The outbreak of fighting in the Lebanese town of Arsal last Saturday threatens to draw Lebanon further into the Syrian war, exacerbate already tense Sunni-Shia relations and lead to a potentially devastating internal conflict.
The fighting began after the Lebanese army arrested a Syrian, Imad Jomaa, who was a Jabhat Al Nusra commander until he switched allegiance to the Islamic State. According to early news reports, after the arrest, Mr Jomaa’s partisans took over army positions in Arsal, forcing the military to mount an offensive to retake them.
The location of Arsal itself is important. Near the Lebanese-Syrian border, Arsal is a Sunni agglomeration in the mainly Shia northern Bekaa Valley. As the war in Syria has raged on, Arsal has been deeply affected, with tens of thousands of Syrian refugees flocking there. Many of the townspeople had depended on cross-border smuggling for their livelihood, and Arsal has served as a resupply base for the Syrian opposition.
This situation has disturbed Hizbollah and the Syrian regime, who have been trying to crush stubborn rebel resistance on the Syrian side of the border in the Qalamoun district.
The Syrian regime and Hizbollah have for some time sought to implicate the Lebanese army in their efforts to weaken the Syrian rebels.
Not surprisingly, the army commander, Jean Qahwaji, avoids such topics. On Sunday, he declared instead that the gunmen in Arsal had planned their attacks against the army long before Mr Jomaa’s arrest, implying a carefully planned conspiracy. Some politicians echoed this version of events.
While it’s not clear exactly what happened, armed Syrians did seize army positions in and near Arsal. While the army suggested it was fighting jihadists, and highlighted Mr Jomaa’s links to Jabhat Al Nusra and the Islamic State, on Tuesday mediation efforts stumbled amid signs that the gunmen were fragmented. This indicated a less cohesive and unified group than the army had initially indicated.
The danger is that Lebanon’s more extremist armed Sunnis, who have long accused the army of collaborating with Hizbollah, will take to the streets, particularly in the heavily Sunni north of the country, in protest against the military’s operation in a major Sunni town, and enter into a confrontation with the army.
This could ultimately deteriorate into fighting with the Shia. Given the presence of more than a million Syrians in the country – many of them Sunni refugees who resent Hizbollah’s role in Syria – a conflict could quickly spread
There was also a more cynical interpretation of what took place. Hizbollah may have precipitated the army into a clash with Syrian gunmen in Arsal, by encouraging a more aggressive military posture there, with two objectives in mind: to push the army to cut supply lines between Lebanon and Syria’s Qalamoun region, thereby facilitating Hizbollah’s and the Syrian regime’s stumbling efforts to defeat the rebels there.
And secondly, the aim may have been to burnish the profile of Mr Qahwaji, whom many regard as Hizbollah’s choice to become president.
By appearing to spearhead a battle against “terrorists”, the army commander could suddenly emerge as the leading candidate for the presidency at a time when Lebanon is without a president. An election has been repeatedly postponed for lack of a consensus.
In this interpretation, the Syrians attacked the army because they did not want their supply lines to be severed. But by doing so, they also rallied Lebanese support behind the army and turned most people against the Syrian rebels – now portrayed as seeking Lebanon’s destabilisation. Mr Qahwaji would be elected and Hizbollah would pursue efforts, with Syria’s regime, to crush rebels in Qalamoun, who could no longer rely on Lebanon.
That’s possible, but it’s equally true that an extended, bloody confrontation in Arsal could make Mr Qahwaji unacceptable to Sunnis as president. His performance in recent days indicates he has the presidency in mind. He organised a rare press conference after the attacks, and said the army would continue to combat terrorists and takfiri groups. Thus do saviours speak.
There have since been attacks on the army in areas where Sunni anger is high, most notably the northern city of Tripoli. If violence increases there, it could spread to the Sunni-majority Akkar region further to the north and create a very difficult situation for the government to control.
Hizbollah has committed several thousand men to the fighting in Syria. After Iran’s reversals in Iraq, it needs to defeat Syrian rebels in Qalamoun, in that way consolidating the territory controlled by President Bashar Al Assad between Damascus and the Syrian coast, the regime’s heartland.
The Lebanese army, by design or default, may become a part of this project. That’s worrying, because it could heighten sectarian tensions that undermine the army’s unity, since a substantial portion of soldiers in the army are Sunnis.
Hizbollah must also beware. If Lebanon collapses into a new civil war, Hizbollah would have to abandon Syria to fight at home. In other words, it would effectively have to give up on the Al Assad regime at a time when the latter’s capacities to remain in power are already doubtful. This may not only mean that Iran, Hizbollah’s sponsor, could lose Syria; it would mean that Hizbollah suddenly finds itself trapped in a civil war that it simply cannot win.
We will see if such a cataclysmic scenario is true. But one thing cannot be doubted: Sunni-Shia relations in Lebanon have hit a new low. Any misstep could push the country into the abyss.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut
On Twitter @BeirutCalling