In recent years, Lebanon has become an active front in the struggle between Sunni and Shi’i Muslims in the Middle East. While in previous decades, both sects were considered a single Muslim bloc in the political balance against Lebanon’s Christians, over the 15 years of Syrian control in Lebanon following the end of the civil war in 1990, the relationship grew rocky, for political and geopolitical reasons. The assassination of Sunni ex-premier, Rafiq al-Hariri, in 2005, presumably by Shi’ites, caused a political rift between two main blocs — the Sunni-oriented “March 14,” and the Shi’i-oriented “March 8.” Tension between these two blocs reached a peak in a short civil war in May 2008. The beginning of the war in Syria in March 2011, and Hizballah’s later involvement in that war, dragged Lebanon into the fray, escalating Sunni and Shi’i terrorism in Lebanon. As the prominent Shi’i movement, Hizballah was blamed for the security deterioration, and its status among the Lebanese public, including Shi’ites, declined. Its image only began to improve in late 2013 and early 2014, after the murderous terrorism of Sunni Salafi groups linked to al-Qaeda and Global Jihad reduced criticism of Hizballah and improved its image as defending Lebanon against radical Salafi Islam. An ongoing political crisis state continues to escalate the volatile situation between these two sects.
Throughout most of history, Lebanon has been split along Christian-Muslim lines. This only shifted after the end of the civil war in 1990, as demographic, political, and regional changes created a Sunni-Shi’i divide. This article explores how Lebanon has come to be an active ground of the Sunni-Shi’i split in the contemporary Middle East. Three basic assumptions lie at the core of this issue and of Lebanon’s current struggle. First, the Sunni-Shi’i struggle in the Middle East largely coincides with the struggle over hegemony in the region between pro-Western Sunni Arab regimes and anti-Western Shi’i elements led by Iran. Second, the political division in Lebanon is also defined along Sunni-Shi’i lines, with one political bloc essentially Sunni (“March 14”) and the other Shi’i (“March 8”). Third, Bashar al-Asad’s Syrian Alawi regime sees itself as part of Shi’i Islam and belongs to the Shi’i pro-Iranian axis in the Middle East.
SECTARIANISM, DEMOGRAPHY, AND POLITICS IN LEBANON
Over the course of Lebanese history, the struggle over political hegemony has always been between the two largest religious sects, as defined in various eras; for example, between the Christian Maronites and the Druze during the era of the Principality of Mount Lebanon (al-Imarah, 1516-1840) and the Ottoman autonomic district of Mount Lebanon (al-Mutasarifiyyah, 1861-1915). These two groups have historically fought over political and economic hegemony. Yet the formation of modern Lebanon, “Greater Lebanon,” in 1920 led to a profound demographic change, resulting from the annexation of areas with mainly Muslim populations to Mount Lebanon. Sunni Muslims became the second-largest religious sect within the new boundaries, and the Druze became a small sect of no more than 5 to 6 percent of the overall population. The struggle for hegemony in Lebanon thus became a primarily Christian-Muslim one — with the Maronites among the Christians and the Sunnis among the Muslims. This struggle characterized the Lebanese political landscape until 1990; with the end of a 15-year-long civil war, when the Shi’ites appeared to emerge as the largest religious sect. Due to emigration and low birth rates, the Maronites had become the third largest sect. The Shi’ites and the Sunnis thus became the two largest religious sects and the main political actors in post-war Lebanon.
SUNNIS AND SHI’ITES IN LEBANON
Lebanon’s Sunni population traditionally lives in the large cities, whereas the Shi’i population is mainly rural. For centuries, Sunnis were a majority in the Ottoman provinces. They were involved in the local administration and developed a mentality of rule in the Ottoman coastal cities, which became part of Lebanon after 1920. They established social, cultural, and educational institutions and engaged in a variety of professions, including business and industry.
The Lebanese Shi’ites, on the other hand, brought to modern Lebanon the tradition of a deprived — and at times even persecuted — minority. Their concentration in the peripheral rural areas perpetuated this government-inflicted deprivation after the formation of modern Lebanon. Lack of appropriate infrastructure and political connections barred the Shi’ites from professional advancement, and they remained economically and socially backward relative to other sects. As a result, Shi’ites had virtually no influence on Lebanese politics.
For many years, the Lebanese establishment viewed the Sunni and Shi’i as one bloc or as two parts of a Muslim bloc. This attitude could be justified until at least the 1960s, when political and social differences between the two sects widened. In 1925, under the French mandate, Lebanon’s Shi’i population gained recognition as an independent religious sect. This enabled them to form a religious legal system to deal with personal issues in accordance with the Shi’i school (al-Ja’afariyya). Yet in the eyes of the Lebanese establishment, under Maronite and Sunni hegemony, religious recognition did not include forming an entire independent Shi’i religious establishment, which would have had autonomy on all religious issues, and provided jobs to Shi’ites. Shi’ites continued to sit in the Sunni-controlled Higher Islamic Council of Lebanon, headed by the Sunni Mufti of Lebanon. Only in 1969 was a separate Supreme Shi’i Islamic Council formed as the result of Shi’i cleric Musa al-Sadr’s efforts, coupled with the Lebanese establishment’s desire to weaken the Shi’i traditional leadership (al-Zu’amaa), and the Maronite leadership’s will to split Lebanon’s Muslims between Sunni and Shi’i.
During the 1930s, Sunni and Shi’i leaders came together in order to try to cancel the boundaries of “Greater Lebanon” and join Syria. Sunni and Shi’i leaders were united on this issue; both considered themselves part of a block opposing the existence of independent Lebanon under Maronite hegemony. Yet during the second half of the 1930s, frictions developed between the two groups when Shi’i leaders agreed to participate in the Lebanese political system and give up the idea of Syrian unity, which prominent Sunni leaders did only a few years later.
The National Covenant of 1943, a political formula on allocation of political power agreed upon between the leaders of the two prominent sects, Maronite and Sunni, facilitated Lebanon’s independence as a multi-sectarian social and political system. The covenant mainly dealt with Sunna and Shi’a as a single Muslim block. Allocation of parliamentary seats was based on a quota of Christians versus Muslims at a ratio of 6:5. Though the internal distribution of seats was less important, it reflected the de facto Sunni hegemony within the Muslim block. This covenant’s allocation of senior political positions was based on a 1932 census conducted by the French mandate authorities which indicated that the Maronites were the largest religious sect (29 percent), Sunni the second-largest (24 percent), and Shi’i third (19 percent). This allocation of political power widened political, economic, and social gaps between Sunni and Shi’i, which had originated in the Ottoman period due to the Sunni character of the Ottoman Empire. In independent Lebanon, Maronites and Sunnis struggled over influence, while the Shi’ites were neglected by the Lebanese establishment both financially and with regard to appointments in the public service.
During the 1958 Lebanese crisis, most Sunnis and Shi’ites supported Lebanon’s anti-Chamounist and anti-Western camp while sympathizing with Nasserism on the regional level. Though Sunni and Shi’i clerics called on followers to avoid violence during the crisis, their influence was limited. During the 1960s, Maronite leadership attempted to create a rift between Sunni and Shi’i Muslims. For over a decade, and until 1970, under the presidency of Fuad Shehab (1958-64) and Charles Hilu (1964-70) — an era known in Lebanese historiography as “Shehabism” — the regime tried to implement a centralist policy and reduce the gaps between the periphery and the big cities. While the majority of the Sunnis lived in the big cities, the Shi’i population mostly lived in rural, peripheral areas. As a result of this policy, for the first time, many Shi’ites became aware of the huge gaps between themselves and the Maronite and Sunni areas. This in turn motivated the Shi’ites to narrow these gaps. As the traditional Shi’i leaders opposed governmental involvement in the areas under their control, the regime sought alternative leadership to implement changes in the Shi’i areas. Cleric Musa al-Sadr was chosen for this task. Though the Shehabi regime promoted Sadr mainly as an alternative to the traditional Shi’i leaders, this resulted in a new Shi’i leadership with its own agenda, supported by the Maronite establishment. This in turn created a visible split among Lebanon’s Muslims — between Sunnis and Shi’ites.
The events of the turbulent 1970s had varied influences on Sunni-Shi’i relations in the country. On the one hand, the Shi’ites shifted even farther away from the Sunnis, becoming more independent. The formation of the Shi’i Movement of the Deprived, and later Amal (1974-1975), also contributed to this process. Both movements offered distinctive frameworks for the Shi’ites. In addition, tensions developed in southern Lebanon between the Shi’i population and the Palestinian, mostly Sunni, militias in the region. Politically, the Sunni sect in Lebanon was considered a patron of the Palestinians. On the other hand, the outbreak of civil war in April 1975 and the crystallization of Maronite militias into a single military front (“the Lebanese Front”) fighting leftist movements, Palestinian organizations, and Syria, put many Sunnis and Shi’ites on the same side of the war. The alliance between the Syrian ‘Alawi regime of the Assad family and Lebanon’s Shi’ites was also forged during this decade. However, this only began to impact Sunni-Shi’i relations in Lebanon some twenty years later. This political and military alliance was the result of convergence of interests between then-new Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad — who, as an ‘Alawite leader of a state in which 60 percent of its citizens were Sunni, was in need of a religious seal of approval — and leader of the Lebanese Shi’ites Musa al-Sadr — who, like other religious leaders of the 1970s, believed Lebanon needed a patron.
During the 1980s, Sunni-Shi’i relations in Lebanon were influenced mainly by regional developments. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran had the strongest impact. Shi’i revolutionary fervor led to concerns among Arab Sunna regimes about the possible impact on Arab Shi’ites within their countries. At the time, Lebanon was the only Arab country aside from Syria that was not ruled by Sunnis, but its government was ineffective due to the civil war, creating a conducive atmosphere for Shi’i revolutionaries and Iran to increase their impact in the country. As a result of the revolution, Lebanon’s Shi’ites split into two camps: one represented by Amal, which sought to integrate within Lebanon’s multi-sectarian state and to eliminate deprivation from within the system, and the other represented by Hizballah, which considered Lebanon under Christian and Western hegemony an illegitimate entity that must be replaced by an Islamic state, following the Iranian model. Though the Shi’i Islamist stream was relatively small until the late 1980s, the Lebanese Sunnis as well as non-Muslim sects in Lebanon worried about the Shi’ites’ military strengthening during the civil war. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 also contributed greatly to Amal’s growing power. Israel fought against Palestinians and other leftist militias but avoided fighting against Amal due to the latter’s decision not to confront the Israelis. The outcome was that Amal became the strongest militia of the Lebanese left.
All of this set the stage for the 1984 “February Uprising,” which, looking back, was clearly the point when new rules were set in Lebanon — the struggle was no longer between a primarily-Maronite bloc supporting the political status quo and a Muslim bloc opposing the status quo, but the defense of all religious sects against the Shi’i rise. This was the defining moment in modern Sunni-Shi’i relations in Lebanon, as well as in Shi’i relations with the country’s other religious sects. While fighting the Lebanese army in early February 1984, Amal took control of western Beirut, the country’s economic and diplomatic center and a long-time Sunni stronghold. The “February Uprising” let the sectarian genie out of the bottle, alerting the Lebanese that the Shi’ites had become a significant factor and that any important future decisions would require Shi’i consent. This uprising, in turn, laid the foundation for Lebanon’s political split thirty years later in 2005, between the “March 8” and “March 14” blocs.
The Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) had an indirect impact on Sunni-Shi’i relations in Lebanon, mainly sharpening the rivalry between Sunnis and Shi’ites over the latter’s connection with Iran and the rivalry between Arabs and Persians at the regional level.
Throughout the 1980s, another issue that influenced Sunni-Shi’i relations, was the struggle that developed between Amal and the Palestinian organizations in Lebanon, and the PLO in particular. The PLO had enjoyed the overwhelming support of the Arab Sunni regimes and during Lebanon’s civil war was considered a central Sunni military force. In the early 1980s, clashes erupted between the PLO and Amal in southern Lebanon over the attempt by the Palestinian militia to maintain a military presence along the border with Israel and the Shi’i resistance to paying the price of Israeli retaliation, as they were the majority among the Lebanese population along the Israeli borderline. Following the Israeli invasion of 1982, tension intensified over Amal’s refusal to confront the Israeli army, which invaded Lebanon to expel the PLO. The rivalry reached a peak in 1985 when Amal besieged Palestinian refugee camps along the shoreline between Beirut and the south. For three years Amal and the PLO fought the “War of the Camps,” which finally ended without a clear victory. The war also accelerated the rivalry between the two Shi’i movements, Amal and Hizballah, over the latter’s support for the Palestinians.
In 1989, the Lebanese ratification, under Syrian hegemony, of the Ta’if Accord ended 15 years of civil war, essentially changing the political formula to one of equality between Christians and Muslims, associating Sunnis and Shi’ites on the same side of the political divide. The division within the Muslim bloc established equality in the number of Sunni and Shi’i legislators (27 each since 1992). However, the role of the Prime Minister remained in the hands of the Sunnis. The Shi’ites felt deprived, as they had emerged from the civil war stronger and probably greater in number than the Sunnis and Maronites, but with a smaller political role, similar to the status quo before the civil war. It would be reasonable to think that Arab League representatives, who drafted the Ta’if Accord, sought to restrain Shi’i influence in light of the rise of Shi’ism in the region during the 1980s. However, the Lebanese Shi’i representatives in Ta’if had no choice but to agree, due to the Syrian will to implement the accord.
“Ta’if’s Lebanon” was controlled by Syria, a prominent ally of the Shi’i sect. Under Syrian control, Lebanon began to recover from the civil war, but at the price of Sunni-Shi’i relations over the following years. In return for controlling Lebanon without disturbance from the largest religious sect and for maintaining good relations with its ally Iran, Syria agreed that Shi’i Hizballah would not disarm, as all other militias had been forced to do according to the Ta’if Accord. Hizballah’s weaponry gradually grew to be a dominant factor in Lebanon and the entire Middle East. Its military power slowly became a political tool that helped pressure Shi’i rivals.
In formal political circles, Syria controlled Lebanon at that time using the Lebanese “troika.” According to the Ta’if Accord, some of the authorizations previously held by the Maronite President were given to the Sunni Prime Minister and the Shi’i Speaker of Parliament. Syria, for its part, tried to maneuver between the three in order to prevent the strengthening of any one of them, mainly the dominant Premier Rafiq Hariri, although most of the time Hariri and the Shi’i Speaker Nabih Berri were in good cooperation. Disputes usually erupted around economic issues, like privatizing the public sector and raising taxes under Hariri’s initiative, while Berri wanted to maintain his image as protector of the worker unions and the poor, most of them Shi’i.
The beginning of the new millennium brought changes, following the withdrawal of the Israeli army from southern Lebanon after eighteen years. The Israeli withdrawal created pressure from the anti-Syrian bloc to withdraw the Syrian army from Lebanon. This focused the struggle between pro- and anti-Syrian elements around a specific issue. The Shi’ites openly supported Syria, which had mediated between Amal and Hizballah before the parliamentary elections of 2000, mainly for limiting the latter’s political influence by forcing both Shi’i movements to present a joint list of candidates. At the same time, Syria provided Hizballah with weapons and had become a central link of weapons transportation from Iran. The Sunnis at that time, particularly the stream under the leadership of Rafiq al-Hariri, sought to cut the Syrian “bear hug” and strengthen economic ties with the West. Disarming Hizballah to ensure stability was essential for such an economic change. This was anathema in the eyes of Syria and its allies in Lebanon, and finally led to the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005. Syria immediately became the prime suspect.
LEBANON AFTER 2005
Antagonism toward the Shi’ites in Lebanon, which had begun following the 1984 “February Uprising,” and had been bubbling under the surface as long as the Syrian military presence in Lebanon continued, broke out all at once in 2005. The assassination of Rafik Hariri led to a political explosion in Lebanon. The Sunni-Shi’i rivalry “came out of the closet,” bringing about the formation of two political blocs, the Shi’i-oriented “March 8” bloc and the Sunni-oriented “March 14” bloc.
The political rivalry between the two blocs revolved around Lebanon’s relations with Syria and Syria’s active involvement in Lebanon. In the first stage of this sectarian-political split, there was a large majority of opponents to Syria’s involvement in Lebanon, including most of the Sunnis, the majority of Christian sects, including the Maronites, most of the Druze, and even a small Shi’i minority. The pro-Syrian camp included mostly supporters of the two Shi’i movements, Hizballah and Amal, and traditional allies of Syria among all sects, such as the prominent Maronite Faranjiyeh family and the Druze Arslan family. This situation, with most of the religious sects on one side and the Shi’ites on the other, was reflected in the results of the parliamentary elections in the summer of 2005 and in parliamentary blocs created immediately afterwards: an anti-Syrian “March 14” bloc, dominated by Sunnis, a pro-Syrian “March 8” bloc, dominated by Shi’ites, and a mainly-Maronite centralist bloc led by former army commander Michel ‘Aoun, who had returned from 15 years of exile in France. ‘Aoun, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, the dominant Maronite movement, according to the 2005 parliamentary election results, retained his central position for personal and political reasons.
The only element able to change the map of the parliamentary blocs and prevent the isolation of the Lebanese Shi’ites in the political arena was an agreement of understanding, signed by ‘Aoun and Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hizballah. ‘Aoun was motivated to sign the agreement due to personal aspirations and rivalries, but also, at least according to ‘Aoun, out of Maronite and Lebanese national interests. He explained that the Maronite minority should find the best way to survive in Lebanon, tying its fate to the sect most likely to dominate — the Shi’i. He explained that while Shi’ites were not yet a technical majority of over 50 percent, he would seek to hold them to their commitments regarding the long-term nature of Lebanon as a pluralistic, secular, democratic and multi-sectarian state. Such an agreement, according to ‘Aoun, would not be achievable after the Shiites became a majority. In many ways, this is the same dilemma the Maronites faced in the early 1940s, between one stream, which sought to rely on the West and another which sought to tie its fate to the vast Sunni majority in the Middle East, based on agreements of understanding. At that time, it had been the Constitutional Bloc, headed by Bshara al-Houri that sought to reach understandings with the vast Sunni majority in the region, and gained support among most of the Maronites against the National Bloc, headed by Emile Edde, which sought to rely on France and the West.
Politically, every issue on the agenda caused a division between the “March 8” and “March 14” blocs. Two issues were the focus of the debate, the weaponry of Hizballah and Lebanon’s attitude towards the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). Hizballah’s remaining weaponry was a “tiebreaker,” and was seen as a remnant of Syrian hegemony. When the debate on the weaponry was at a peak, Lebanon was dragged by Hizballah into the July 2006 war with Israel. In spite of the Lebanese national unity during the 34 days of the war, it became clear that Hizballah’s weapons had led the country into tragedy. When the war ended, not only did its toll in damage and destruction become clear, but the question of the state’s domination over Hizballah arose. Old suspicions of disloyalty emerged against the Shi’ites after fifteen years of great efforts by Hizballah to dispel concerns among Sunnis and Christians on this issue. Following the 2006 war, the old Sunni-Arab suspicions of Shi’i loyalty to Iran became part of Lebanese public discourse once again. Sunni-Shi’i rivalry deepened in the following months, leading to the November resignation of the Shi’i ministers from the government of Fouad Siniora, and later all of the pro-Syrian ministers. Lebanon entered a period of political crisis that lasted about a year and a half.
War erupted again over the issue of Shi’i control of weapons, without supervision or state authority, in the form of a short civil war in May 2008. Once again, Hizballah’s military power became the “tiebreaker” between the Sunni and Shi’i political blocs as it forced the Sunnis to accept the very political compromise they had opposed over the previous eighteen months. This war began after Hizballah’s vigorous opposition to two government decisions — to dismiss the head of airport security, who was close to the movement, and to dismantle a private communications net installed by Iranian experts. Armed attacks by militias affiliated with “March 8” on central sites and road junctions, while the Lebanese Army ignored a direct command by Premier Fouad Siniora to confront the attackers, led to a rapid victory for the Shi’i camp and its allies. The Shi’ites forced the Sunnis to give up their political demands but lost a lot of the credit they had gained over the twenty years, in which they had become integrated into the Lebanese political system and undergone a process of “Lebanonization” within Hizballah. The events of May 2008 taught the Sunnis two lessons — that Western support has no value on the streets and that the only way to restrain the Shi’ites would be through Syria. This realization led Sunni leader Sa’ad Hariri to renew ties with Syria, as did Druze leader Walid Junblatt. Later, full diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon were established for the first time in history.
The second major stumbling block between the Sunnis and Shi’ites in Lebanon in the first years after the Syrian military withdrawal was the question of Lebanon’s policy toward the STL, which was formed by the UN to investigate and sentence Rafiq Hariri’s assassins. The “March 8” bloc opposed any Western involvement because of the position of its two prominent elements: Hizballah’s long-time ideology, from the Iranian school, against the West, and Michel ‘Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement’s nationalistic opposition to any foreign involvement. As it turned out over the course of the STL’s probe, Hizballah became the main suspect in Hariri’s assassination. This not only radicalized the feud over Syria’s role, but also moved the Sunni-Shi’i split to center stage, given the suspicion that the Shi’ites had killed a Sunni leader. Since Lebanon was governed at that time (from 2005-2011) by a unity government headed by a Sunni Prime Minister from “March 14”, the government’s policy toward Lebanon’s commitments to the UN regarding the STL caused a continuing political crisis. The Shi’i-dominated “March 8” alliance continuously accused the Court of being an American and Israeli tool to undermine the status of Hizballah and cause a rift between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Lebanon. At one point, even the Supreme Shi’i Islamic Council, a national body, discredited the STL. The Free Patriotic Movement, the dominant Maronite political movement and a partner of the Shi’i in “March 8,” also questioned the STL’s credibility. The result of the debate was a governmental policy of ignoring the STL, and meeting only minimal obligations to the UN in this matter. The government made no effort to arrest the suspects in the assassination. At this point, right before the Arab Awakening (2011), almost every political issue became a point of contention between the two alliances. This usually led to deadlock, ending in new understandings under the shadow of Hizballah’s weaponry. These new understandings were closer to the basic positions of “March 8” and gradually established Shi’i hegemony over the state.
LEBANON AND THE ARAB AWAKENING
In early 2011 in Tunisia, a series of events began that would spread throughout the entire Arab world. Known as the “Arab Spring,” or the “Arab awakening,” they affected Lebanon both indirectly and directly. However, addressing the question of whether Lebanon was part of this trend within the Arab world is complex, and the answer ultimately depends on one’s point of view. Lebanese patriots would say that Lebanon heralded the Arab Awakening in 2005, being the first Arab country to remove a dictator (Syria) in non-violent mass demonstrations. Others would say that Lebanon is not part of the Arab Awakening; it reacted differently from the Arab countries to the trend and ironically, given its own internal tensions, was seen as more stable in terms of the revolutionary mood in the region.
Lebanon did not experience revolutions of the kind seen in other Arab countries for several reasons. First, there is no dictator in Lebanon that the people can blame for a difficult economic situation or for social gaps or insecurity. Corruption among politicians is also not affiliated with any one particular stream, but is common for politicians from all religious sects and political parties. One of Lebanon’s basic problems over the years had been its regime’s lack of governability, a result of the need to balance the political system between several dominant religious sects. As a consequence, no modern leader has had the benefit of strong authority, and political outcomes have always relied on compromise between leaders from different sects. Second, the Arab Awakening occurred during a time at which the Lebanese political arena was split between two almost-equal blocs, and after a few years, by a unity government based on these two blocs. This meant that there was no leadership to demonstrate against, because of the joint responsibility. Third, the Lebanese public was almost evenly divided between the two political blocs, meaning they could not take one side while the regime took the other side, as happened in other Arab countries. Fourth, Lebanon is much more democratic than other Arab countries. This not only took the edge of one of the main causes of the Arab Awakening, but also offered the public a variety of ways to express their anti-government sentiments. Facebook, Twitter, and other tools of the Internet to some extent contributed to revolutions in other Arab countries, but didn’t serve a similar role in Lebanon. The free and diverse press and media in Lebanon eliminated the need to bypass the regime’s censorship and provided effective ways to break tensions. The only protest in Lebanon influenced by the outbreak of mass demonstrations in the Arab world in early 2011 was against the climate of political confessionalism (al-Siyassah al-Ta’ifiyah — a common expression for Lebanon’s political sectarianism). Organizers attracted only a few thousand protesters for three marches in downtown Beirut in late February and March 2011.
Although Lebanon did not experience mass demonstrations as in other Arab countries, it was certainly affected by the regional atmosphere. The fact the country’s main political blocs were based on one alliance supported by the West and opposing the Iran-Syria axis, and another opposing western hegemony in the Middle East and supporting the Iran-Syria axis, meant the events in other countries certainly impacted the atmosphere in Lebanon. The first revolutions of the Arab awakening occurred in Tunisia and Egypt. While Tunisia was maybe the most “Western” Arab country in character, this had no real impact on the local atmosphere in Lebanon, while the fall of the Egyptian regime had a major impact. The regime of Husni Mubarak not only was essential for American policy in the Middle East for three decades, but was, along with the Saudi royal family, the main patron of the “March 14” bloc in Lebanon. The Mubarak regime, in its last years, did not hesitate to confront Hizballah and its patrons Iran and Syria. It arrested Hizballah’s activists who established terror cells in Egypt and Sinai, and supported Israel’s war against Hizballah in 2006. Losing Egyptian support, and the corresponding decline in U.S. influence, caused serious concern of political weakening among “March 14” leaders.
At the beginning of the protests of the Arab awakening against pro-Western regimes, all parties in Lebanon kept silent, waiting to see where the situation would lead. However, when these regimes fell, especially the Mubarak regime in Egypt, verbal confrontations erupted between the rival blocs in Lebanon. While “March 14” leaders expressed concern at these developments and tried to differentiate the regional events from Lebanon, Hizballah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah began to express smug declarations and joy at the defeat of the the rival camp’s allies.. But when riots began in Syria, despite being a central patron of Lebanon’s Shi’ites, he remained silent.
THE WAR IN SYRIA
The war in Syria has had a major impact on Sunni-Shi’i relations in Lebanon. Syria had influenced Lebanon more than any other country since the formation of the two states after World War I and their attaining independence in the mid 1940s. Syria had had many interests in Lebanon throughout the years, including economic, military, political, and inter-Arab. Syria did not recognize Lebanon as a separate entity after 1920, considering it a land artificially taken from “Ottoman Syria” by Western superpowers. Only in late 2008 did Syria recognize Lebanon officially and establish official diplomatic relations, including embassies, for the first time.
