Sectarian Conflict in Lebanon

Sectarian Conflict in Lebanon

Increased sectarian violence and political instability in Lebanon due to spillover from the Syrian civil war

Recent Developments

Lebanon’s political system and security infrastructure has been deeply affected by the spillover from the Syrian civil war. The Lebanese parliament has been struggling to reach consensus about the next president since May 2014, leading Prime Minister Tammam Salam to step in as the acting president. The political gridlock and the subsequent lack of legislation and reform has resulted in a deterioration of the country's infrastructure and public services, which are further taxed by increasing refugee populations. The government was unable to provide garbage collection services for nearly eight months, creating a significant garbage crisis before temporarily restarting services in March 2016.

On the security front, the latent sectarian divisions in the country have been exacerbated as the self-proclaimed Islamic State battles with Hezbollah and other Shia groups in Lebanon. Hezbollah is also deeply involved in the neighboring Syrian civil war, supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. An estimated 1,200 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria since the start of the conflict. The top Hezbollah commander in Syria, Mustafa Badreddine, was killed in a blast near Damascus airport in May 2016. Badreddine had previously been indicted by the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and was being tried in absentia. 

In November 2015, the Islamic State targeted a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut, killing forty-three people and injuring over two hundred in double suicide bomb attacks—the deadliest since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990. Prior to this incident, Hezbollah areas in southern Beirut had been targeted in 2013 and 2014, but mostly by Sunni militants who opposed Hezbollah’s decision to join the fight in neighboring Syria. 

Background

Lebanon has absorbed more than one million Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict in 2011. This compromises nearly one-fourth of Lebanon’s population and more refugees than any other country bordering Syria. The World Bank predicts that these refugees will cost Lebanon close to $7.5 billion, as the country struggles to adjust its economy to meet the demands of a growing population. Beyond the economic effects, the spillover from Syria has also heightened sectarian tensions in Lebanon.

Historic differences between Hezbollah—a Shia political party and militant organization backed by Iran and designated by the United States as a terrorist group—and Sunni groups in Lebanon have significantly escalated. Particularly in Tripoli, just thirty miles from the Syrian border, the predominant Sunni population—led by the March 14 alliance—combats Shia supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as Hezbollah militants who conduct terrorist attacks on Sunni mosques.

The influx of Syrian refugees, coupled with Hezbollah’s involvement in fighting Syrian rebels, has resulted in cross-border skirmishes and increased weapons smuggling. Militants from Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State have attacked the Sunni border town of Arsal on several occasions, highlighting Lebanon’s vulnerability to violence emanating from Syria.

Concerns

These security risks have alarmed U.S. policymakers, as well as members of European and Gulf states, who are interested in mitigating the conflict in Lebanon and finding a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war. As the coalition’s fight against the Islamic State expands, this could have greater implications for Lebanon, as it sits on the frays of the fight.

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