Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Eyeing Akkar

Restless and impoverished Sunnis in Lebanon may become the Islamic State’s next target, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi in Beirut

Al-Ahram Weekly

When three soldiers deserted the Lebanese army to join Al-Nusrah Front fighters positioned in the hills around the town of Arsal in Lebanon, the army tried to play down the news.

But the development has revived concerns that Lebanon’s fragile ethnic fabric may now be strained to breaking point by the war in neighbouring Syria, the refugee influx, and the ambitions of Sunni extremists.

Nearly half of Lebanon’s army personnel are Sunnis, and most of these come from Akkar, an impoverished region in north Lebanon where young people have few if any prospects of finding decent employment.

When journalists asked the uncle of one of the deserters who lives in Akkar to explain the actions of his nephew, the man said that he had four sons of his own who were all eager to join the army.

Akkar is a hotbed of Salafism, a puritan form of Sunni Islam that has provided ideological inspiration for many jihadist movements. While the Lebanese Future Current may be viewed by many as an inspiration for the country’s Sunni community, Future Current politicians rarely show up in Akkar outside of election season.

With sectarian tensions escalating in Lebanon, current attempts by operatives of the Al-Nusrah Front and the Islamic State (IS) to gain a foothold in Akkar cannot be treated lightly.

In recent battles around Arsal, the Lebanese army had a difficult time trying to subdue the groups’ combatants, with the rugged terrain and political sensitivities making this task very unwieldy.

The soldiers who deserted were described as having psychological and disciplinary problems. But a security source recalled that in Syria, the first wave of deserters from the armed forces of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad were also described along the same lines.

It was hard to judge “the mood of young and impressionable officers,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He played down the possibility of a split in the Lebanese army and said that the greatest risk came from the Syrian refugees who have been living near Arsal in difficult conditions.

Of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, nearly 200,000 are of fighting age. If one half of these were tempted to join the militia outfits, they would outnumber by far the Lebanese army.

Lebanese army commander Jean Qahouaji has already warned that IS is planning to infiltrate north Lebanon in order to gain a foothold on the Mediterranean. As a result, IS was likely to attack Shiite and Christian areas in Lebanon, in order to spread the kind of sedition seen in Iraq, he said.

However, much depends on the situation in the Syrian Qalamoun region across the border. If the Syrian army manages to check the extremist combatants in this area, this will spare Lebanon a lot of difficulties.

Yet, reports speak of the continued presence of Sunni combatants battling Hizbullah and the Syrian army in the Qalamoun Mountains. If IS operatives were to find a way to connect their positions in Iraq and Syria with the Qalamoun area, Lebanon would be the next step, the source said.

Mustafa Hamdan, leader of the Lebanese Independent Nasserist Movement, said that there was a need to form national defence teams in various parts of Lebanon and have these operate under the army’s supervision.

This could help strengthen the army in the face of the threats posed by the extremists. But if each community started to form their own militia, the scene would be just as perilous as the one that emerged during Lebanon’s civil war, he warned.

In another indication of impending trouble, several Syrian and Lebanese men have reportedly been arrested recently while trying to buy arms and munitions. Meanwhile, the Al-Nusrah Front has released videos highlighting its “victories” against Hizbullah.

Within the Future Current, there is no clear policy on how to handle the situation. For the past few months, many of the current’s statements have seemed to be directed against Hizbullah. But with the threat of IS on the rise, Christian members of the Future Current are in favour of a more reconciliatory approach to Hizbullah, which they see as a lesser evil than the Sunni extremists.

In the Beqaa Valley, reports speak of Druze and Christians attending training camps, apparently as a precaution to IS infiltration into the country. The recent IS offensive against the Kurdish city of Kobani in northeast Syria has also revived a mood of vigilance among Lebanon’s minorities.

Although one would expect the Western-oriented lifestyle and multi-ethnic texture of Lebanon to militate against an IS takeover, it is hard to discount the resilience of the terrorist group that has now carved off large chunks of two major Arab nations.

In Syria, IS knows that it cannot penetrate the predominantly Alawite coastal areas of the country. But in Lebanon, the Akkar region remains a likely target.

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