When the Arab Awakening reached Syria in March 2011, the Lebanese immediately understood that its consequences might be critical for the Sunni-Shi’i tension. Not only had there been growing political tension in Lebanon because of the political split between the pro-Syrian Shi’i bloc and anti-Syrian Sunni bloc, but two months before the war in Syria began, Lebanon’s unity government collapsed, necessitating the formation of an interim “caretaker” government, after Hizballah and its political allies resigned from the cabinet over arguments stemming from the UN investigation into the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri. The lack of a permanent government caused problems due to constitutional limitations barring the caretaker government from making decisions on critical issues. Premier Sa’ed Hariri, also the leader of the Sunni “March 14” bloc, left the country after the fall of his government and headed the caretaker government from abroad, returning only infrequently to Lebanon. Almost no dialogue took place between the two blocs.
The political crisis did not eliminate the government’s need to take care of urgent matters that arose as a consequence of the war in Syria. Foremost was the need to establish policy regarding Syrian refugees crossing the Lebanese border, as their numbers gradually grew to more than one million in the spring of 2014. The government had to decide whether to close the border to refugees, most of them Sunnis, as politicians from “March 8” demanded, or to keep it open as “March 14” insisted. The government also had to decide whether it would establish refugee camps, as the Turkish government had, or to avoid involvement in the refugees’ lives. Such camps would require allocation of land and money to build tents, infrastructure for water and electricity, and health care. International aid organizations, as well as donors from Arab and European governments, also demanded an updated policy. These issues became particularly urgent before the winter of 2011-2012 because of the cold weather in Akkar, where most of the refugees had arrived. Another issue the government had to address was the employment status of the refugees, who had started to spread throughout Lebanon, gradually displacing Lebanese employees as a cheap workforce. The concern of a new wave of Palestinian refugees, this time from Syrian camps, contributed to this matter’s urgency.
The second matter which required an urgent decision was Lebanon’s policy regarding Syria’s requests to detain Syrian refugees and Lebanese suspects for interrogation. Lebanon has a security agreement with Syria dating back to 1991 which establishes legal ground for such cooperation. Indeed, Syrian authorities had already officially demanded, in a few cases, that Lebanon hand over armed Syrian nationals who had sought refuge in the Lebanon’s eastern Beqaa area. However, in the political atmosphere of 2011, a debate immediately broke out on this issue over whether security agencies of the two countries should cooperate.
As the war in Syria continued, a third issue arose as Lebanon became a transit station for Syrian opposition fighters, particularly Islamists from the extreme Salafi stream and for weapons moving from Lebanon to Syria and in the opposite direction. The Salafi stream had existed in Lebanon since the 1940s but in the last two decades, inspired by the emergence of Global Jihad, Salafists had expanded their hold in Lebanon mainly in Palestinian refugee camps. They had two major goals: one, to gain popularity as an alternative to the mainstream Sunni ideology and two, to get closer to Palestine, one of Islam’s most holy lands. The latter goal caused problems, as the Lebanese-Israeli border was in a mostly Shi’i area, controlled by Hizballah, which vehemently opposed any Sunni presence in southern Lebanon, and all the more so, the Salafi intrusion. In 2007, Lebanon experienced a violent clash with a Salafi organization as Fath al-Islam fought against the Lebanese army in the Palestinian refugee camp Nahar al-Bared for four months. Then the army was sent to the battle by a unity government headed by Fouad Seniora of the “March 14” Sunni bloc. The Shi’ites, including Hizballah, which opposed other decisions of the government at that time and boycotted cabinet meetings, also supported the Lebanese Army against the Salafi organization,. After 2011, it became clear to all political factions that the war in Syria could significantly expand the presence of Salafists and Global Jihad activists in Lebanon. In 2012-2014 this presence indeed led to increased violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites, which will be discussed in greater detail below.
A fourth issue the Lebanese government urgently had to handle was formulating policy regarding the war in Syria and the Syrian regime in Arab and international political arenas. After the fall of the Lebanese government in January 2011, the political split on the attitude toward the war in Syria prevented any agreement on forming a new government, naming a premier-designate, and establishing guidelines for the future government. The creation of a supportive Lebanese government had become even more urgent matter, as Lebanon was about to become rotating president of the UN Security Council in September 2011. Syria wanted to ensure Lebanon’s diplomatic support, fearing international intervention in the war, either through sanctions or militarily, as had happened in Libya earlier that year.
All of these pressing issues formed the background for the creation of Najib Miqati’s government in June 2011, without the participation of “March 14” Sunni bloc. For the first time since the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon in April-May 2005, a non-unity government had formed in Lebanon, based only on the basically-Shi’i “March 8” bloc (including Maronite Michel ‘Aoun), along with the parliamentary bloc of Druze Walid Junblatt, and lawmakers loyal to President Michel Suleiman. The slogan “no winner — no loser” (La ghalib — la maghlub) that had been used by Lebanese politicians and commentators since the withdrawal of the Syrian Army from Lebanon in 2005 to explain the formula for political stability, became empty and meaningless. Moreover, the consent of Tripoli Sunni politician Nagib Miqati to head a government lacking the Sunni bloc had split the Sunni camp. A minority among Sunnis saw Miqati’s appointment as Shi’i interference in their own right to name the premier and others saw it as an opportunity to bring Hariri’s hegemony to end. This split also invoked the historic rivalry in Lebanese politics between strong Sunni families from Tripoli and Sidon, which goes back to the Solh (Sidon)-Karami (Tripoli) rivalry of the period between the 1930s and the 1960s. This time Miqati represented Tripoli politics while Hariri represented Sidon.
The government of Najib Miqati met Syrian expectations in its first months. Lebanon was a lone voice preventing condemnations of the Assad regime in the Arab League and among few in the UN Security Council to do so. However, as time passed and the death toll in Syria rose, along with the international criticism of Assad’s regime, the Miqati government gradually stopped speaking in one voice. Ministers loyal to President Michel Suleiman, who had taken the role of balancing factor against “March 8” and ministers loyal to Walid Junblatt, began to express other positions in the government and elsewhere, balancing “March 8” by opposing the Assad regime. President Suleiman’s positions were related also to the struggle within the Maronite sect, and against his prominent adversary Michel ‘Aoun, who had the support of about two-thirds of the Maronite legislators. ‘Aoun, the Maronite partner of the Shi’i bloc, opposed any representation of the president within the government in the first place, believing it would harm his political influence and had no constitutional basis. While ‘Aoun received public confidence in the Lebanese parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2009, President Suleiman was elected by Parliament and not by the general public, therefore, his public support was not put to the test.
Disagreements within the government and outside pressure from “March 14” led President Suleiman in June 2012 to resume the National Dialogue, a forum intended to bypass the government at times of political crisis. It was clear that the war in Syria had the great potential to drag Lebanon into violence and cause heavy economic losses in the coming tourist season. Representatives of all political streams met in the presidential palace in Ba’abda, and emerged having forged the “Ba’abda Declaration.” In it, Section 12 set Lebanon’s policy regarding the Arab Awakening and the war in Syria in particular: “Lebanon should eschew block politics and regional and international conflicts. It should seek to avoid the negative repercussions of regional tensions and crises in order to preserve its own paramount interest, national unity and civil peace”. Representatives of Hizballah in the dialogue agreed to the text, although there were already rumors in Lebanon that the Shi’i-dominant movement was involved in fighting alongside the Assad regime in Syria.
Najib Miqati’s government was not popular from day one. “March 14” worked vigorously among the public to undermine its credibility. Most of Lebanon’s Sunnis disliked Miqati’s consent to head a government based on the support of the Shi’i bloc with most Maronites. Gradually, the government lost control of the security situation as Lebanon became an increasingly active arena for Sunni-Shi’i violence, following a series of five distinct catalysts: clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli; “tit for tat” kidnappings surrounding the Syrian regime; the arrest of Michel Samaha for transporting explosives into Lebanon; the assassination of Wisam al-Hassan; and increasing Sunni-Shi’i tension and violence in the streets of Lebanon.
CLASHES IN TRIPOLI
1. First, repeated clashes in the northern city of Tripoli between Sunnis and Alawites continued throughout the war in Syria, peaking in December 2012, March 2013, and March 2014.. Even in the first weeks of the war in Syria, armed clashes had erupted in Tripoli between Alawi gunmen from Jabal Mohsen, a neighborhood whose residents supported Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Bab al-Tabbaneh, a Sunni neighborhood which backed the anti-regime uprising. The sectarian nature of the clashes was clear, as the Alawites considered themselves Shi’i Muslims as well as part of the same small religious sect of the Assad family that ruled the Sunni majority in Syria.
2. The next catalyst was a series of “tit-for-tat” kidnappings by supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, involving Lebanese. In May 2012, eleven Lebanese Shi’i pilgrims were abducted in the Syrian town of Aazaz on their way home from a religious pilgrimage in Iran, by Sunni anti-Assad militia. After two of them were released in the summer of 2012, nine remained in captivity until October 2013. Their families in Lebanon started to take action in order to pressure the government to act more determinedly to release them. They blocked roads and junctions, held demonstrations and at one point, began to abduct hostages related to the Syrian opposition. Among the abducted in Lebanon were Turkish businessmen, since Turkey was perceived as a main patron of the Syrian opposition. Finally, they were released in a deal mediated by Qatar. Ineffectiveness of the Lebanese security forces led to further kidnappings, many without any connection to the war in Syria, but merely out of financial interest in ransom payments.
