Four days of brutal fighting in and around Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, between reinforced elements of the Sunni terror army ISIS and the Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese army has reignited fears that Lebanon could be descending once again into civil war.
ISIS forces are fighting to seize the vital port city and make it part of its newly established Islamic “Caliphate.”
Lebanese authorities claim the Lebanese Army repulsed ISIS’ thrusts into Tripoli and successfully drove out Islamist fighters from positions it captured inside the city. At least 42 people were reported killed and many hundreds injured. State media reports claimed an ongoing counteroffensive is pursuing fleeing ISIS militants under the command of Sheikh Khaled Hablas.
In an ominous development, reports published in Asharq Al-Awsat claim that ISIS fighters are now allied and battling alongside elements of the Jabhat Al-Nusra front. ISIS and Al-Nusra forces fought devastating battles for control of the rebellion against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Whether the joint ISIS-al Nusra attack upon Tripoli was the result of a temporary arrangement against the Lebanese army in and around Tripoli or a more permanent regional alliance between ISIS and al-Nusra is unknown.
Lebanon’s army is less an adjunct of the Iranian proxy army Hezbollah than it is of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. While so deeply tied up in the defense of the Syrian regime, it is unlikely that the Shiite Hezbollah army will open a new front by striking Israel from Lebanon’s southern border that it alone controls.
Tripoli residents quoted in Asharq Al-Awsat after the Lebanese army’s reported defeat of ISIS-al Nusra fighters said they believed that ISIS was seeking to seize the port city in order to create a land-bridge connecting ISIS-controlled regions of Syria and Iraq in order to more directly receive fighters and weapons.
In recent months, ISIS forces have grown increasingly active on Lebanon’s border with Syria. Working together, IS and Jabhat al-Nusra forces successfully kidnapped two dozen Lebanese soldiers from a border post in August. Northern Lebanon is home to most of that country’s Sunni Muslims, increasingly convinced that Lebanon’s national army, long respected as a neutral force, now openly aligns itself with Iran and Syria.
“The talk is of Sunnis taking on the Shia within Lebanon. The unspoken pact underpinning the country’s mostly genteel anarchy–that the sects would refrain from behaviour that might bring back the civil war–could yet be tested,” says the Economist.
No nation in the Middle East, nor many throughout the world, experienced a more devastating modern civil war that lasted longer or destroyed more than did the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War. In some ways, Lebanon’s recovery has in fact been quite remarkable. Its citizens remain far wealthier and still enjoy more political freedom that any of its regional neighbors, other than Israel.
As a recent profile in the Economist notes, Lebanon is “sectarian patchwork” that mixes virulently anti-Assad Sunnis together with ferociously pro-Assad Shiites in a country of just over five million; more than 20% of whom are the nearly one million refugees displaced by the Syrian Civil War.
To the extent it is able to maintain it, Lebanon’s internal strength ironically comes from the weakness of its central government. The country has been waiting to elect a new parliament for more than a year. The country has been waiting for the installation of new president since earlier this year. Lebanon’s private sector has skillfully exploited the political gridlock to find way to provide the very services like education, utilities, and transportation, that the state has failed to deliver.