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Commentary: Lebanon and the Regional Chess Game

As I write this from Beirut, Lebanon, the city is on high alert as the Lebanese army has set up check points across the country following a suicide bombing in Dahr al-Baidar on June 20th—an apparent attempt on the life of General Security Director Abbas Ibrahim. Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) arrested 102 people in arguably the busiest neighborhood in Beirut, Hamra, linked to a potentially large-scale attack on a UNESCO summit. These events are not immediately related to the instability of the country but rather to the instability of the region, revealing how susceptible Lebanon is to regional power shifts.

In the Middle East it is difficult to ascertain hard truth as the region is riddled with nuanced alliances and plots between politicians and political factions. For example, the recent events in Lebanon are clouded in mystery: the media has reported that the suicide bombing was an assassination attempt while political analysts within the country have debunked this theory.

This violence both obscures and signals the greater reality gripping the region: the escalating conflict between extremists who label themselves as Sunni and Shia Muslims. The reality is that these radicals have very little to do with Islam and much more to do with power. As moderates flee the region in large numbers, those who have chosen to stay (or cannot afford to leave) fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Faced with the realities of the Middle East, those who have remained are slowly being forced into silence, coerced to endure the injustices of a corrupt government, powerful regional forces, and local militias all aiming to grow their political power. In Lebanon, this insecurity has been met with an increasingly widely shared attitude that ‘everyone is above the state.’ I encountered this when speaking with a school administrator who shared a story about a student caught cheating on an exam. When confronted by the school’s discipline process he simply replied that he would not adhere to it because he did not even comply with the government’s laws, so why should he follow the school’s rules? The student then told his mother (who was present during this conversation) that he was ready to leave. The pair got up and left the room, protected by the omnipresent shadow of the militia the boy’s father belonged to and forcing the school to accept the reality of the situation. This minor example testifies to the grander problem of eroded respect for authority in what looks increasingly like a failing state.

Lebanon is hanging by a thread. The country is one regional leader’s nod and a local fist fight away from all out civil war, and many will argue that it has been this way since Hariri was assassinated in 2005 (some will argue that this was the case long before then). Lebanon’s fragile norm is not due to the ‘spirit of its people’ or some obscure coincidence, but rather to the strategic chess game taking place in the region. Lebanon risks serving as a chess piece sacrificed by other players in their regional game.

The once “Pearl of the Middle East “ is now one of the few remaining countries in the region where a semblance of peace exists between Sunnis and Shias. As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) moves closer to taking Baghdad and Hezbollah strengthens Assad’s hand in Syria, Lebanon’s future remains uncertain. Warding off an impending outbreak of civil conflict in the country along sectarian lines requires leadership that is willing to fight for Lebanon’s survival. Western intervention, Saudi money, or Iranian weaponry cannot solve the problem; foreign actors have their own interests in the region and limited stakes in Lebanon’s welfare. If the past twenty years have taught the Lebanese anything it should be that foreign meddling has left their country a skeleton of its true potential. Lebanon’s leadership must come from within its own borders and it must stem the tide of extremism and unite the country around a common identity. If the Lebanese do not have ownership of their land, assume leadership of their country, and prepare to sacrifice their lives for a united Lebanon, the chess game being played out across the region will decide Lebanon’s future.

Mohamed Raouda is an MA candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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