THE ARREST OF MICHEL SAMAHA
3. The third catalyst that contributed to government loss of control in the area was the arrest of former minister Michel Samaha in August 2012 for transporting explosives into Lebanon to carry out terror attacks. Interrogation revealed that Samaha had transported the explosives in his car at the request of Syrian Security Chief, Ali Mamlouk. Although a Christian, it turned out later that Samaha has close ties with Jamil al-Sayyed, the former Shi’i head of the Lebanese General Security Directorate who was imprisoned at the STL’s demand on suspicion of his involvement in Rafiq Hariri’s assassination. Later he was cleared of all suspicion and was warmly embraced by Hizballah and Syria. Sayyed’s son, Malek, was one of Samaha’s advocates. Rumors circulated after the arrest that Jamil al-Sayyed had been in the car with Samaha, which sparked outrage among Sunnis and added another layer of suspicion surrounding Shi’i involvement in Syrian terror attacks in Lebanon. Samaha suggested in his interrogation that the explosives were meant to target Lebanese Christian leaders opposing the Syrian regime in order to raise sectarian tensions. For this reason, the Lebanese public prosecutor ordered his arrest for inciting sectarian strife in Lebanon.
THE ASSASSINATION OF WISAN AL-HASSAM
4. The assassination of Wisam al-Hassan, head of intelligence in the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) in October 2012 also contributed to the growing unrest in Lebanon. Al-Hassan, a Sunni Muslim, was close to the Hariri family, as he had served until 2005 as head of the late Rafiq al-Hariri’s personal security force. The fact that al-Hassan was not in Hariri’s convoy in the day he was assassinated made him a prime suspect in the first stages of inquiry, but later he was cleared of suspicion. Al-Hassan contributed much to the progress of the inquiry and to another probe of the assassination of a police officer who revealed Hizballah’s involvement in Hariri’s assassination. Over time, he climbed up the ranks within the ISF to be head of its intelligence bureau, as a brigadier general, and was even considered a leading candidate to replace the head of the ISF, Ashraf Rifi, in late 2012. His leadership of investigations such as the Samaha case, which revealed the involvement of pro-Syrian elements in undermining state security, also marked him as in favor of the Hariri family and the “March 14” bloc. The assassination of al-Hassan caused an outbreak of violence in the streets by Sunnis against supporters of the Syrian regime. The Sunni protesters accused Miqati’s pro-Syrian government of being responsible for the assassination and for hindering efforts to discover the assassins.
INCREASING SUNNI-SHI’I TENSION AND VIOLENCE
5. A fifth and final factor that led to a weakening of the government’s hold on the people was growing Sunni-Shi’i tension and violence in the streets — particularly threats from Sunni Salafists to expand the war from Syria to Lebanon, and attacks against Shi’i targets, especially of Hizballah, in order to pressure the Shi’i movement to return its fighters from Syria. Since mid-2012, the prominent voice among Hizballah’s critics was of Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, a Salafi preacher from Sidon, who openly threatened to attack Hizballah and Shi’i strongholds. He was not afraid to threaten Shi’i leaders Hassan Nasrallah and Amal’s leader Nabih Berri personally. Al-Assir was the first Lebanese leader to speak out bluntly against Hizballah since the end of the civil war in 1990 and represented a firm and unyielding Sunni line, unlike Sunni politicians of earlier years. In November 2012, after deadly clashes between his supporters and Hizballah gunmen in Sidon, Assir declared that he was considering forming an armed resistance group, and that “We have a blood score to settle with Hizballah that can only be settled with blood”. “I no longer accept the hegemony of an armed group that threatens us, that talks about cutting hands … and then accuses us of being traitors while attacking our religious leaders and our dignity.” He proclaimed his will to form a Sunni militia to balance Hizballah’s influence. His actions and statements affected the general atmosphere and contributed to a feeling among the public that Hizballah was growing weaker. After leading provocative demonstrations and protest marches against the Shi’i movement in which he frequently threatened to bring the Syrian war to Hizballah’s stronghold, al-Assir made a critical mistake and confronted the Lebanese Army in June 2013. Al-Assir, who was born to a Sunni father and Shi’i mother and came from a non-religious home, was criticized across the entire political spectrum, which reflected the widespread opposition to the Salafists. But under the surface, Lebanon’s Sunnis embraced his movement’s uprising in 2011-2012 because it presented an assertive voice against the Shi’ites. Such an embrace was also a manifestation of a leadership vacuum and frustration with the present leadership as personified by the Hariri family. Following the Lebanese army’s infiltration of al-Assir’s complex in Abra, Sidon, where his men had barricaded themselves, the Sunnis lost their primary firm voice in the streets.
THE DISPUTE ON HIZBALLAH’S INVOLVEMENT IN SYRIA
In 2012, Hizballah’s involvement in the fighting in Syria became a major bone of contention between Sunni and Shi’i blocs in Lebanon and escalated the level of violence. As the strongest military force in Lebanon, stronger even than the Lebanese army, Hizballah was also important for its predominance among the country’s largest religious sect, the Shi’i. Events in the region and in Lebanon undermined Hizballah’s status and presented its leadership with difficult dilemmas. Fear of the fall of the Assad regime, which had been a major ally of the movement over the previous twenty years, was a major factor in the movement’s stance in Lebanon and the growing rivalry between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Syria played an important role in the military and political life of the Shi’ites in Lebanon, as part of a regional axis that included Iran, Hizballah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other resistance and anti-Western organizations. As a central Arab country, Syria represented a different viewpoint from the official Arab line of the Arab league, as an alternative to the Western hegemony in the Middle East. The fall of Assad’s Alawi regime in Syria, which considered itself a Twelver Shi’i regime, threatened to exacerbate the Sunni-Shi’i rift in the region because it would break the geographic continuity of a possible future Shi’i axis — a Shi’i Crescent — from Iran, via Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon. It would also immediately weaken, and perhaps even dismantle, the pro-Syrian “March 8” camp in Lebanon.
On a practical level, the struggle in Syria made the extensive provisioning of weapons to Hizballah difficult because the Syrian army needed any means available to suppress the uprising. It also seriously damaged Hizballah’s ability to receive Iranian weapons shipments, which were mostly transferred to Lebanon via Damascus and through smuggling routes in the Lebanese valley which were no longer entirely under Syrian control. Weapons from Iran and Syria were an essential component of Hizballah’s military force, which translated to Shi’i political influence in Lebanese politics. The expected weakening of the Shi’i pro-Syrian alliance in Lebanon was among several factors which played an important role in Sunni motivation to resist Hizballah.
Hizballah’s official stance regarding the uprising in Syria during the first two years also contributed to its undermined status. The movement had supported Assad’s regime since the beginning of the revolt. As the Syrian regime suffered defeats on the battlefield and lost some of its public support, outcries grew within the Lebanese Shi’i sect against Hizballah’s unequivocal position. Criticism, even though raised by factions without political weight, influenced the general mood in Lebanon. These concentrated on two points: First, the risk of putting all bets on one side with a reasonable chance of losing the war, a stance could jeopardize Lebanon’s Shi’ites the day after the fall of Assad. Some Shi’ites thought they should develop relationships with factors that might play a role in the post-Assad regime, some of these almost certainly Sunni. They also blamed Hizballah for dragging Lebanon into Sunni-Shi’i strife. The second major criticism was that Hizballah was supporting a dictator in slaughtering his own people, which was against Shi’i tradition. Throughout history, as a persecuted minority in Islam, Shi’ites had always opposed any dictatorship. In the early stages of the Arab Awakening, Hizballah, the most important Arab Shi’i movement, supported the rebels in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Bahrain. In contrast to that, in the Syrian uprising, the movement supported tyrant Bashar Assad. Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah’s Secretary General, tried to resolve the contradiction, saying that Hizballah’s position on whether or not to support the regime or the rebels was determined by the regime’s commitment to resistance to Israel (al-Muqawama). Syria, according to Nasrallah, had proved its high degree of commitment to this cause. He admitted that reforms were needed in Syria, but also stressed the only leader who could lead such reforms was Bashar Assad. However, despite this smokescreen, most of Hizballah’s critics realized that its overwhelming support for the Assad regime stemmed from practical interests and Iran’s requirement, and do not accept Nasrallah’s explanations.
The decrease in Hizballah’s popularity, and the decline of its image as an unbeatable movement, cultivated before the beginning of its involvement in Syria, raised the confidence of its Lebanese opponents, as reflected in the first two years of the war by an increase in threats, and later by acts of terror against Hizballah’s strongholds. The fact that Lebanon had become a transit station for Syrian opposition warriors and a source of smuggled weapons tightened cooperation between Sunni jihadists involved in the war in Syria and Lebanese Sunni extremists. It also offered the Lebanese Sunnis military capabilities in Lebanon.
