the northern villages of Lebanon. Many of these Syrians are themselves Christian, fleeing from ISIS, but no exceptions are made. The local police enforce the curfew and there are army checkpoints on major routes into Beirut which make slipping through the net difficult. In the far south, I noticed there was considerably less tension. Local officials there told me they only imposed curfews during significant public events, like a fete or a funeral. This is likely because there are far less Syrian refugees in the south than in the north, and because it’s an area heavily saturated with Hizbullah and its supporters, who generally keep an eye on newcomers.
While an invasion by ISIS now appears remote, in some ways the threat to the Lebanese from the organisation is closer than ever. Until now the Christian areas of Beirut have been left in peace, but the week before I arrived a suicide bomber was arrested for planning an attack on a popular night time hangout area in the Christian east of the city. Later during my stay, another four individuals were arrested for planning an attack on a bar in the same area using semi-automatic weapons. There is now considerable concern that an attack on a major Christian area in Beirut itself is imminent. But let’s not forget that suicide bomb attacks have been occurring in Lebanon since 2012, in the Shi’a areas of the country.
There is a saying in the Middle East about Lebanon: when the region is on fire, Lebanon is calm; when the region is calm, Lebanon is on fire. Somehow, without a president or any real functioning government, Lebanon hangs on. For how long it can continue to do so in the face of major security threats coming out of Syria and Iraq, as ISIS territory breaks apart, is anyone’s guess.
Vanessa Newby is a Research Fellow in the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, at The Australian National University. This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter, 20 July 2016.