Par Rayan Haddad, docteur en Sciences Politiques et membre du CCMO

Article paru dans : « Orient: German Journal for Politics, Economics and Culture of the Middle East » (Orient 56 / IV 2015)

The title chosen for this contribution seems provocative, as one would not expect the Lebanese arena to offer an illustration of how misguided the pretence of encapsulating the unfolding events in the Middle East within the narrow framework of sectarian strife is. While the “Sunni-Shia conflict” is increasingly considered by mainstream media as the keystone to understanding the chaotic realities of the region, a deconstruction of such reified readings is very much needed. Indeed, the current salience of sectarian politics is not an explanatory factor of regional dynamics but rather derives from the withering of the state in the Levant.[1] Moreover, a reliance on the sectarian divide narrative is too simplistic because it evades the possibility of a consensus emerging between groups supposedly divided by “ancestral hatreds”, or a divergence occurring between groups allegedly bound by civilisational ties. The reality is that state and non-state actors are engaged, both on a national and transnational level, in a negotiation process in order to serve perceived self-interests, the outcomes of which may either lead to consensual configurations or agonistic struggles.[2] These settings are essentially constructed in a strategic mode rather than grounded on religious affinity. An overview of events ranging from Lebanese perceptions of the American-led invasion of Iraq to the reverberations of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon will enable us to shed light on the gradual shift from consensual mindsets to confrontational ones in Lebanon, against the backdrop of “the new Middle East cold war” in which “Iran and Saudi Arabia play the leading roles”.[3]


I. The Greatest Societal Consensus in Postwar Lebanon

In a society profoundly divided over the issue of Syrian hegemony, it is not overstated to say that the opposition to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 generated the largest consensus in post-civil war Lebanon.[4] The figures speak for themselves: 97% of Lebanese had a negative image of the US position towards Iraq in 2003.[5] Although the anti-war campaign was far from being monopolised by sectarian players, the consensus was mainly perceived through sectarian lenses within the context of a political system based on confessional power-sharing and a society almost evenly split amongst Sunnis, Shias and Christians. The anti-war stance adopted by political and religious leaders from across the sectarian spectrum was grounded on moral values, but also on interest-based calculations.

The most prominent Sunni leader at the time, late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, took a clear stand against the war. Soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein, he expressed worries in private – reflecting the prevalent, yet unspoken, feeling within the Sunni scene – over the Shia political dominance in Iraq, which could have altered the regional balance of power at the expense of Saudi Arabia.[6] Prior to that, radical Islamist movements in Palestinian refugee camps and Baathists had been the strongest opponents of the US military intervention, as they were the only ones to send volunteer fighters to Iraq, with the benediction of the Syrian regime. Lebanese Islamist Sunni movements refrained from explicit mobilisation in that direction, fearing pressure from security services. Moreover, Dar al Fatwa – the official Sunni religious body – was deploying efforts to prevent such jihadist endeavour, with various levels of success.[7]

For their part, Christian clerical establishments were keen to dissociate themselves from the Bush administration in order to prevent some Islamic circles from confusing Oriental Christianity with the blundering American neo-conservative policies in the region. In this regard, the decision taken by the then Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Sfeir, to decline an invitation to the White House during the run-up to the war was very telling. Furthermore, as a leading figure in the opposition to Syria’s hegemony, he aimed to rationalise the Syrian conduct of Lebanese affairs by posing that domestic aspirations for sovereignty were not driven by hostility towards Damascus and were not detrimental to its interests.

Finally, many in the Shia community were not displeased by the imminent fall of a regime in Baghdad which had committed large-scale massacres against their fellow coreligionists. The fact remains that the entire Shia politico-religious spectrum in Lebanon adopted a clear-cut anti-war stance. Lebanon’s most influential Shia cleric, the late Ayatollah Fadlallah, issued a fatwa as early as August 2002 banning Muslims from helping the United States in any military strike on Iraq. Hezbollah in turn went as far as calling for reconciliation between the Iraqi regime and the opposition in February 2003 in order to prevent the war. Given that this call had no realistic chance of being accepted by both parties, it was most probably aimed at saving Hezbollah’s hard-earned credentials within the Sunni realm.[8]


II. Deconstructing the “Shia Crescent”

While the echoes of the concept first used by King Abdullah II of Jordan in 2004 – in reference to the growing Iranian influence in the Middle East through a range of Shia proxies – are still reverberating, the deconstruction of this overarching concept has already been undertaken through focusing on the diversity of Shia movements in the arc stretching from Afghanistan to Lebanon.[9] An examination of the differing orientations taken by members of the so-called “Shia axis” with regard to the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath can also illustrate the inaccuracy of this formulation. In this respect, it is noteworthy to mention that Hezbollah’s television station was urging Iraqis to rise up against the occupation in April 2003 (with the aim of saving its resistance credentials), which caused discontent among major Iraqi Shia movements[10] – including those sharing Khomeinist values with Hezbollah. Indeed, these movements were rather in favour of the war, as their eagerness to topple the Iraqi regime was greater than their inclination to pursue uncompromising policies towards the United States.