The victory of the Syrian army in Qusair with the help of Hizballah in June 2013 was a watershed event in the war in Syria. Initially, this victory led criticism against Hizballah to a peak. In the long run, it marked a turning point in the Syrian war in favor of the regime, and consequently the realization that Hizballah might find itself on the winning side. The battle in Qusair caused an unprecedented assault on the Shi’i movement by one of the world’s leading Sunni clerics, Sheikh Yusuf Qardawi. He presented the battle as a Sunni-Shi’i conflict and slammed Hizballah and Hassan Nasrallah personally: “The leader of the party of the Satan comes to fight the Sunnis… now we know what the Iranians want… They want continued massacres to kill Sunnis.” Qardawi called all Sunni Muslims to come to Syria and Lebanon to fight Hizballah, but insisted that his call was not against all Shi’ites. In an interview he claimed that “Satan took over Hizbollah and Shi’ites (who supported it) and made them forget the name of God”.
Hassan Nasrallah, on the other hand, tried to downplay the Sunni-Shi’i aspect of the conflict. “No one can accuse us of being sectarian” he declared, adding, “We are not evaluating the matter from a Sunni or Shi’i perspective, but from a perspective joining all Muslims and Christians together because they are all threatened by this Takfiri project that is financed by the U.S.” He also used criticism against Hizballah from Shi’i figures to bolster his claim that the war was not based on the Sunni-Shi’i rivalry.
Verbal threats turned to street violence in the summer of 2013. Rockets were fired on Hizballah’s strongholds in the Lebanese valley, mainly to the Shi’i city of Ba’albek and nearby towns. One day after Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on the 13th anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in late May, in which he admitted for the first time Hizballah’s deep involvement in the war in Syria, two Grad rockets hit the Dahiya, Hizballah’s stronghold in Beirut’s suburbs. In July, more than 50 people were injured in an explosion in the parking lot of a supermarket in the Dahiya’s Beer al-Abed, only one day before the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, while many Shi’i were shopping for the holiday. On August 15, a booby-trapped car rocked the Shi’i neighborhood of Rweiss in the southern suburbs of Beirut, killing 27 and wounding over 300. Investigation led to Lebanese Sunnis and anti-Assad Syrian nationals who were responsible to the blast. Following the deadly attacks, Hizballah set up checkpoints and deployed its own security forces in the Dahiya region, a move perceived as a continuation of its contempt for state institutions. Hizballah’s status also decreased because of the EU’s decision in late July to include the movement in its list of terrorist organizations because of its involvement in the war in Syria, a move which was seen as a potential threat to Lebanon, because it enabled sanctions against anyone who engaged in a relationship with Hizballah’s military faction. The feeling of contempt by Hizballah against the state’s institutions was reinforced by a dispute which broke out following a speech by President Michel Suleiman on the 68th anniversary of the Army Day in August, in which he said “the Ba’abda declaration cannot be perceived as Lebanon’s policy because of the involvement of some elements in the war in Syria,” hinting at Hizballah without mentioning its name outright. In response, Hizballah dismissed the Ba’abda Declaration, saying “it was born dead right from the start, and all that remains of it is ink on paper”.
However, at that point, Hizballah returned to a reassuring policy of “Lebanonization,” as it had after previous crises in which it was accused of ignoring state institutions. It took a step back and reached understandings with the state’s authorities on the deployment of 800 State security personal in the Dahiya. This was the first time in Hizballah’s history that it had permitted the state’s security to deploy within its stronghold, in spite of the risk of espionage. It also started to praise the state’s security functions throughout Lebanon after a series of statements condemning the lack of effectiveness of the Lebanese army in previous years. On the other hand, this step enabled the movement to assign fighters for other purposes in the war in Syria and to prepare for future confrontation with Israel. Revenge for the Dahiya attacks came one week after the initial parking-lot explosion: coordinated bombs hit two mosques affiliated with Sunni Salafist preachers in the northern city of Tripoli during Friday prayers, killing at least 45 people and wounding hundreds. Although there was no evidence of Hizballah’s involvement in those explosions, it was accused by opponents of the blast and became suspect. Only the later arrests of Sunni and Alawi suspects, and their connections to an organization that enjoys good relations with Assad’s regime, “cleaned” Hizballah of suspicion.
A TURNABOUT IN HIZBALLAH’S STATUS
From mid-2013 to mid-2014, there has been a gradual change in attitude among the Lebanese public regarding the involvement of Hizballah in the Syrian war. The two main reasons include (a) a change of momentum in the Syrian war, from success of the rebel groups to a sequence of successes for the Assad regime; and (b) a series of terror attacks in Lebanon initiated by Salafi Sunnis against Hizballah targets and Shi’i civilians, and the Lebanese army . Although this shift in attitude has not convinced Hizballah’s opponents to support the movement, it has weakened opposition to Hizballah’s involvement in Syria and strengthened Hizballah’s political alliance with other parties in the “March 8” bloc, who earlier disagreed on this point.
The change of momentum in favor of the Assad regime in the Syrian war raised confidence among its Lebanese supporters, mainly Shi’i, and reduced confidence among its opponents, mostly Sunni. The battle in Qusair, mentioned earlier, which the Assad regime won in June 2013 with crucial help from Hizballah fighters, was a watershed in the balance of power in the war in Syria. During the next three months, rebel organizations gained some success at occupation checkpoints in the city of Daraa, taking over most of the southern city of Nawa, the northern town of Ras al-Ain, and laying siege to the western neighborhoods of Aleppo. However, for the first time in months, the Syrian army managed, along with Hizballah and other pro-Assad militias, to gain victories in al-Sukhnah and Khaldiyeh, restoring control in a number of towns around the city of Homs and several more towns. The momentum has changed completely from October 2013, when the Syrian regime achieved victories mainly in the key areas of the Damascus suburbs and the city of Aleppo.
Conflicts which erupted between the rebel groups in Syria have turned into bloody fighting, helping pro-Assad forces to achieve victories on the battlefield as well as in public opinion. The most prominent groups are the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, based in Iraq, and Jabhat al-Nusra, both factions of al-Qaeda and Global Jihad. At the end of 2013, these Jihadist groups gradually took control of the revolt against the Assad regime, while fighting against the major military power among the rebels, the Free Syrian Army. Murderous massacres of the Salafi Sunni groups in Syria, some of which were filmed and broadcasted on television around the world, evoked disgust from these Salafi groups and shifted global attitudes towards the rebels in Syria. Western powers gradually stopped providing logistical support and weapons to the rebels out of fear of loss of control as a result of the strengthening of the Salafist groups, and began to see the Assad regime as the “lesser evil” or the least bad alternative to Syria. The result of this on the ground was military victories of Assad supporters, including Hizballah.
As Assad-regime forces were strengthened on the battlefield, the anti-Assad camp in Lebanon dimmed its criticism against the Syrian regime itself and against the involvement of Hizballah in Syria. The widespread feeling in Lebanon over the two years from 2012 to 2014, that the Syrian regime was about to fall, which had led to the strengthening of Sunni forces opposing Assad and the weakening of the Shi’i camp, was replaced by a feeling that the Assad regime might ultimately emerge victorious from the war. This change re-strengthened the political and public status of the mostly Shi’i “March 8” bloc. The most striking indication of this was the position of the Christian Maronite Michel ‘Aoun, the senior political ally of Hizballah in “March 8,” who had previously objected to Hizballah’s involvement in the Syrian war, and after the victory in Qusair, expressed support for this involvement for the first time.
The second reason for the turnabout in Hizballah’s status among the Shi’i and Lebanese public is increasing Salafi terrorism in Lebanon, including a series of terrorist attacks against Shi’i civilians at the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014 in Hizballah’s stronghold neighborhoods in the Dahiya, the suburbs of south Beirut. The purpose of these terror attacks was to put pressure on Hizballah to cease its involvement in the Syrian war, facilitating the rebels fighting against the Assad regime.
In November 2013, a double bomb attack near the Iranian embassy in the Dhahiyah killed at least 22 people and wounded almost 150. The explosion appeared to have been caused by a car bomb and a motorcycle laden with explosives. In late December, Former Minister Mohammad Shatah, member of the Future Movement, was killed by a car bomb. Five other people were killed and around seventy were wounded in the attack. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an al-Qaeda linked organization claimed responsibility for the blasts.
In January 2014, a car bomb sent by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant exploded on a crowded street in a southern suburb of Haret Hreik, killing five people and injuring twenty. The death of sixteen-year-old Mohammad al-Chaar, seconds after he took a “selfie” picture with few freinds created a public atmosphere of tragedy and increased the Lebanese public’s empathy for the Shi’i victims in the Dahiya. Two weeks later, a suicide car bomber struck in the mainly Shi’i town of Hermel in Lebanon’s Beqaa area. The bomber, sent by al-Nusra Front, targeted a main commercial street during rush hour, killing and injuring more than forty. Five days later, on January 21, a suicide car bomber exploded in Haret Hreik, killing four people and wounding thirty-five others. A group known as al-Nusra Front of Lebanon, perhaps an offshoot of the al-Nusra Front in Syria, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that it was a protest against Hizballah’s assistance to the regime in Syria. One of the victims, the eighteen-year-old girl Maria Jawhari, who had escaped three previous terror attacks in the southern suburbs, was killed while sitting in a café, which bore the brunt of the explosion, taking a brief break from her work at a shoe store nearby. This increased anger toward the Salafi organizations and intensified empathy towards all those who fought against them, first and foremost Hizballah.
