With each new explosion, the Media and institutions of the international community warn of the risk of yet another civil war in Lebanon. A number of internal and regional factors are cited each time: the intensification of terrorist activity, the ongoing political vacuum, the opening of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), spill-over effects from the Syrian crisis, a massive influx of Syrian refugees…
The picture is indeed quite grim. However, not all factors carry equal weight and significance. In this new special report on Lebanon, NGC intends to analyse and rank the various terrorist threats and other risk factors, and outline possible future scenarios.
1. Growing Terrorist Threats
Over the past year, a series of bombings has shaken Lebanon, and this with increasing frequency. The following rough classification should help distinguish the different types of attacks and analyse their significance and implications.
Continuation of the series of political assassinations initiated in 2005
Mohamed Chatah, former Minister of Finance and close adviser to Saad Hariri, is but the latest victim of a series of carefully planned assassinations. These operations, which culminate in the detonation of massive car bombs, have targeted political and intellectual figures close to the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition, as well as key security service members involved in sensitive investigations. There are serious suspicions of Syrian involvement with the indispensable complicity of Lebanese allies (the Samaha file is a case in point). The twin car bombs that exploded in Tripoli on Friday, 23rd August 2013, killing 47 people and injuring more than 500, can be traced back to the same plot.
Targeted jihadist attacks
With Hezbollah fighting openly in Syria alongside the regime, different rebel groups have repeatedly threatened reprisal attacks against the party in Lebanon. Since December 2013 Jabhat al Nusra, then ISIS, have been officially active in Lebanon, where they have targeted the Iranian embassy as well as Hezbollah strongholds, including Beirut’s southern suburbs and Hermel – in the Bekaa Valley near the border with Syria.
Many of the attacks carried out by Jabhat al Nusra have been suicide operations, a worrying new development for Lebanon. This modus operandi reveals much about both the sophistication of the jihadist groups and the level of motivation of their fighters who consider Lebanon as part of the wider Bilad-al-Sham.
Iraq-style actions against civilians
The first terrorist attack against Dahiyeh, a predominately Shia-Muslim suburb south of Beirut, on 16th August 2013, targeted a crowded area, indiscriminately killing and injuring civilians (21 killed, 336 injured). The last two suicide attacks in another densely populated area of Dahiyeh belong to the same category, as no clear strategic target could be identified.
These attacks, committed during rush hour, aim to send a message to Hezbollah ‘on their own turf’ by fueling fear and killing the maximum number of civilians simply on the basis of their religion and supposed political views. This type of terrorist act is pushing Lebanon a step closer to the Iraqi scenario.
2. Risk Factors
The persisting political deadlock among Lebanese parties is crippling already weak institutions and leaving the country hanging in a political vacuum during perilous times. The President’s power is debilitated and his mandate ends this spring with little chance that new elections will be held. A caretaker government with very limited powers remains in place while parties fight over the distribution of ministerial portfolios, and a figurative Parliament, whose prolonged mandate raises constitutional questions, barely ever convenes and has not voted through a budget in years.
Although it is a negative dynamic, according to our assessment the political vacuum in Beirut is not a main risk factor for two fundamental reasons. First, the deadlock is a symptom rather than a cause of the ongoing political crisis. Every time the Lebanese political class disagree, they veto the institutional process until a compromise acceptable for all is reached. Second, the country is accustomed to functioning with no leadership; somehow, the Lebanese manage to maintain a level of normality, new projects are implemented and ongoing projects continue regardless.
The lack of leadership really becomes an issue, however, when it comes to adopting reforms or dealing with a crisis, such as the Syrian refugee situation.
The Syrian refugee crisis
Despite the magnitude of the crisis – there are nearly one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a quarter of the regular population – and the lack of temporary settlements to receive them, Lebanon has not yet been dramatically affected by the Syrian refugee crisis. Those who suffer the most are the refugees themselves.
Our assessment is that this massive, disorganized and probably lasting presence of Syrian refugees cannot but destabilize the fragile Lebanese ecosystem. Basic infrastructure (water, electricity and sewage), already in quite a poor state before the crisis, is currently under tremendous stress. Essential public services are overloaded. Hospitals and schools do not have the capacity to treat the refugees nor to educate their children.
In the medium term, this could lead to serious health and sanitary risks (contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, leishmaniasis, scabies, hepatitis and polio) for both refugees and surrounding Lebanese communities. If not quickly solved, the schooling crisis – 80% of refugee children are not attending school – could see a generation of youth deprived of education and growing up in Lebanon on the margins of legality.
Finally, the arrival of a massive number of mostly Sunni refugees could be perceived as a threat to the fragile power-sharing arrangement crafted in 1989 (the Taef Agreement). In this context, a scenario where local communities develop aggressive behavior against refugees does not seem far-fetched. Last December, Lebanese burnt down a refugee camp in East Lebanon following rumors of rape.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon
In January, after eight years of judiciary procedures, the STL hearings finally started in The Hague. Many expressed worries that the trial of the five indicted Hezbollah members for the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri would open old wounds and destabilize the country.
In our assessment, the STL does not represent a high risk factor. The suspicion that Hezbollah and the Syrian regime were behind the assassination of PM Hariri was indeed a dark taboo in the early days of the Tribunal and people related to the investigation were threatened or eliminated, but over the years and following the formal indictment of Hezbollah-affiliated suspects, a certain trivialization of the STL has occurred. At worst, the Tribunal will confirm the guilt of the indicted but not lead to any actual arrests on the ground. At best, the hearings could play a cathartic role and contribute positively to the healing process for the victims’ families.
