I’ve seen plenty of commentary online since Friday night criticizing the American and European media (and their audiences) for ignoring Thursday’s terrorist attacks in Beirut while focusing their attention solely on Friday’s deadlier Paris attacks.
But, as I write tomorrow for The National Interest, as the world mourns the victims of both attacks, there’s a risk that the lessons of the Beirut blasts (by far the worst since the beginning of the civil war in neighboring Syria) will go unheeded.
Just as the Paris attacks are changing the nature of the Western response to ISIS/Daesh, so should the Beirut attacks change the nature of Western engagement with Lebanon.
Recognizing the humanity of the victims in Lebanon is really just the first step, because the real courage among policymakers is to adjust to the post-attack Beirut with more support politically, economically and morally.
Now that the Islamic State/Daesh has taken credit for three major attacks — the downing of a Russian flight over the Sinai peninsula, a double suicide bombing in southern Beirut and the concerted Friday night onslaught in Paris — there’s a growing consensus that the international community is doubling down on concerted efforts to confront the radical Sunni jihadists at their core in Syria.
That began on Sunday afternoon, when French forces hit Raqqa, a city in northeastern Syria that IS/Daesh has claimed as its de facto capital, with more than 20 airstrikes. In the aftermath of Friday night’s coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, French president François Hollande declared that the attacks amounted to an ‘act of war,’ pledging to lead a response that ‘will be pitiless,’ and the French military reaction came even while police still search for one of the alleged perpetrators of Friday’s attacks.
Well before Paris, US officials have been increasingly focused on Raqqa
As the world’s attention now turns from Paris and Beirut to Raqqa, those terrorist attacks seem likely to accelerate what’s been a gradual effort to place pressure on ISIS in Raqqa. US airstrikes last Thursday killed militant Mohammed Emwazi, popularly known as ‘Jihadi John’ in the US media. A Kuwait native who grew up in London before traveling to Syria to fight for IS/Daesh, he appeared in several videotaped beheadings of westerners, proclaiming jihadist slogans in perfect English as he and his allies murdered their victims.
In early July, a series of 16 US airstrikes also targeted Raqqa, with the goal of destroying ISIS strongholds and disrupting transit routes — an attack that killed at least six civilians. News reports suggest that the United States and its allies are gradually preparing a campaign to liberate Raqqa in tandem with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a new coalition of Kurdish, Arab and other Syrian minorities in the country’s northeast, though its strength may be more aspirational than anything else.Formed just last month, it Forces are still a somewhat nebulous group, anchored by the YPG (the Kurdish acronym for the People’s Protection Units, the Kurdish armed peshmerga fighting IS/Daesh), but which also includes Sunni Arabs and, most incredulously, some longtime pro-Assad forces.
US special forces that entered Syria in the last month, in particular, are thought to be spearheading the Raqqa effort. As Vox‘s Zach Beauchamp wrote earlier in October, a successful US-led siege on Raqqa would be difficult but would also call into doubt the Islamic State’s ability to hold, control and govern territory in Syria (or Iraq, for that matter).
Alain Bauer, a leading French criminologist and adviser to officials in Paris, New York, and elsewhere about counter-terror strategies, is among those who believes that ISIS is lashing out precisely because it is under pressure on the ground….
“If we really want to do something, we need to erase Raqqa,” [criminologist Alain] Bauer told The Daily Beast. What keeps this from happening? In Bauer’s opinion, the United States. “Every bombing is a nightmare to negotiate,” he said. “Here’s a target. ‘Oops, there’s a garden there. Oops, there’s a family there. Oops, you cannot destroy this, you cannot destroy that.’”
But ISIS is embedded among the civilian population. Bauer thinks there’s an important distinction. “They are representing the civilian population,” he says, at least those who have remained and sometimes profited from the group’s presence. “They are not enslaving them. And a war is a war.”
But the facts suggest otherwise, and the limited reporting from Raqqa over the past year indicates an urban population terrorized by the Islamic State’s fundamentalist grip. Gruesome public executions are now a routine occurrence, foreign-born militants from Africa and Europe alike (often unable to speak Arabic) mix awkwardly with the local population and jihadists routinely police their moral vision, for example, forcing women to wear niqabs. Though Islamic State certainly has its supporters among the Sunni population, many of Raqqa’s civilians are, like the victims of the Beirut and Paris bombings, victims of Daesh-led terrorism.