By contrast, Iran was adopting an official “not taking sides” policy and was strongly advising Hezbollah to prevent any escalation on the Lebanese-Israeli border in the wake of the war, as it was fearful of being the next target of the US regime-change agenda.[11] Its pragmatic attitude was also related to the prospect of a democratic process in Iraq that would bring a trustworthy Shia majority rule. The Syrian regime, on the other hand, was voicing interest in seeing the US suffer a defeat in Iraq and was facilitating the movement of Sunni fighters into its neighbouring country. For the first time in many years, differing trends between Syrians and Iranians could be noticed regarding their approach to dealing with regional politics.[12] The chasm between Syria and Iran could have widened in spring 2003 had the Bush administration explored – from a position of strength – Tehran’s readiness to reach a strategic understanding on a range of issues, including cooperation on nuclear safeguards, its contribution to the stabilisation process in Iraq and discussion of its support for Hezbollah and Hamas.[13] After this missed opportunity, Iranian officials alternated between nuisance and moderating policies in Iraq in order to achieve national inviolability and regional rehabilitation. For its part, the Syrian regime acted mainly as a nuisance.


III. Freed from Syrian Reign but Handcuffed by Divided Loyalties

The end of the Syrian dominance over Lebanon (1976-2005) came as an after-effect of the Iraqi earthquake. Indeed, Damascus ignored many warnings that its destabilising actions in Iraq were jeopardising the American tacit recognition of its tutelage role in Beirut. The Syrian regime also managed to gradually lose Paris and Riyadh’s trust by sidelining their close ally Rafiq Hariri, thus tilting the internal Lebanese balance in favour of forces totally loyal to Syria and Iran. Lebanon became a serious basis for an American – French rapprochement that paved the way for the passage of UNSC Resolution 1559, calling upon Syrian forces to withdraw and Hezbollah to disarm. Damascus tried to regain the upper hand towards the end of 2004 by offering to resume peace talks with Israel, but these efforts were met with disdain from Tel Aviv and Washington.[14] Syrian-backed forces suspected Hariri of colluding with Paris to push for Resolution 1559. His assassination occurred in February 2005 as he was subtly preparing the ground for a cross-sectarian electoral alliance endorsing a sovereigntist agenda. The March 14 rally – held in response to a pro-Syrian rally on March 8 – pointed the finger of blame at Damascus and brought Syria’s hegemony over Lebanon to a close.

A decade later, Hariri’s killing is still structuring the Lebanese political landscape, polarised between two cross-sectarian coalitions, one of which – the most popular amongst Sunnis – is loyal to Western powers and Saudi Arabia, while the other is loyal to Iran (and enjoys the support of the overwhelming majority of Shias). Both coalitions are masters at fostering a feeling of victimhood among their followers, all of which does not help to defuse sectarian tensions, especially amidst Iraq’s turmoil and the balance of power game between Riyadh and Tehran, tipping it in favour of the latter. Despite the early achievements of the March 14 coalition, Hezbollah proved quickly that the nation’s destiny was in its hands. The 2006 war was a major turning point, as Israel failed in its attempt to eliminate Hezbollah’s missile arsenal – most likely a part of Iran’s retaliation mechanism to a military strike on its nuclear sites – bolstering Hezbollah’s standing in the Arab streets, regardless of its sectarian affiliation.[15] At the domestic level, however, contending accusations of advancing foreign agendas only served to heighten mutual distrust. When the Syrian uprising erupted in 2011, “Lebanon’s political alignments dangerously mirrored the pro- and anti-Assad battle lines inside Syria”.[16]


IV. Spiralling into Schizo-Space: The Cost of Shooting in the Dark in Syria

Rival Lebanese sides failed to abide by Beirut’s official “disassociation” policy from the Syrian crisis. Indeed, counting on them to abstain from projecting their opposing expectations onto the Syrian spectrum soon proved to be unrealistic. Consequently, Lebanese actors seriously undermined their country’s capacity to cope with spillover effects from the Syrian conflict, which took the form of sporadic armed clashes between pro and anti-Assad supporters (mostly in Tripoli) and between the army and radical Sunni militants (in North Lebanon, Sidon and the Beqaa Valley), political assassinations (chiefly targeting anti-Syrian regime figures), Iraq-style bombings (targeting civilians in Shia neighbourhoods of Beirut and in predominantly Sunni Tripoli), a staggering refugee crisis (giving tiny Lebanon the highest per capita concentration of refugees worldwide), political paralysis and a declining economy.

