Spring is almost over and as summer fast approaches, Lebanon once again prepares for the massive influx of visiting diaspora that clogs the roads, snaps up all the holiday rentals, and fills the beaches by day and the rooftop clubs by night. The other great summer tradition in Lebanon is local speculation on whether this is the summer the unfinished war with Israel will be resumed.
The Lebanese resort town of Jounieh, north of Beirut. (Tumblr/Paul Saad.)
The last few years I have been in Lebanon there is always at least one prophecy that suggests this is the year it's all going to kick off. These warnings, combined with various security threats (summer of the ISIS bombs in 2014; summer of the Shi'ite area bombings in 2013; summer of the tyre burning protests in 2012), have seen the lucrative Gulf and Western tourist markets shrink dramatically, increasing economic pressures on this already fragile state.
So is this year going to be the 'summer of war'? The problem is that this prediction can no longer be formulated by a simple calculation of Israeli and Hizbullah strategic positions. As well as an Israel-Hizbullah conflict, we have the potential for an invasion by ISIS from Syria, and the potential for the return of that old faithful, civil war, which this time would pit Shi'a against Sunni.
Let's consider the evidence.
Earlier this year there were reports of increased threats from ISIS that, this summer, the group plans to establish a Caliphate in Lebanon (or what would be left of it once the 17 out of the 18 official resident religions had been eradicated). While these can be dismissed as emanations from the ISIS propaganda machine, Lebanon remains alert to the threat of isolated bomb attacks from ISIS sympathisers.
However, the recent battle in the Qalamoun Mountains of Syria between Hizbullah and the Syrian army on one side, and various Sunni militias on the other, has been deemed largely a success for Hizbullah and Assad. The victors claim to have located and destroyed a number of armed cars waiting to be sent across the border to detonate. To the east of Lebanon in Arsal, the disunity between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS has disintegrated into armed conflict. The Lebanese Armed Forces have been pounding the area in an effort to destroy militant groups based there.
Within Lebanon, tensions between Sunni and Shi'a are rising at the political level as the major parties accuse each other's sponsors of behaving irresponsibly in Yemen. As I noted in a previous post, the rise of extremism in Palestinian camps has coincided with a spate of sectarian killings between Sunni and Shi'a which could spill over into the Lebanese street. The recent army attacks on Sunni militants in the north of the country help drive the perception among some Lebanese Sunnis that the Lebanese Armed Forces are a Shi'a-backed institution. All these incidents add up to increased tensions, but a resumption of civil war remains unlikely, for two main reasons: first, the shared belief that no one side is strong enough to win outright; and second, the risk of stalemate and descent into further chaos, which would open up the country to more ISIS attacks.
The threat of another Hizbullah-Israel war remains real, with a recent resumption of activity after a reasonably quiet year in 2014. On 19 January, Israel launched an attack on a Hizbullah convoy driving on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, killing seven members (some senior) and an Iranian General. This triggered a response from Hizbullah on 28 January, which the group launched from the Shebaa Farms area on the Lebanese side, killing two Israeli soldiers traveling in a convoy on the Israeli side of the border.
It was initially suggested that Hizbullah was in the Golan to investigate the possibility of opening up a new front against Israel, the somewhat shaky theory being that Hizbullah could attack Israel from Syria without suffering blowback in Lebanon. It is more likely that Hizbullah was monitoring the area because of concerns about a takeover by Jabhat al-Nusra and other al Qaeda groups, threatening Hizbullah weapons supply routes. Despite recent Syrian army and Hizbullah campaigns to retake the Syrian side of the Golan region, Quneitra is estimated to be still largely under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist groups.
Many of the players on the Lebanese stage are feeling pressure as myriad hot and cold wars are fought across the region.
Saudi Arabia is trying desperately to get on top of the Houthi movement in Yemen and reassure itself that the Iran nuclear deal does not mean Tehran has become Washington's new BFF. Netanyahu has cobbled together a right-wing cabinet, some members of which may not object to a showdown with either the Palestinians or Hizbullah. And of late Hizbullah has ratcheted up the action and rhetoric, possibly because it feels increasingly stretched militarily and therefore under threat. It's also hard to tell how much veracity lies in reports that the Assad regime is starting to crumble, but Saudi, Turkish and Qatari funding of the opposition forces appears to be having some effect. Overlaying all of this is the presence of ISIS, which threatens states across the Middle East both from within and without.
But the biggest threat to Lebanon, as always, is the potential for miscalculation by Israel or Hizbullah leading to the resumption of war. Judging by their recent spat, neither side appears to have taken on board the old adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. As the snow melts and the ground dries out, Israel and Hizbullah appear still to be playing the same game, though nowadays the stakes are higher and the political terrain far trickier.