There is no ‘middle’ in the Middle East today (Interview)

we-magazine that has rolled out an issue on the Middle East. They wanted to know why Lebanon had suddenly become the scene of so much political violence – and who was behind this escalation. Although I now live in Beirut, I rarely actually write about Lebanon, so here – via this interview – is my two-bits on recent events in the country.

Sharmine Narwani

we-magazine: The conflict between Sunnis and Shiites seems to deepen in Lebanon. Who is fueling this divide and why?

Narwani: I am wary anytime I hear about Sunni-Shia conflicts in the Mideast. While there are historic tensions between these two groups, the region is aflood with Sunni-Shia marriages, particularly in those countries – Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq – said to be suffering most from Sunni-Shia strife.

I always prefer to say that the real conflict is between “sectarians” and “non-sectarians” – this is a more accurate description because there are Sunni and Shia on both sides of that divide. Those in the “sectarian” grouping are the minority opinion in their own communities, but they are loud and aggressive, so we think there are many of them.

It is very easy to get drawn into the narrative of constant Shia-Sunni discord – it blares from the headlines in all our papers. But at this point in a rapidly destabilizing Middle East, it befits us to dig deeper.

Saudi Arabia is ground-zero for the divisive Sunni-vs-Shia narrative. While the Saudis are extremely conservative Wahhabis (Sunni), this discourse is mainly a convenient political tool to keep Iranian ascendency at bay. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Saudis were frantic that a grassroots Islamic revolt that successfully overthrew a key US dictator in the region might inspire the Muslim (mostly Sunni) masses, and sought to drive a wedge between Iranians and Arabs, Shia and Sunni.

These negative narratives have been more than 30 years in the making, and they are a key divide-and-rule strategy in nations whose governments or populations are allied with Iran.

Lebanon has been one such playground for this Saudi mischief. Riyadh has thrown money and clout at undermining staunch Iranian ally and Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah for years, and plays a central role in local politics here. You can be assured that there is Saudi or Gulf money behind every vocal Salafist militant calling for reprisals against Hezbollah, Iran or Syria in Lebanon today.

we-magazine: A few days ago a leading figure of Al Qaeda was captured and detained by Lebanese security forces. Then he died in custody. He announced that the “Christians” were his target – in Syria and in Lebanon. Are we slowly entering into another war in Lebanon?

Narwani: I’m assuming you are speaking of Saudi national Majed al-Majed, leader of the (allegedly) Al Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades that claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut a few months ago – the first suicide-bombing operation that Lebanon has seen for decades, incidentally.

Majed died on January 4 while in custody of the Lebanese Army, and there has been much speculation about his cause of death. The Iranians are outraged and suspect foul play, because had Majed lived, he could have provided some clear-cut answers to which individuals and states are funding terror activity in Lebanon today. The Saudis demanded Majed’s extradition from the time he was apprehended, which cast suspicion their way. The Saudis had very recently, after all, pledged $3 billion to the Lebanese Army.

All these events and developments contribute to the growing apprehension over the security situation in Lebanon – people here have been warning of Syrian “spillover” and being dragged into war for more than two years now.

But let me say this: whatever the political motivations of various parties and their foreign mentors, whatever the level of rage and desire for revenge, there has so far been some kind of universal understanding that Lebanon shall not cross over into a situation of open and widespread warfare.

For starters, the UN Security Council permanent members – including the US, UK and France who have been so intimately involved in fueling the Syrian conflict – are dead-set against any real conflagration in Lebanon. Their appetite for conflict on more than one of Israel’s borders is nil. For other players like the Russians, Iranians and Chinese, a war in Lebanon would muddy the Syrian waters, and they want attention focused on resolving the Syrian conflict right now and pre-empting further destabilization from the Levant to the Persian Gulf.

The two states that will remain opportunistic about conflict in Lebanon are Saudi Arabia and Israel – the Saudis because they view events in Syria as existential, and seem prepared to “set the region on fire” to attain their goals; the Israelis because they will welcome any opportunity to weaken their greatest military adversary, Hezbollah.

we-magazine: Outside Syria Hezbollah and Hamas are allies; inside Syria they fight against each other. Why?

Narwani: Look, at the heart of politics lies opportunism, and I’m not sure that is a bad thing. Decision makers need to be able to shift positions and alliances as circumstances change around them.

The Resistance Axis (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah) is a very unusual grouping. It is the only one in the region that consists of Shia and Sunni, Iranian and Arab, Islamist and Secularist.

At the heart of this Axis is a common political worldview – which is why foreign efforts to divide this group have largely failed. Anti-imperialism, a desire for regional self-determination, anti-Zionism – these are the threads that bind.

Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), was torn when the Arab uprisings helped install mostly MB-related governments backed by Qatar and Turkey, two Islamist governments that took a “Sunni” view of the region, and sought to challenge Iran and its allies in the process. In a sense, Hamas was being forced to decide between their Sunni and Islamist identities and their “resistance” one.

The choice has created some serious splits within the group, so it is a battle that continues for Hamas. They have dealt with it by acknowledging both priorities – I think, to their detriment, because in this Mideast climate, there simply isn’t any “middle.”

I give some “maturity credit” to the Resistance Axis though – Hamas operatives have worked against Hezbollah in the Syrian military theater and yet, back in Lebanon, they share a common enemy in Israel. Both groups have taken pains to keep their differences from spilling into the public sphere, so there is some determined level of commitment to the relationship. The Resistance Axis has some key allies within Hamas’ military wing in Gaza – this is an asset that they will continue to support come hell or high water.

we-magazine: Where does the Lebanese Army stand?

Narwani: The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) is a pretty weak institution, in that it cannot act without consensus between competing political parties, which rarely happens in Lebanon. Furthermore, it has become a pawn in the larger geopolitical game, and cannot receive or purchase the weapons it actually needs to defend the country – mainly from Israel, which is Lebanon’s stated primary enemy.

For instance, Israel conducts illegal overflights over Lebanese territory every single day in violation of international law, but nobody will sell the LAF the anti-aircraft missiles that could put a halt to this practice. If Iran or China offers these weapons, all hell breaks loose in the Lebanese political arena – the LAF is voiceless in these debates, and so it has fallen to Hezbollah to protect Lebanon from Israeli aggression.

What’s interesting about this question is that in 2013 as political violence and sectarian rhetoric took hold in Lebanon, many Lebanese – fed up with their impotent politicians – were saying they wish the Lebanese Army would initiate a coup and take over the state.

It is worth mentioning that during this time in the wider region – from Egypt to Syria – we were seeing a rise in the fortunes of “national armies” and populations entrusting them to secure their states against the rising tide of Islamist militants and jihadists. Lebanon was no different in that regard.

The Saudi pledge of $3 billion dollars is the largest infusion of capital in LAF history, I gather. But it is an embarrassingly transparent attempt to buy-off the Lebanese Army and scuttle cooperation between Hezbollah and the LAF in dealing with (often) Saudi-backed Salafist militancy inside Lebanon. Even more cringe-worthy is the fact that all LAF weapons and ammunition purchases are required to be from France, which is in effect another Saudi pay-off for France’s efforts to sabotage the P5+1-Iran nuclear deal and continued French political support for the Syrian rebellion.

we-magazine: Who is funding the various (militant) groups in Lebanon and what are the goals behind the funding?

Narwani: This is a very difficult question to answer, because secrecy is the essential nature of these groups. They do not wire funds to each other from banks, nor do they make traceable mobile calls to deliver instructions on the next terror bombing.

Donors change according to the political climate as well. Some are interested in challenging the state or one of its neighbors, others may have sectarian interests or even function as criminal mafias. Today though, weapons and cash are being funneled to these groups to benefit a geopolitical fight against Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. The battle is cast in sectarian terms, which has lit the Takfiri fires from the Levant to the Persian Gulf. Volunteer drives in several Gulf states have funded jihadists from dozens of countries entering fights in Syria and even Iraq.

Lebanon has often been viewed as a resting place for many of these groups, but has now become an active battleground to (allegedly) halt Hezbollah’s assistance to the Syrian army and to shift the Levant’s balance of power back in favor of Saudi interests.

These groups used to be quite ideological, but have become more opportunistic now – and will bury the hatchet with Gulf monarchies for the moment to focus on common sectarian targets.

In Lebanon, the main suspect behind the funding of these groups today is Saudi Arabia, which makes a lot of sense given Riyadh’s existential outlook in regard to Syria and Iran. Those dots began to be connected when the Saudi establishment installed Prince Bandar bin Sultan as intelligence chief – Bandar is known for dirty tricks and his command of jihadist/salafist networks in many regions.

we-magazine: What are the chances and ways for the Lebanese NOT to get drawn into a war?

Narwani: As mentioned earlier, I believe it is still in the interest of all major Lebanese political parties, their foreign mentors, and global powers to maintain stability in Lebanon. This has become much more urgent since militants began merging their interests (Syria and Iraq) across borders and threatening instability in a long arc across the region.

Again, there are a few hold-outs like Saudi Arabia and Israel, but neither state currently seems to be willing to back a full-on escalation in Lebanon, mostly because the consequences are highly unpredictable right now.

Providing there is no game-changing event, maintenance of the status quo in Lebanon is desirable for all parties. Lebanon continues to be viewed as a “political lever” for many parties – this is the place where they send warning signals and threats to each other. A bombing here, gunfire there…that’s how domestic and foreign players issue missives to each other these days. They never go too far though – at least not yet.

Lebanon’s best bet is to try to maintain a certain neutrality even while its various parties assist in the Syrian conflict and elsewhere. I don’t think the formation of a new government will help a whit – one big event in a neighboring state and little Lebanon’s government will collapse again.

The main thing Lebanon needs to do while it is treading water is to halt the proliferation of militant groups inside the country and to stop foreign fighters from crossing its borders. This isn’t a matter of taking sides – it is the fundamental right of all nation-states to preserve their sovereignty and territorial integrity.

A politically-independent and well-supplied Lebanese Army is essential for this task, but cannot seem to do it right now without assistance from Hezbollah, which tries to take a low-key role in these operations so as not to provoke further sectarianism. Hezbollah’s involvement, in turn, infuriates the other “camp” – but then they too should step up and police their neighborhoods and border towns from foreign infiltration and the influx of heavy weapons and small arms.

If Lebanon is impotent today within the context of larger regional battles, the least it can do is to preserve its territorial integrity in the meantime. Every terrorist attack here seems to empower the LAF a little bit more – popular outrage is demanding this. I’m not sure how then the LAF can take $3 billion in assistance from Saudi Arabia – the very country that is backing Salafist militants who are attacking Lebanese soldiers.