Mohamad Chatah, a leader of the ‘March 14’ coalition in Lebanon and former ambassador to the United States, was killed in a Beirut car bomb blast on Friday in perhaps the most chilling political assassination in Lebanon since former prime minister Rafic Hariri was killed in 2005.
Just a couple of hours before his death, Chatah tweeted the following message out to the world:
#Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security & foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 yrs.
It’s a macabre epitaph for a man who spent his career pulling his country away from the impact of both Sunni and Shiite militants in favor of a vision of a modern, moderate and prosperous Lebanon. Chatah, who was born in Tripoli, the Sunni-dominant city in Lebanon’s north, was a top advisor to Hariri, and other relatively anti-Assad prime ministers, including Rafic Hariri’s his son Saad and Fouad Siniora. An economist who worked at the International Monetary Fund between the 1980s and 2005, Chatah served as Lebanon’s ambassador to the United States between 1997 and 2000. After Hariri’s assassination in 2005, Chatah returned to Lebanon, where he served as a vice-governor of Lebanon’s central bank and, from 2008 to 2009, its finance minister.
Since the 2005 assassination, Lebanese politics has been polarized between the ‘March 14’ coalition (comprised of moderate Sunnis and Maronite Christians) that opposed the role Syria played in internal Lebanese affairs and the ‘March 8’ coalition (comprised of mostly Shiite Lebanese, Greek Orthodox, other Sunnis and a minority of militant Maronites) that were more pro-Syria. Druze political leaders, the most prominent of which is Walid Jumblatt, are often play the determining role in which coalition holds power. As Syria has descended into civil war, however, the two coalitions have taken increasingly strong positions over Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Even as most of Lebanon’s political elite have strained to keep their country from being sucked into Syria’s violence, the ‘March 8’ coalition is much more sympathetic to Assad and the ‘March 14’ coalition much less so.
Chatah was certainly among the most vocal opponents of both Assad and of Hezbollah (حزب الله), the Shiite militia and political group that is now openly and notoriously working to support the Alwaite (a Shi’a sect) Assad regime and has ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose leadership is also Shiite. Sunni Salafists from Lebanon are also fighting openly and notoriously on behalf of chiefly Sunni anti-Assad rebels. Just last week, Chatah wrote an open letter to Iran’s new president Hassan Rowhani to help reduce Hezbollah’s role in Syria in the hopes of stabilizing Lebanon. It’s hard not to see Chatah’s death as a direct message from Assad supporters to the ‘March 14’ coalition.
“Those who assassinated Mohammad Shatah are the ones who assassinated Rafik Hariri; they are the ones who want to assassinate Lebanon,” the former prime minister said.
“The suspects are those who are running away from international justice and refuse to appear in the Special Tribunal for Lebanon; they are the ones opening the window of evil and chaos to Lebanon and the Lebanese and are drawing regional fires,” he added…. “Anger exists and we are heartbroken and we will remain heartbroken. But wisdom is needed so that we can build the Lebanon we dream of,” he added.
Generally, the depressingly familiar storyline in Lebanon goes something like this:
First, the powerful Shiite political organization Hezbollah does something outrageous with respect to opposing Israel or supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In doing so, Hezbollah makes it clear that not only is it willing to prioritize its own international policy over maintaining Lebanese unity, but that it has sufficient military and political power to do so no matter what anyone else in Lebanon thinks. Finally, everyone else in the Lebanon grumbles at Hezbollah for usurping the military and political roles that should properly belong to the Lebanese government, and in so doing, jeopardizing the fragile national unity that everyone else in Lebanon has been boosting since the end of Lebanon’s own civil war in the 1980s.
It was Hezbollah, after all, that was responsible for rope-a-doping Israel into the 2006 summer war — though it turns out that Hezbollah was successful in forcing an end to Israeli military occupation in southern Lebanon, it was Hezbollah (not the Lebanese government) that decided that it was appropriate to provoke Israel into a months-long bombing campaign that destabilized all of Lebanon, not just the southern Shiite strongholds where Hezbollah’s influence is strongest.