In early February 2014, a car bomb exploded next to a gas station in Hermel, causing a cascade of explosions which killed four people and injured eighteen. No one claimed responsibility for the car bombing, but suspicion has fallen on Sunni militants of al-Nusra Front. A couple of days later, a man wearing an explosive belt blew himself up on a public transport minibus in Choueifat, a mixed Druze and Shi’i neighborhood. The attack killed at least one person and injured two. In mid March a suicide car bombing in the Lebanese border town of Nabi Othman which killed two people and injured fourteen.
Coinciding with the terrorist attacks against Shi’i civilians in Hizballah’s strongholds in southern Beirut and the Beqaa, the Lebanese army was also a target of Salafi Sunni groups linked to al-Qaeda and Global Jihad. Army posts, checkpoints, vehicles, and basis were targeted on almost weekly basis, a series of deadly attacks beginning in early 2014. On February 22, 2014, a suicide car bomb targeting an Army post in the northeastern town of Hermel killed two soldiers and a civilian and wounded 17 others. The Lebanon branch of the Nusra Front claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing, saying it was part of a “series of vengeful attacks. On March 29, A suicide bomber killed himself and three soldiers when he detonated a car bomb at a Lebanese army checkpoint in the border town of Arsal. The Lebanese army found itself in the same situation as Hizballah, attacked on Lebanese soil by Salafi jihadists involved in the war in Syria. In late 2013 and early 2014, reality in Lebanon tragically aligned with Hizballah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah’s excuse for his group’s involvement in the Syrian war: he had claimed, in speeches, that this move would protect Lebanon from murderous Sunni Salafi terrorism.
The Arab Awakening and the war in Syria did not create the Sunni-Shi’i conflict in Lebanon, but only reinforced an existing conflict and contributed to its escalating violence. Since the end of the civil war in 1990, Lebanon has been split between supporters and opponents of Syria’s Assad regime. Several years earlier (in 1984), most religious sects found themselves rivals of the Shi’i, as the latter started to show their military and demographic strength. These two trends met when the Syrian Army withdrew from Lebanon after 30 years in 2005, and openly split Lebanese politics and public into two blocs, a mainly Sunni one (“March 14”) and a Shi’i one (“March 8”).
The Arab Awakening and the war in Syria forced Lebanon to return to the old question of its conflicted identity between East and West. This question was first raised in the nineteen century, when European superpowers patronized the Christians of Mount Lebanon and the Ottoman Empire patronized the Sunni Muslims. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, France (West) patronized the Lebanese Maronites and the Arab National Movement (East), based in Damascus, patronized the Lebanese Sunnis. In the 1950s, Lebanon’s Eastern identity was represented in Lebanon by the pro-Nasserite stream while its Western identity was represented by pro-Chamounists. Today, the Shi’a represents its Eastern identity, as partners of Iran and Syria’s Assad regime, while the Sunna represents Western ideas, with the support of Western superpowers. While the Shi’i camp in Lebanon has more or less crystallized, at least politically, the Sunnis have more diverse voices, including Global Jihad elements that cannot be considered a part of Western identity in any way. Thus, the question of Lebanon’s identity is very much associated with the geopolitics of the Middle East and the involvement and patronage of foreign powers. Many Lebanese think the development of the Sunni-Shi’i conflict in the country depends on relations between patrons (Saudi Arabia for the Sunnis, and Iran and Syria for the Shi’i), and perhaps even world powers.
Both Sunnis and Shi’ites in Lebanon are facing the choice between extremist and moderate streams. Hizballah, which represents the Shi’i extremists in the current crisis, may cause Lebanese Shi’ites to be isolated in the country and the region, while moderate voices who oppose the movement’s participation in the Syrian war want to stick with the national consensual line. The war in Syria puts Hizballah into conflict between its regional interests and Iran’s desire on the one hand, and its Lebanese interests on the other hand. For the first time in twenty years, Salafist movements, such as Ahmad al-Assir’s, present a welcomed Sunni assertiveness against the Shi’i, but also may drag Lebanon into new and bloody conflict against the majority moderate Sunni stream. The Arab Awakening and the war in Syria, which put on the table the conflict between moderate and extremist Muslim streams, raises major fears within the large Lebanese Christian communities regarding their fate and the best way to ensure their own future wellbeing. Affiliating themselves with the growing Shi’i power within Lebanon might alienate them from the region’s vast majority of Sunnis, while close relations with the Sunnis might alienate them from the similarly-growing Shi’i power bloc.
Despite a deterioration in security and ongoing political instability, it seems that Lebanon is not under any immediate threat of revolt like those experienced in other Arab countries during the Arab Awakening. Paradoxically, while the rest of the Middle East is in a storm which breaks the old rules in searching for a new path, the fundamental problems of Lebanon keep this country of contrasts safe from the wave of revolutions that have appeared in other Arab countries. On the other hand, the regional tension between Sunna and Shi’a and between supporters of Iran and the West might cause further deterioration, inching Lebanon ever closer to a new wave of violence and bloodshed.
After the summer of 2013, when Lebanon’s Sunnis and Shi’i appeared to be on the verge of civil war, several factors restrained both sides, preventing them from deteriorating into outright warfare. An agreement between the United States and Russia in September 2013 on Syria’s chemical weapons created an atmosphere in which it was thought that the Syrian crisis could perhaps be resolved through diplomatic negotiations, an assumption that later turned out to be incorrect, but which lowered tensions in Lebanon at the time. Deployment of Lebanese security forces in the Dahiya has also helped lower the flames of debate between the disputants and to the sense of security on the streets. Ahmad al-Assir’s stepping down from the stage, at least temporarily, has also reduced the level of provocation between Sunnis and Shi’i on the ground. Another important contribution to the relative Sunni-Shia calm in Lebanon was the formation of a unity government in mid-February 2014, led by Tamam Salam, although it lacks the ability to make decisions on substantive issues. But the main reason for the temporary increasing tension between Sunnis and Shi’i in Lebanon is the frequent terror attacks in Lebanon by Salafi Global Jihadists. This has set many Lebanese national factors, including Hizballah and the Lebanese army “in the same boat,” fighting a common enemy.
However, the continuing political crisis, including concern about presidential vacuum with President Michel Suleiman’s term ending in May 2014, and the complete dysfunction of Parliament, contributes to a mood of instability and prevents the creation of any a mechanism that would prevent the future deterioration into an outright Sunni-Shi’i war in Lebanon. Presidential and parliamentary elections expected to be held in 2014 could possibly re-ignite the tension, but may serve instead as a framework on which to build understandings.
*Dr. Omri Nir is a lecturer in the departments of Middle-Eastern and Islamic studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv University, and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His expertise is the history and politics of modern Lebanon and the Arab Shi’a.
 On the historical evolution of sectarian demography, see Mark Farha, “Demographic Dilemmas,” in Barrry Rubin, Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (NY: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009), figure 5.1, p. 92.
 Pierre Rondot, La Institutions Politiquest du Liban (Paris: 1947), pp. 65-66.
 Rania Maktabi, “The Lebanese Census of 1932 Revisited. Who Are The Lebanese?” Table 3,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 26, Issue 2 (November 1999), p219-242, http://web.macam.ac.il/~arnon/Int-ME/extra/LEBANESE%20CENSUS%201932.htm.
 Omri Nir, Nabih Berri and Lebanese Politics (NY: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011), pp. 31-33.
 Ibid. pp, 64-66.
 For deep analysis of the 2005 parliamentary election results see Simon Haddad, “The Lebanese Parliamentary Elections of 2005,” Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Fall 2005), pp. 305-331.
 “Hizbullah, Amal Cabinet Ministers Resign as Talks Collapse,” Naharnet, November 11, 2006, http://old.naharnet.com/domino/tn/NewsDesk.nsf/0/EA8B277AC5AD99C2C2257223005FCAF1?OpenDocument.
 Hussein Dakroub, “Highest Shiite authority dismisses Hariri tribunal as ‘null and void’,” The Daily Star, February 22, 2011, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Politics/Feb/22/Highest-Shiite-authority-dismisses-Hariri-tribunal-as-null-and-void.ashx#ixzz2gSXcpwyy.
 The funding of 30-35 million dollars were transferred to the STL by Lebanon according to personal decision of Prime Minister without government approval, and no attempt to arrest the suspects is known while official stand of the government is thereabout is unknown. See for example STL Annual Report 2012-2013 in: http://www.stl-tsl.org/en/documents/president-s-reports-and-memoranda/fourth-annual-report-2012-2013.
