By Riad Kahwaji
“He is back,” was what most Lebanese said with a sigh of relief about the sudden return of Saad Hariri, former prime minister and leader of the largest parliamentary block. Even his arch enemies the Shiite Parties Hizbullah and Amal, have welcomed his return even though they were largely behind the downfall of the government he headed in December 2010, and his subsequent self-exile due to security threats to his life by Syrian and Iranian-backed groups. Hariri’s opponents discovered after three years that the substitute for his moderate policies would be the rise of extremist Muslim Sunni groups in Lebanon associated with terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This fact became very clear in the recent showdown between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Syrian rebel armed groups in the town of Arsal on the Syrian borders north-east of Lebanon.
A few thousand gunmen from ISIS and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front carried out a surprise attack on LAF positions around Arsal, killing 15 Lebanese troops and capturing some 20 others. The LAF regained the momentum a couple of days later and recaptured its lost positions. However, what caused concern to many Lebanese officials was that sectarian tensions rose in the country between Sunni and Shiites. The Shiite Hizbullah has been sending fighters into Syria to assist the Syrian regime in its fights against Syrian rebels. The Lebanese authorities have not done anything to stop Hizbullah fighters crossing the borders back and forth into Syria. This has frustrated the mostly moderate Lebanese Sunni community who first saw their Lebanese political leadership weaken with the ouster of Hariri and then felt unable to do much to help the Syrian Sunni rebels. This political vacuum made room for Sunni extremist clerics to appear on the Lebanese political scene and begin influencing opinions of few Lebanese Sunni communities who grew more sympathetic to Syria rebels, even the extremist ones. In the last battles in Arsal it was not the Sunni politicians who were out there trying to defuse the situation in the Sunni town. Instead, some Sunni clerics grouped in the so-called Muslim Scholars Association headed the mediations with the Syrian armed groups that led to their withdrawal from Arsal into Syria.
The Arsal incident was only the latest episode in a series of events that heightened sectarian tension in Lebanon. A few months ago, several Shiites neighborhoods in Lebanon witnessed a wave of suicide bombings by extremists, Lebanese and Arabs associated with ISIS and Al Nusra Front. Also the predominantly Sunni city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon was the scene of clashes between Sunni gunmen and an Alawite group associated with Hizbullah and the Syrian regime. These clashes ended with the fleeing of the Alawite’s group commander and the deployment of Lebanese troops in the areas of fighting. Moreover, the weakening of Lebanese Sunni political leadership was in turn undermining the Sunni spiritual leadership that was preparing for the election of a new Grand Mufti. Hence, in the midst of all this tension and chaos Hariri’s return became a must to all players in Lebanon.
Hariri did not return empty-handed. He came back carrying a one-billion-dollar donation from Saudi Arabia to LAF and security agencies, in a move that underlined the difference between Riyadh’s and Tehran’s policies towards Lebanon. While Iran supplies Hizbullah with weapons, which weakens the Lebanese central government, Saudi Arabia is providing funds to LAF to better arm itself to counter threats posed by terrorist groups and strengthen the state. Riyadh announced last April its intention to fund a 3-billion-dollar procurement plan between Lebanon and France to equip the LAF with variety of weapons and defense systems. Hariri repeatedly declared in his speeches over the past few days that he returned to lead the moderate Muslims.
Significantly, Hariri’s presence in Lebanon brought about swift solutions to problems that were facing the Sunni community. A new moderate Grand Mufti was elected within 48 hours from his return. He hosted a luncheon that brought together all major Sunni leaders including former Prime Minister Najib Mikati who turned against Hariri in 2011 and headed the government that was backed by Hizbullah and other pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian parties in Lebanon. This asserted Hariri as the undisputed leader of the Sunnis in Lebanon and reaffirmed him as a national leader.
However, Lebanon’s problems are far from over. The country is still without a president awaiting an agreement between the Lebanese political parties on a candidate. The parliament’s term is up late next September and there is uncertainty on whether general elections could be held in the country in the current political and security environment. Acute economic hardships have hit the country hard on all levels. The war in Syria is still raging without control and with the possibility of spillover high due to continued Hizbullah’s involvement in the war there. Hizbullah’s intervention in the Syrian war is increasing extremism within parts of the impoverished Sunni neighborhoods in northern and eastern Lebanon, especially the border towns and villages. Lebanese security sources have detected an increased level of support for Syrian extremist groups within some communities along the borders. They are worried that this phenomenon could grow due to Hizbullah’s continued intervention in the Syrian civil war.
Therefore, even though Hariri’s return has given a boost to the moderate Sunni community and raised the morale of the pro-Western parties in the country, it is still not enough to help Lebanon confront the growing threat of groups like ISIS and Al Nusra Front. Hariri could help guide his party and the government in developing the poor Sunni neighborhoods and keep them off limits to the influence of extremist groups. However, the LAF needs better advanced weapons and defense systems to deal with highly professional and well-armed Islamist fighters like the ones they confronted in Arsal.
According to a senior Lebanese military official, the LAF is in bad need to close air support with effective precision weapons. “The only single asset the LAF possessed that could provide good reconnaissance with efficient air support was the one Cessna Caravan aircraft armed with Hellfire rockets,” said the military official. He noted that the US refused to make the second Cessna it gave the LAF Hellfire-capable. “We hope the US would speed up the delivery of 12 AT-6 close air support planes that it had promised the LAF,” the official added. He added that the LAF could not use the light Gazelle helicopter gunships because they were not armed with any precision weapons and could be shot down easily by the terrorists’ heavy weapons. “We had to be creative once again and go to our Air Force engineers who modified the Puma helicopters and armed them with 30-mm guns and 70-mm rocket launchers, and also proved effective in the battles in Arsal,” he said. But this still was not enough. The LAF needs better firepower and C4ISR assets. “The LAF’s aging T-55 (Russian) tanks broke down during the battle. Their guns misfired and engines died, which made the LAF heavily reliable on the only 10 M-60 tanks the US supplied the LAF with several years ago plus some M-48 tanks that are still operational. “We hope the US and the West would treat the LAF the same way it is treating the Iraqi Army which is fighting the same enemy: ISIS,” the official said. “We hope the U.S., France and other powers would expedite the sale and delivery of much needed precision weapons, attack aircrafts and defense systems to help the LAF which is now on the front line of defense against terrorism.” He noted that the Arsal battel was only “round one with ISIS” and it is only a matter of time before “round two starts.”
Clearly, Hariri’s return comes at a critical juncture in Lebanon’s domestic political scene as well as the requirements need to boost LAF’s capabilities. The next months should see Hariri advance his agenda by supporting LAF, plus making agreements with most of Lebanon’s faction, and perhaps finding himself again as Lebanese Prime Minister.
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA