While Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have all felt the heavy burden of hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian civil war refugees on their soil, Lebanon has felt the largest impact on its security from the fighting.
Lebanon's complex patchwork of religious communities each has their own external supporters. Add to this mix Hizbullah's participation in the fighting in Syria and a porous border, and the spillover effects from Syria are of huge concern to Beirut. And as always, it is the Lebanese security forces that bind the country together as political leaders continuously put self-interest and communal concerns above the national interest.
Lebanese soldiers, Beirut, 2005 (Flickr/Charles Roffey)
I have a soft spot for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). For all its faults, it is arguably the one truly national institution in the country. And that is no mean feat in a place where one's national identity must compete for loyalty against the much stronger pull of familial, regional, sectarian and in some cases tribal identity. It is also no mean feat when you have to share the security space with Hizbullah, whose training, equipment and discipline match if not exceed that of the LAF.
The main criticism of the LAF is that when Hizbullah wants to act, the LAF either stands aside or on occasion coordinates with it. The LAF's counter-argument is that taking on Hizbullah would not only be difficult militarily, but more importantly would also threaten the unity of the LAF itself. A very senior LAF officer once told me that his primary focus was on maintaining the unity of the LAF because it was the only national institution.
The LAF's size and equipment make it incapable of repelling foreign invasions, and it will never confront Hizbullah, yet the LAF has had plenty of experience in fighting security threats inside the country, and it is good at it. I remember the national pride on display in 2007 as the LAF defeated Fatah al-Islam fighters holed up in Nahr al-Barid refugee camp, an action which involved some extremely bloody fighting. Now however, the fighting is becoming more constant as militants feel the pressure in Iraq and Syria. The LAF was called upon to fight against Islamist fighters in the border town of Arsal in August and in Tripoli in October, and there is no indication that this will be the last of it.
But there is a more immediate problem. There are still over 20 LAF and other security force personnel being held captive by Islamist militants who were captured during the fighting in Arsal. While little is heard of it in the West, two have been beheaded and it remains a significant political issue in Lebanon. There is a tent protest in downtown Beirut that causes ongoing traffic problems in an already gridlocked city. There is also the tricky issue of the three soldiers who have allegedly defected to ISIS or Jabhat al Nusra, although media reports in Lebanon claimed that one had subsequently turned himself in to the LAF.
The LAF operates in a tough neighbourhood. There are few militaries which have to deal with a significant and ongoing internal security problem while trying to negotiate the release of its soldiers from the same people it is fighting. And the LAF receives little political support. After all, Hizbullah, one of the country's main political parties, operates a battle hardened militia supported by an external power, whose actions in support of the Assad regime in Syria is one of the causes of the problems the LAF has to address. On top of that, LAF commanders need to avoid placing personnel in a position where soldiers' sectarian loyalties collide with their loyalty to the LAF.
The fact that the LAF still turns up to the fight despite all of this is one reason I continue to have a soft spot for it.