 Demonstrations took place in 2011, on February 27, March 6, March 20, and June 26.
 “Egypt Arrests Hizballah Agents,” Al-Jazeera, April 10, 2009, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2009/04/2009498338693164.html; Mubarak blamed Hizballah for drugging the region to “adventurism that does not serve Arab interests,” hinting to Iran: http://www.nysun.com/article/36281.
 Al-Jazeera English, Janurary 13, 2011, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2011/01/2011112151356430829.html.
 Jethro Mullen,”Number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon passes 1 million, U.N. says,” CNN, April 3, 2014, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/04/03/world/meast/lebanon-syrian-refugees/
 See the relevant parts (Article 5, Section 3 and Article 6, Section 5b) of the treaty of “Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination,” between Syria and Lebanon from May 22, 1991: http://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/LB-SY_910522_TreatyBrotherhoodCooperationCoordination.pdf.
 Gary C. Gambill, “Salafi-jihadism in Lebanon,” Global Politician, March 30, 2008, http://www.globalpolitician.com/default.asp?24371-lebanon; See also Bernard Rougier, Everyday Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam Among Palestinians in Lebanon (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2007).
 Hassan M. Fattah, “Army Provides a Sense of Unity in Fractured Lebanon,” NYT, June 20, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/20/world/middleeast/20lebanon.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
 “PM designation splits Sunni camp in Lebanon,” Middle East Online, January 28, 2011, http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=43944.
 Naharnet, February 16, 2011, www.naharnet.com/stories/ar/3116-عون-لا-أؤيد-إعطاء-سليمان-أي-وزير-في-الحكومة-لأنه-فقد-توافقيته
 The official text of the declaration as given to the UN by Lebanon is in : http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/Lebanon%20S%202012%20477.pdf.
 Misbah al-Ali, Antoine Amrieh, “Army to impose Tripoli security plan,” The Daily Star, December 10, 2012, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Politics/2012/Dec-10/197874-army-to-impose-tripoli-security-plan.ashx#axzz2gMb8MleT; “Deadly violence in Tripoli, Lebanon: Army steps up response,” al-Bawada News, March 24, 2013, http://www.albawaba.com/news/tripoli-lebanon-fighting-479383; “27 killed in nine days of Lebanon’s Tripoli clashes,” PressTV, May 7, 2014, http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2014/03/22/355682/27-killed-in-9-days-of-tripoli-clashes/.
 Jim Muir, “Syria crisis: Lebanese detention highlights faultlines,” BBC (Beirut), Augoust 9, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19200058.
 Mitchell Prothero, “Funeral of security official killed in Beirut car bomb turns violent,” The Guardian, October 21, 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/oct/21/thousands-lebanese-mourners-funeral-wissam-al-hassan.
 The Daily Star, November, 11, 2012, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Local-News/2012/Nov-11/194667-one-killed-two-injured-in-sidon-clashes.ashx#axzz2ByujsNP4; Naharnet, November 17, 2012, http://www.naharnet.com/stories/en/61152-asir-we-suspended-decision-to-form-armed-brigade-pending-consultations.
 “The Salafist preacher who declared war on Hezbollah,” France 24, November 15, 2012, http://www.france24.com/en/20121114-lebanon-syria-shiite-sunni-salafist-preacher-threaten-hezbollah-hassan-nasrallah.
 “Breaking down Ahmad al-Assir: the man behind the beard,” al-Arabiya English, June 25, 2013, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/profiles/2013/06/25/Breaking-down-Ahmad-al-Assir-the-man-behind-the-beard.html.
 Ibrahim Al-Amin, “Ahmad al-Assir and Lebanon’s Despondent Sunnis,” al-Akhbar English, March 4, 2013, http://english.al-akhbar.com/content/ahmad-al-assir-and-lebanon%E2%80%99s-despondent-sunnis.
 E. B. Picali, “Rift In Hizbullah And Among Its Shi’ite Supporters Due To Its Military Involvement In Syria,” MEMRI, October 3, 2013, http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/259/0/7438.htm.
 See for example Nasrallah’s speech on Liberation Day, al-Jazeera, May 25, 2011,
 Al-Arabia English, June 2, 2013, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2013/06/02/Top-cleric-Qaradawi-calls-for-Jihad-against-Hezbollah-Assad-in-Syria.html.
 Al-Arabiya, June 2, 2013, www.alarabiya.net/ar/arab-and-world/syria/2013/06/02/القرضاوي-الشيعة-خدعوني-وحزب-الله-كذبة-كبيرة-.html. He used the nickname “Party of Satan” on the weight of Hizballah’s name, the “Party of God.”
 Naharnet, September 24, 2013, www.naharnet.com/stories/ar/99546-وقائع-تفجير-الرويس-المخطط-يدعى-عمر-الأطرش-والسيارة-جُهِّزت-في-عرسال.
 Jamie Dettmer, “Lebanon Unhappy With Hezbollah Blacklisting,” Lebanonwire, July 25, 2013,
 Nasralla’s speech, The Daily Star, September 23, 2013, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2013/Sep-23/232304-nasrallah-urges-residents-of-southern-suburbs-of-beirut-to-cooperate-fully-with-security-forces.ashx#axzz2h1RJ4BfS.
 Reuters, August 23, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/23/us-lebanon-explosion-deaths-idUSBRE97M0FL20130823.
The Daily Star Lebanon, August 26, 2013, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2013/Aug-26/228717-detention-of-suspects-over-tripoli-blasts-extended.ashx#ixzz316e3PJ5h; “Judge issues warrants for two suspects over Tripoli blasts,” The Daily Star, September 02, 2013, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2013/Sep-02/229632-judge-issues-warrants-for-houri-gharib-over-tripoli-bombings.ashx#axzz316dtQo2l.
 “Syrian army, backed by jets, launches assault on Homs,” Reuters quoted in Haaretz English, June 29, 2013, http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/1.532668; “Syria rebels seize parts of Deraa’s Nawa city,” (Blog), al-Jazeera, July 17, 2013, http://blogs.aljazeera.com/topic/syria/syria-rebels-seize-parts-deraas-nawa-city; “Kurds seize town on Syria-Turkey border, Ankara concerned,” Reuters, July 18, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/07/18/us-syria-crisis-turkey-idUSBRE96H0EQ20130718; “Syria rebels seize key northern town: NGO,” Agence France Presse quoted in al-Ahram Online, July 22, 2013, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/2/8/77092/World/Region/Syria-rebels-seize-key-northern-town-NGO.aspx
 Loveday Morris, “Syria: Government forces take control of strategic Homs neighbourhood,” Toronto Star, July 30, 2013 (published at The Washington Post on July 29), http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2013/07/29/syria_government_forces_take_control_of_strategic_homs_neighbourhood.html; Marah Mashi, “Syrian Army Makes Headway in Damascus and Homs,” Al-Akhbar English, September 19, 2013, http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/17071.
 Dana Khraiche, “Car bomb in Beirut kills four, wounds 77,” The Daily Star Lebanon, January 2, 2014, http://dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Jan-02/242913-huge-explosion-rocks-beiruts-southern-suburbs.ashx#axzz2pGYQ7e4N.
 “‘Selfie’ sparks Lebanese anger: 16-year-old Mohammad al-Chaar’s tragic death,” Emirates 24/7 News, January 11, 2014, http://www.emirates247.com/news/selfie-sparks-lebanese-anger-16-year-old-mohammad-al-chaar-s-tragic-death-2014-01-11-1.534276
 Dana Khraiche, “Car bomb kills 5 in Lebanon’s Hermel,” The Daily Star Lebanon, January 16, 2014, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Jan-16/244215-car-bomb-in-lebanons-hermel-kills-one-wounds-more.ashx#axzz2qZdthxMr
 “Suicide car bomb kills at least four in Hermel,” Agence France Presse quoted in Lebanonwire, February 1, 2014, http://www.lebanonwire.com/1402MLN/14020115AGC.asp.
 Thomas El-Basha, Rayane Abou Jaoude, Kareem Shaheen, “Nusra claims another suicide bombing,” The Daily Star Lebanon quoted in Lebanonwire, February 4, 2014, http://www.lebanonwire.com/1402MLN/14020407DS.asp.
 Dana Khraiche, “ Suicide bomber kills three in e. Lebanon,” The Daily star Lebanon, February 22, 2014, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Feb-22/248183-suicide-bomber-kills-two-soldiers-in-e-Lebanon.ashx#axzz2u4YS3Zq7
 “Car bomb kills three soldiers in attack on Lebanese army checkpoint, Reuters, March 29, 2014, , http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/29/us-lebanon-violence-idUSBREA2S0I720140329
 For instance: Jana El Hassan, “Nasrallah: We will keep fighting in Syria,” The Daily star Lebanon, February 14, 2014, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Feb-17/247576-nasrallah-we-will-keep-fighting-in-syria.ashx#axzz32AnoloJX; also see: “Hezbollah presence in Syria saved Lebanon: Nasrallah,” PressTV, March 29, 2014, http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2014/03/29/356489/hezbollah-saved-lebanon-in-syria-war/