3. Possible Scenarios – Many Shades of Black
A civil war à la Libanaise?
Lebanese society is extremely polarized when it comes to Syria, and tensions between pro-revolution and pro-regime sides grow by the day. In many ways, the Syrians are today playing the role that the Palestinians played in the run-up to the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990).
However, unlike in 1975, Hezbollah enjoys clear military supremacy over all other groups, including the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). This asymmetrical configuration should prevent a full-fledged civil war, as no Lebanese group can currently sustain an open confrontation with Hezbollah. In May 2008, Hezbollah militiamen and their allies took over West Beirut by force in a few hours without facing much resistance.
At the moment the scenario of a split within the Lebanese Army along pro-Assad/pro-rebel lines also seems improbable. Last April, declarations by Salafi sheikh Ahmed al Assir that to defect from the LAF and to join the Syrian rebels was “a religious duty for every Muslim, especially for those with military experience” had no tangible impact.
However, the Army is increasingly perceived by an important fraction of Lebanese public opinion as aligned with the pro-Syrian coalition, especially after the crackdown on Assir and LAF’s intervention in Tripoli. In this fraught context, the Lebanese Army could become a new target in an ‘iraqization’ scenario.
Down the Iraqi path
Rather than a civil war à la Libanaise, the ‘iraqization’ scenario – an increasingly intense confrontation between Sunna and Shia – is the most probable.
Competing jihadist groups are gaining a foothold in Lebanon, their position bolstered by a weakened Sunni leadership and a growing feeling of humiliation and helplessness within Lebanese Sunni communities.
While direct confrontation with Hezbollah is not an option due to their military supremacy, asymmetrical terrorist actions represent the favoured modus operandi of the jihadists groups, who seem to be engaged in a game of one-upmanship in their fight against Hezbollah.
Terrorist attacks against targets such as pro-Syrian political centers, media outlets or the embassies of countries that support Bachar al Assad are to be expected. Terrorist acts against civilians perceived as Hezbollah supporters could also occur in areas less protected than the ones already targeted. This could include secondary targets in other suburbs or commercial hubs in Shia-dominated areas.
In its latest communique, ISIS started employing hostile rhetoric against the Lebanese Army, declaring it the “crusader army”, a reference to the head of the Armed Forces, who is always a Christian. This might signal the beginning of a new agenda against the LAF and Lebanese security institutions that are now adopting a stronger anti-terrorist stance.
It could also be seen as a sign of a more hostile attitude towards Christians. However, we consider that Lebanese Christians are currently not a target for the jihadists, who have other priorities. Furthermore, the divisions within the Christian community on the issue of the Syrian conflict creates an ambiguity that prevents the identification of the community with any specific stance.
In the short term, the establishment and activation of jihadist cells in Lebanon represents the most serious security threat. This threat is exacerbated by the political vacuum and the escalating refugee crisis. On the medium run, these jihadist groups will pursue their own agenda regardless of the outcome of the Syrian conflict or the positioning of regional players.
Hezbollah-related targets and Shia areas will remain the jihadists’ main focus. We assess, however, that the Lebanese Army and related security institutions could also come under threat.
At a later stage, if the international community adopts tougher actions against jihadist groups in the region (e.g. drone operations coupled with a Syrian ‘Sahwa‘), Western targets could be at risk. Israel does not seem to be a priority, although ISIS latest communique mentions its establishment in Lebanon as a “bridge towards Jerusalem”.
In the end, it remains to be seen whether Lebanese society will go down the path of radicalization or rather provide a counterweight and force of resistance to sectarian divisions and violence.
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 In August 2012, former Lebanese Information Minister Michel Samaha, a close ally of Bachar al Assad, was arrested and chargedwith transporting explosives from Syria in his personal car and plotting terrorist attacks in Lebanon against political and religious figures in the North. The Lebanese court requested the death penalty for Samaha and two Syrian Army generals – the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau, Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, and his aide.
 As early as October 2012, members of the Free Syrian Army vowed to “take the battle in Syria to the heart of the southern suburbs of Beirut if Hezbollah does not stop supporting the killer Syrian regime”.
 A former province that included present-day Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan.
 Unlike in Turkey and Jordan, Lebanese authorities have opposed the idea of establishing refugee camps. This is motivated by a desire to avoid creating the conditions of a de facto permanent settlement for Syrian refugees in Lebanon – as happened with the Palestinian refugees.
 The main tangible effects are an increase in real estate prices and fierce competition between domestic workers and refugees over job opportunities.
 Captain Wissam Eid of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) was assassinated in 2008 while working on wire tappings related to the Rafiq Hariri case.
 After the civil war, Hezbollah was de facto the only Lebanese group authorized, under the Syrian mandate, to keep its arms, even though the Taef Agreement requires the disbanding of all Lebanese militias.
 The Druze were able to fend off Hezbollah’s offensive in the Chouf Mountains, inflicting serious losses to the Lebanese group. Following this deadly confrontation, Walid Joumblatt, the Druze leader, took the strategic decision to avoid any future armed conflict with Hezbollah to spare the lives of his small community.
 In June 2013, a deadly confrontation pitted the Lebanese Army against armed supporters of Assir. Following the crushing of Assir’s group, unconfirmed reports spread of Hezbollah’s direct involvement in the operation.
 The Sahwa or ‘Surge’ refers to Sunni fighters that were trained and supported by the US to fight jihadist groups in Iraq.