With all eyes on the militant group ISIL’s onslaught in Iraq and Syria, a less conspicuous but potentially just as explosive front line with the extremists is emerging in Lebanon, where Lebanese soldiers and Shiite Hizbollah guerrillas are increasingly pulled into deadly fighting with the Sunni militants along the country’s border with Syria.
The US has been speeding up delivery of small ammunition to shore up Lebanon’s army, but recent cross-border attacks and beheading of Lebanese soldiers by ISIL fighters – and the defection of four others to the extremists – has sent shockwaves across this Mediterranean country, eliciting fear of a potential slide into the kind of sectarian violence afflicting both Syria and Iraq, and increasingly prompting minorities to take up arms.
The crisis was slow in coming.
For long, Lebanon managed to miraculously avoid the all-out chaos gripping neighbouring countries – despite sporadic street clashes and car bombings, and despite being awash with weapons and taking in an endless stream of refugees from Syria who now constitute a staggering one third of its population of 4.5 million people.
Unlike in Syria or Iraq, the Al Qaeda-breakaway ISIL group does not hold territory in Lebanon. But along with Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Al Nusra, it has established footholds in remote mountains along Lebanon’s remote eastern border, from where it launches almost daily incursions further afield.
Militant recruitment in impoverished Sunni areas of northern Lebanon is on the rise, and black ISIL group flags fly freely in some areas, reflecting pockets of growing support for the radical group.
“Lebanon is in the eye of the storm,” said Fadia Kiwan, a political science professor at Beirut’s St Joseph University.
The Lebanese are bitterly divided over Syria’s civil war. Hizbollah fighters have gone to join Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s forces in their battle against Sunni rebels, drawing anger at home from Lebanon’s Sunnis and stoking Sunni-Shiite tensions. This in turn led to tit-for-tat suicide bombings and several rounds of street clashes in Lebanon in the past year.
The ISIL threat first came to Lebanon in August, two months after the group’s summer blitz in which it seized large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.
In a surprise attack, ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra militants crossed over from Syria and overran the predominantly Sunni Lebanese border town of Arsal, hitting Lebanese army positions and killing nearly 20 soldiers.
After weeklong clashes, the militants pulled back to mountain caves near Syria’s border, taking more than 20 Lebanese soldiers and policemen with them.
ISIL fighters have since beheaded two Lebanese soldiers. Jabhat Al Nusra militants have shot dead a third. In return for remaining hostages, they have issued various demands, including the withdrawal of Hizbollah troops from Syria, and the release of Islamists from Lebanese prisons.
Lebanese army commander Jean Kahwaji said in comments published this week that the militants from Syria want to ignite a civil war and create a passage to Lebanon’s coastline by linking the Syrian Qalamoun mountains with Arsal on the border and the northern Lebanese town of Akkar, an impoverished Sunni area.
Analysts agree that in Lebanon, ISIL fighters also see an opportunity to strike at Hizbollah’s patron, the Shiite powerhouse Iran but that they are not too eager to immediately embark on yet another war.
“The territory of Lebanon is a longer-term goal,” said David Schenker, director of the programme on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But there are fears that eventually, Mr Schenker said, ISIL could stage a spectacular bombing of, for example, the Hizbollah stronghold of Dahyeh south of Beirut, recreating an incident similar to a 2006 attack in the Iraqi city of Samarra, and “unleash this incredible sectarian tension that results in a resumption of civil war”.
In Samarra, the Sunni extremists bombed a major Shiite shrine, setting in motion two years of sectarian bloodletting that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war. Lebanon is still recovering from a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.
The global war against ISIL and its attacks in Lebanon have somewhat bolstered Hizbollah’s narrative that its intervention in Syria was necessary to ward off a Sunni extremist threat to Lebanon.
Paradoxically, it has brought Hizbollah closer to Christians and other Lebanese minorities through their shared fear of the Sunni militants. But the Lebanese Shiite group is hated by most Lebanese Sunnis, many of whom refer to Hizbollah as the “Party of Satan” – a dark play on Hizbollah’s name, which in English means “Party of God”.
In addition to being bogged down in the fighting in Syria, Hizbollah is increasingly embroiled in clashes inside Lebanon. In an unprecedented attack, Jabhat Al Nusra fighters overran positions manned by Hizbollah along the Syrian border last week, killing eight of its fighters in battles that lasted several hours.
“Such attacks not only erode the stature of Hizbollah, they show it to be vulnerable. I think in the long run or as the months go by we’re going to see more and more of this,” Mr Schenker said.