[Excellent analysis of the multi-sided conflict in the Levant.]
Tied by history and intrigue to other parts of the Middle East, divided into 18 religious sects, the country has long been the victim of others’ conflicts
Hezbollah leader Nasrallah comments on Saudi exeuctions on Al-Manar TV channel. Photograph: AL-MANAR TV / HANDOUT/EPA
Gareth Smyth for Tehran Bureau
A doctor specialised in geriatrics tells me he has more and more patients presenting with conditions stemming from anxiety. “It’s somehow worse than the civil war [1975-90],” he says. “In the war, there were clear sides.”
“In a war you can see the gunman in front of you, and you can hope for a ceasefire,” says Yasser Akkaoui, who has edited the Beirut-based business magazine Executive for the past 15 years. “But today in Lebanon there is a distant hand controlling things, you don’t see the threat. So there’s a fear of the unknown.”
This week Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Shia party Hezbollah, decried Saudi Arabia’s “tyrannical, criminal, terrorist and takfiri face” after the Saudis beheaded the leading Shia cleric, Ayatollah Nimr al-Nimr. In response, Ahmad Fatfat, an official in Lebanon’s mainly Sunni Future movement, called Hezbollah “an Iranian militia” that wanted to “take control of Lebanon”.
In neighbour Syria, where the death toll has passed 250,000 in four years, the Islamic State (Isis) this week released its latest video, showing the execution of five “spies”. Meanwhile, Israel shelled south Lebanon after Hezbollah bombed Israeli soldiers in a disputed area along the Israel-Lebanon-Syria border. Barely noticed, the UN put the death toll in Yemen at nearly 2,800 after nine months of fighting.
And that’s all just since last Saturday. In Lebanon in 2015, there were suicide car bombs claimed by Isis, popular ‘You Stink’ protests against the government that were crushed by security police, fighting between Islamist and other factions in Palestinian refugee camps, and the sentencing of a former minister for importing explosives to kill politicians and religious figures.
Ordinary Lebanese are bewildered, their population of around 4.5 million swelled by over 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Mountains of rubbish and electricity cuts are tangible consequences of government corruption and incompetence. There has been a political crisis with the presidency vacant since Michel Sleiman’s term expired in 2014, and paralysis in government for far longer.
A Lebanese man covers his nose from the smell as he passes by a pile of garbage on a street in Beirut, Lebanon.
Akkaoui believes Lebanon has lacked political direction since Syria withdrew its forces in 2005. “Everything in Lebanon is self-inflicted, we are unable to discern our own interests,” he says. “The Lebanese are left waiting to see who is going to rule the region. Since the development of the ‘Axis of Evil’, there has been a regional civil war, sometimes cold but increasingly hot. Will the axis of Russia-Syria-Iran gain power? We’re waiting to find out.”
Just across the border in Syria, Russia and Iran are backing president Bashar al-Assad, from the minority Alawi sect, against a collection of rebels who are mainly Sunni and have various degrees of support from the authorities and non-governmental groups in Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries.
There are Lebanese from Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) fighting alongside Assad, while on the other side Lebanese Sunnis have joined the rebels. So far, the violence has spilled over only occasionally into Lebanon.
Lebanon has 18 distinct religious sects. Most parties are based on sect and linked to regional interests – the mainly Sunni party Mustaqbal to the Saudis, the Shia parties Amal and Hezbollah to Iran. Lebanon’s Christians, largely hostile before 2005 to Syrian dominance in Lebanon, are now unsure where to turn: some sense Assad and Hezbollah are a better bet than militant Sunnis like Isis, and one Christian leader, Michael Aoun, is openly allied to the ‘party of God’.
“In terms of the region, Lebanon is unimportant – beyond the fact that the Saudis and Iranians couldn’t resolve enough of their differences to allow the Lebanese to elect a new president,” says Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “Lebanon doesn’t figure much, other than the Saudis don’t like Hezbollah, which is strong in Lebanon and that’s exactly why there is an issue about the presidency.”
A crucifix and a statue of the Virgin Mary are seen on the roof of a shop in Jdeideh, northeast of Beirut. Photograph: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images
The problem in waiting for the end of the regional war is that there seems no sign of how and when it will end. Or if anyone will win it; or even if anyone will ‘win’ in Syria.
Both Hezbollah and Iran have lost ‘martyrs’ in Syrian – just over 1,000 Lebanese Hezbollahis according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 400 Iranians according to Irna last June – but why, exactly, are they fighting there?
Officially to protect Shia shrines, some of which have been destroyed by Isis. And to advise an allied government fighting ‘terrorists’.
But also to maintain a supply route to Hezbollah in Lebanon? As part of an ‘axis of resistance’ to Israel? Even as Hezbollah’s losses in Syria approach the 1,300 killed fighting the Israelis in south Lebanon?
The links between Lebanon, Syria and Iran are complex.
Nadia von Maltzahn, research associate at the Orient-Institut in Beirut and author of The Syria-Iran Axis, recently elaborated to me on Tehran’s active, long-term cultural diplomacy in Syria, recalling her visits in 2008-10 to the Iranian cultural centre in Latakia, the Alawi heartland, where the Iranians’ work seem to find more resonance than in mainly Sunni Damascus. She had also noticed, on research trips to Iran, popular scepticism about such outreach.
“In Iran itself there was very little support for the policy towards the region, especially because ‘so much’ money was being spent on it,” she told me. “In 2009, even before the current situation in Syria, people in Iran were complaining about money being given to Syria and Hezbollah – probably it wasn’t based on real figures, but it was a perception.”
Is the regional conflict about religion?
No, and yes, says Sayigh: “Most of these seemingly religious sectarian rivalries and disputes are about different communities competing for a resource. People identity themselves in certain ways in order to mobilise against each other. A nationalist like Hitler spoke of the ‘German nation’ when most of the ‘Germans’ in Ukraine or Poland were so distant that they were almost unrecognisable and had to be re-Germanised. These are all political agendas.”
Iran’s links with the Assad regime did not begin, as some argue, with a simple marriage of convenience between the supposed secular Baath party and Shia Iran in 1980 against their common enemy Saddam Hussein, who had attacked Iran.
Back in the 1970s, the Qom-born Lebanese Shia cleric Musa Sadr developed close links with Iranian revolutionaries like Mostafa Chamran and Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, who were in Lebanon working with Palestinian militants. Sadr was also close to Hafez al-Assad, who had taken power in Syria in 1970 and styled himself an Arab nationalist, and Sadr’s religious ruling in 1973 that Alawi were Shia was important in helping legitimise Assad as Syrian president, a post reserved for Muslims.
This was not the first attempt to bring the Alawi into the Muslim ‘mainstream’ and neither was it wholly successful. The Alawis’ esoteric beliefs – including the transmigration of souls and the sense of Ali, the prophet Mohammad’s son-in-law, as divine – were one remnant of a vast variation in religion that had characterised the Levant: the valleys and mountains of Lebanon and coastal Syria were for hundreds of years attractive territory under the Ottoman Empire for minority faiths, including the Alawis, Druze, and even Maronite Christians who spoke Syriac rather than Arabic well into the 19th century. Hidden away, it was possible to practise beliefs looked down on by larger groups of Muslims and Christians.
“Those were times when there wasn’t today’s news flow,” notes Sayigh. But even before Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, identity could adapt and sometimes needed to. “Religion as daily practice is a reinvention of tradition,” says Sayigh. “There are always different political and social agendas, and if you look at any religion you’ll see constant redefinition.”
In 1922 the French, ruling Syria under a League of Nations mandate and keen on ‘modernisation’, established Alawi courts under Shia judicial rules. But this did not transform the Alawis into Shia, wrote historian Martin Kramer in 1987:
This emerges from an anecdote about a visit to Latakia in the 1930s by Lebanon’s preeminent Twelver [ie Shia] divine [cleric], Shaykh Abd al-Husayn Sharaf al-Din of Tyre. To his host, a leading Sunni notable and sayyid of Latakia, he said: ‘I have come first of all to visit you and then to ask about the doctrine of the Alawis among whom you live. I have heard it said that they are ghulat’ [literally ‘exaggerators’ or ‘extremists’, usually applied to people attributing divine characteristics to members of the prophet’s family].
In this curious scene, a Twelver Shi’ite inquired of a Sunni about the beliefs of an Alawi. In fact, the Alawi shaykhs were no more prepared to bare their doctrines to Twelver Shi’ites than to Sunnis. The Alawis had simply chosen to judge themselves, in their own courts, by the principles of Twelver Shi’ite jurisprudence. The religious shaykhs had not decided to submit their beliefs to the scrutiny of Twelver Shi’ites, or to recognize the authority of living Twelver divines.
Fast-forward to the 1970s, and heady days of ‘anti-imperialism’ that brought together militant Lebanese, Palestinians and Iranian revolutionaries not just in discussion but for military training. Ali Shariati had developed ‘red Shiism’ as a kind of liberation theology, and knew Chamran and Ghotbzadeh through the Freedom Movement of Iran, founded in 1961. Long before the Revolutionary Guards went to the Bekaa in the early 1980s to train what would become Hezbollah, PLO fighters mixed in Lebanon with Chamran and others who would later lead the IRGC.
And while after 1979 Iran’s Islamic Republic saw itself as neutral in the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, the international battle between ‘capitalism’ and ‘communism’ was helping shape the Middle East. Lebanon was caught up from 1958, when US marines came ashore on the beaches just south of Beirut to support the Christian president Camille Chamoun. Lebanon was also embroiled in the struggle of the Palestinians against Israel, especially when the PLO occupied much of south Lebanon and Beirut after their expulsion from Jordan in 1971.
Amid the ‘anti-imperialism’ of the 1970s, Musa Sadr established Harakat al-Mahroumin (the movement of the deprived), later known as Amal and still one of Lebanon’s two Shia parties. Ayatollah Khomeini adopted the nomenclature in identifying Islam with the mahroumin and the mostazafin (dispossessed) against the mostakberin (oppressors).
Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters via a screen in Beirut’s southern suburbs. Photograph: Issam Kobeisi/Reuters
By the time he disappeared in Libya in 1978, a year before Iran’s Revolution, Musa Sadr had helped forge links between Assad and Iran’s revolutionaries, which would work to Iran’s benefit in the 1980s war with Iraq. But these links were already valued by Assad who in 1977, according to Yossi Alpher, then in Mossad, turned down an offer from the Shah’s foreign minister to cut Iran’s relations with Israel in return for Syria rejecting the Iranian opposition.
Knowing Iran’s revolutionaries in turn helped facilitate Assad’s links with Hezbollah, which emerged in Lebanon around 1983, even if the 80s were messy years when Assad did not approve all of Hezbollah’s actions in taking western hostages or attacking US and French troops.
But the era of anti-imperialism was coming to an end, and this too would shape Lebanon.
“The US Soviet divide went on until the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, which was the same year as the Taef agreement ended the Lebanese civil war,” says Akkaoui. Brokered by Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Taef opened a period in which Lebanon, even with the Israelis occupying a ‘security zone’ in the south, was at peace and even began to prosper.
The drift towards a new polarisation – the ‘regional civil war’ – was uneven. In 2000, all Lebanese factions welcomed Israeli withdrawal from the south and with varying degrees of enthusiasm saluted Hezbollah’s role in helping bring it about.
Some date the change to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, when Iran welcomed the downfall of Saddam Hussein, a change that alarmed Saudi Arabia. Others date it to 2005, when Lebanon’s former Sunni prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated, or to 2008, when Hezbollah, which had refused to disarm after the Israeli withdrawal, asserted itself militarily against a Lebanese government led by a Saudi-backed coalition, over its control of security around Beirut’s airport.
By May 2011, ‘Arab spring’ protests prompted Saudi intervention in Bahrain to protect a Sunni monarchy facing protests amid a mainly Shia population, and in Syria demonstrations against president Assad’s regime in early 2011 morphed within months into an armed conflict with increasingly sectarian dimensions.
By 2015, with the Saudis using air attacks to back ousted Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Al Hadi against the Houthis, who are mainly Zaidi Shia, the regional civil war looked distinctly Sunni-Shia.
But while events in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran can reverberate around the region, people may lack real knowledge of each other. Flights between Beirut and Tehran, for example, cater mainly for Shia pilgrims going to Mashhad, and Nadia von Maltzahn’s book is peppered with anecdotes of misunderstanding between Syrians and Iranians.
Instant reactions may not be informed ones. Saeid Golkar – a lecturer at the Northwestern University, Illinois, who closely monitors Basij social media activity – contrasts a wave of meetings organised by Basijis over the Saudis’ execution of Nimr with a lack of interest, or even contempt, among many other Iranians.
“People are saying, who cares, he’s an Arab. They’re asking, ‘Why do we need [diplomatic] relations anyway with the Saudis? They’re so backward’.”
Golkar is uneasy about regional tensions. He believes “hardliners” in Tehran will provoke “distractions” to undermine President Hassan Rouhani in the run-up to elections in late February. “I will not be surprised if there is another crisis in the next month,” he says.
“Ideologies can plug into all sorts of dynamics and fault lines,” says Sayigh. “In Saudi Arabia and Iran you have had governments and elites that have been actively pursuing a particular discourse, a sectarian ideology. It’s difficult to say it [Shia-Sunni tension] is a long-standing, deep-routed issue when it’s so clear that Saudi and Iranian politicians are deliberately using sectarian discourse. They push it, through education, media, everything.”
But playing up external threats for political reasons can have uncertain consequences.
“None of these conflicts is something natural between the people,” says Golkar. “The creation of political identity along the lines of Sunni and Shia is playing with fire, there will be negative consequence for the countries concerned and for the region as a whole. The fodder for this regional war are the young, the poorly educated, the unemployed. In a way, the hardliners on all sides – Saudi, Iran, the US, Israel – have a subtle alliance, in which they enhance and strengthen each other.”
There is little sign of any interruption in the supply of raw material. In October Masood Ahmed, director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department, said that with oil revenues falling, 10 million additional people would be seeking work in the region’s oil-exporting countries by 2020.
Back in Lebanon, Yasser Akkaoui, a champion of regulated capitalism, bemoans poor education and the shrinking of the country’s middle class through emigration and lack of social mobility. He despairs at resentment towards the better-off, which he traces back to Musa Sadr’s championing of the mahroumin (deprived).
“Showing wealth shouldn’t be a crime,” he says. “Yet if you display wealth in Lebanon you attract the interest of the state and the envy, or the anger, of the people. Our politicians show no commitment to change this by fostering a middle class and encouraging education – the only two means to develop our country.”
And just like Lebanon, warns Akkaoui, Saudi Arabia has its own uneducated, unemployed mass all too willing to follow populist, sectarian leaders: “If the house of Saud falls, it would be 20 times worse than Syria. Any weakening of Al-Saud means civil war, and if you think Daesh are bad, just wait.”
This article was amended to reflect that the PLO occupied much of south Lebanon and Beirut after their expulsion from Jordan in 1971, not 1970.
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