That storyline has become increasingly complicated with Sunni groups that are now becoming more ‘Hezbollah-like’ in prioritizing their support of (largely Sunni) anti-Assad rebels in the Syrian civil war as Hezbollah has made it clear that it will openly and notoriously support the Assad regime, thereby risking Lebanese unity even more. But by and large, the story of Lebanon’s attempt to stay out of trouble in the Middle East over the past decade has involved trying to pull Hezbollah back from the ledge.
So while no one ever welcomes a bomb blast of the kind that Lebanon suffered yesterday — a blast in the largely Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut that killed up to 20 people and injured nearly 300– it is heartening to see that the response from the entire political community in Lebanon has been to condemn the bombing. Though a murky, heretofore unknown group calling themselves the ‘Brigade of Aisha, the Mother of the Faithful’ took credit for the attack, it could have been any number of Hezbollah’s enemies — radical Sunni groups within Lebanon, anti-Assad rebels from Syria angry at Hezbollah’s growing role in propping up Assad or, perhaps more outlandishly, Israeli special agents who want to take Hezbollah down a peg or two (as Lebanese president Michel Suleiman appeared to suggest yesterday).
The larger point here isn’t who was responsible for a bomb that seems squarely aimed at Hezbollah, but that even when the shoe is on the other foot, when it’s Hezbollah that’s the victim and not the instigator of violence in Lebanon — even despite its role as a wayward force that causes all sorts of problems for everyone else in Lebanon who just want to live their lives peacefully and in harmony — the attack is condemned not only by Lebanese Shi’a, but by mainstream Sunni and Maronite leaders as well. Former prime minister Saad Hariri, who is about as strong an opponent of Hezbollah as anyone, denounced the attack, as did Samir Geagea (pictured above, left, with Hariri, right), the leader of the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite group.
and Christian Maronite (president Michel Suleiman) leaders who are certainly do not count themselves among Hezbollah’s fans.
If there’s one silver lining to Thursday’s attack, it’s that the Lebanese political community had an opportunity to show Hezbollah and its supporters that national unity means just that — when you attack one group of Lebanese, you attack all of them, despite the fact that there are many, many differences among Lebanon’s myriad political and religious communities. It’s a subtle point, but it’s important, and it’s one of the reasons why Lebanon (much to its credit) has avoided much of the blowback from Syria’s destabilizing civil war.
You can tell that political tension has been on the rise for some time — just yesterday former Sunni prime minister Saad Hariri accused the largely Shi’a Hezbollah of openly supporting Syrian president Bashar Assad and actively participating in the civil war there.
Hariri belongs to the anti-Syrian ‘March 14’ coalition, while Hezbollah has supported the more pro-Syrian ‘March 8’ coalition, which currently governs Lebanon under prime minister Najib Mikati. The two coalitions stem from 2005, when Syrian troops left Lebanon after nearly three decades of occupation in the wake of the assassination of Saad Hariri’s father, prime minister Rafik Hariri.
If you’re not following him already on Twitter, you should be following Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center — he wonders whether the prevailing ‘mutually assured destruction’ sentiment that has becalmed Lebanese politics since the end of the civil war in the 1980s may be transforming back into a more existential fight for survival. Furthermore, he points to today’s statements by longtime Druze leader Walid Jumblatt (who’s moved from pro-‘March 14’ to pro-‘March 8’ and now seems to be moving back to a more pro-‘March 14’ posture) and Maronite leader Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces that directly blame Assad for the blast, which killed eight people, including a top security official, Major General Wissam Hasan, a Hariri ally. So the tone today is (perhaps understandably) incredibly inflamed and accusatory.
Tense though things may be, it’s important to remember this is just the first such car blast in Beirut since 2008. Though there have been short bursts of violence earlier this year in Sunni-dominated Tripoli on the north coast of Lebanon and a high-profile kidnapping in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon has actually proven incredibly resistant to the spillover from the increasingly brutal civil war. There’s no reason to think this time will be any different — Lebanon’s military remains highly professionalized and not politicized, and can be expected to be on high alarm in the weeks ahead to prevent any further unrest. And many of Lebanon’s top politicians, who emerged out of the horrific Lebanese civil war from the late 1970s and 1980s, certainly know how far their country has come in the ensuing two decades and will hope that political resolve can calm passions, especially in the short term.