The constant identification of dominant Lebanese factions with the interests of their respective regional patrons also contributes to these shock waves. After the “loss” of Iraq, “the Syrian revolt against Bashar al Assad was the one opportunity presented by the upheavals of the Arab Spring for Riyadh to roll back Iranian influence”.[17] For Lebanese Sunni movements (whether pursuing a secular political agenda or an Islamist one), the Syrian conflict offers not only an opportunity to express solidarity with their fellow coreligionists (and provide logistic support to rebels along the northeast Lebanese-Syrian border), but also a chance to bring down a regime “that stood behind Hezbollah’s power”.[18] Sunni grievances in Lebanon are driven by a collective sense of political marginalisation, aggravated by the memory of the brief takeover of Beirut by Shia militiamen in 2008, the collapse of the Saad Hariri-led government in 2011 and the trial in absentia of five Hezbollah members by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in connection with the assassination of his father, the aforementioned Rafiq Hariri.

Nevertheless, these common resentments must be qualified by the fact that the Syrian conflict has “greatly amplified the trend toward political fragmentation within the Sunni community”.[19] Indeed, Syria’s descent into war underlined the weakening of the Future Movement (the bulk of March 14 forces), led by Saad Hariri, with the concurrent emergence of secular contenders but also hardline Salafi circles, some of which are linked to Syria’s Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. An uncertain number of Lebanese Sunni fighters have joined the Syrian insurgency, while the number of Lebanese nationals joining the ranks of the Nusra Front and the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seems to be on the rise.[20] The Lebanese radical Sunni militancy is very far from being a game-changing force in Syria, but its ascent does have serious security ramifications on the Lebanese arena, as exemplified by its numerous clashes with the Lebanese Army, accused of repressive policies against its constituency in contrast to its permissive attitude towards Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria alongside the Assad regime.

Limited in scope at first, Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria gradually expanded and became imperious in its view in 2013 when the Syrian regime’s survival appeared to be at stake. This was most probably a response to an Iranian appeal, all the more so since Tehran desperately relies on a friendly regime in Damascus in order to protect its supply lines to Hezbollah’s bases in Lebanon (running through Syria) and thus preserve a strong deterrent against an Israeli strike on its nuclear facilities. Hezbollah’s interference was not driven by religious affinity for the minority Alawites – an offshoot of Shia Islam – holding power in Damascus, but was based on strategic calculations to safeguard its main weapon supply lines for the sake of preserving its own deterrence capacity vis-à-vis Israel. Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria did contribute, however, to inflaming sectarian tensions in Lebanon and to the mainstream depiction of the Syrian conflict as primarily sectarian. It also severely damaged Hezbollah’s longstanding efforts to present itself as a party embracing pan-Islamic causes. The Shia movement (which has already lost over 800 fighters and is estimated to be currently deploying nearly 7,000 operatives across Syria) seems to be willing, nonetheless, to pay the consequential costs entailed by its intervention – more and more regarded as existential – especially since it is determined to prevent the establishment of Salafi Jihadist-controlled areas on its doorstep. Hezbollah is thereby now “engaged in what it considers to be a preemptive war of choice in Syria”, on the grounds that it is better to fight Salafi insurgent forces in Syria today than to fight these forces in Lebanon tomorrow, should Bashar al-Assad fall.[21]

Among the motivations for Hezbollah’s offensives in Syrian neighbouring areas (particularly in Qusayr and the Qalamoun mountain range) is its keenness to guarantee contiguity between its strongholds in Lebanon and swathes of territory critical to the Syrian regime,[22] and to ensure the inviolability of Lebanese territory (a shared objective with the Lebanese Army, operating exclusively on the domestic front against Jihadist infiltration). Hezbollah’s campaign in the Qalamoun range has been efficient in terms of cutting Syrian rebels’ supply lines from Lebanon and thwarting Jihadist bombings similar to the ones that targeted its bastions and the Iranian embassy in Beirut in 2013 and 2014. That said, potential security breaches cannot be dismissed, not so much because the Nusra Front and ISIS still control pockets of Lebanese territory bordering Syria, but because both groups – vowing to cause Hezbollah’s downfall – may have the ability to rely on sleeper cells in Lebanon.


V. Threats, Assets and Niches of Opportunity

Lebanon can rely on many assets to avert the risk of descent into civil war at this point. The Lebanese Army has been successful lately in adopting security plans to confront Jihadist threats across the country, benefiting from international assistance[23] and internal political consensus recognising that Jihadist groups represent a threat to all Lebanese. Although the political system is deeply flawed, it is also noticeably inclusive. Unlike Syria and Yemen, Lebanon is no longer considered to be a proxy battleground by regional powers, which seem to be concerned about preventing its destabilisation. In addition to a domestic political consensus on maintaining stability, Hezbollah’s overwhelming military power is strongly dissuading its opponents from challenging it directly through the use of force.[24]

Lebanon – a country of just over four million – has thus far demonstrated tremendous resilience in the face of massive socio-political and economic challenges, including the absorption of almost two million Syrian refugees within an extremely short period of time. The harrowing memories of Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990) – and also the current meltdowns in the Middle East – are ultimately serving as a foil against any resurgence of civil unrest. Nevertheless, should the Syrian crisis persist for a long time, Lebanon would not be immune from the danger of collapsing into civil war, especially as some of its safety nets convey the impression of being like a double-edged sword. Indeed, reminiscences of the Lebanese wars revive widespread fears that the Syrian refugees could prove disruptive to Lebanon’s fragile balance in the long term, as the Palestinian refugee militancy was in the 1970s. Exploiting these fears for political gain could add fuel to already growing tensions with host communities also living in dire conditions, especially in peripheral areas. Hezbollah’s military power admittedly constitutes a bulwark against a potential Jihadist advance on Lebanon. Conversely, the danger posed to Israel by Hezbollah’s military infrastructure and its advance towards the Golan Heights could drive Israel to launch another war against the Shia movement in the future, especially if the latter finds itself deeply enmeshed in the Syrian war.[25]

The Lebanese system of confessional power-sharing is applied only in a “limited sense of who gets what, when, and how, as a competition for the honors and spoils of office”.[26] The Syrian crisis has contributed to the further polarisation of Lebanese politics (with a clear failure of Christian political forces to play an arbiter role instead of being split along a March 14 – March 8 line), leading the country to political standoff and institutional deadlock. Social resilience in the face of shocks has been recklessly used by the political class as an “excuse for dysfunctionality” that “could ultimately prove the country’s undoing”.[27] There are, however, windows of opportunity that exist within the Lebanese predicament, illustrated by the emergence of a nascent civic movement transcending sectarian affiliations and marked by anti-corruption drives and a quest for accountability (a trend observed in Iraq as well). While it is true that this movement still lacks the means to shake the political duopoly, one should not underrate the transformative “power of small events”.[28] Ultimately, the condition for civility in Lebanon is clearly predicated on the pacification of the Middle East. In this regard, a détente in Saudi-Iranian relations is undoubtedly a crucial port of call for the resolution of the Syrian crisis and the alleviation of sectarian tensions in the region.


VI. Conclusion

Analytical approaches to turbulence in the Middle East based on the sectarian divide narrative do not provide strong heuristic guidance. An all-embracing reliance on this narrative would be like running an equation backwards, as the sectarian elements of the puzzling tangle need to be accurately explained and contextualised within particular socio-historical settings, rather than being considered as overarching explanatory principles. A transversal scrutiny of major events unfolding in the region perceived through Lebanese lenses supports the idea that while sectarian labels seem to be intensifying, they are primarily driven by strategic calculations. On top of this, the ensuing configurations are not necessarily constructed in an oppositional mode (when it comes to relations between different sectarian groups) and they are certainly not devoid of intra-sectarian divergence. Moreover, they are not immune from being translated into secular forms of politics, notwithstanding how remote this outlook may seem.


Reference List

Atassi, Muhammad Ali, “Fī talāzum al-taghyīr al dīmuqrātī fī Sūriyya wa Lubnān”, Mulhaq An-Nahar, January 9, 2005, 11.

Barthe, Benjamin and Smolar, Piotr, “Israël et le Hezbollah, en attendant la prochaine guerre”, Le Monde, January 22, 2015, 2.

Bayram, Ibrahim, “Hizbullāh ba‘da suqūt Baghdād”, An-Nahar, May 10, 2003.

Bourdieu, Pierre, “Social Space and Symbolic Power”, Sociological Theory, 7 (1:1989), 14-25.

Cammett, Melani, “The Syrian’s Conflict Impact on Lebanese Politics”, USIP, November 18, 2013,

Gause III, Gregory F., “Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War”, Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper, (11:2014),

Haddad, Rayan, “Al Qaïda/Hezbollah: la concurrence à distance entre deux logiques d’action jihadistes différentes pour la captation des cœurs et des esprits de l’Umma”, Cultures & Conflits, (66:2007), 157-177,

ICG, “Too Close for Comfort: Syrians in Lebanon”, May 13, 2013,

ICG, “Lebanon’s Self-Defeating Survival Strategies”, July 20, 2015,

Kerr, Malcolm, “Political Decision Making in a Confessional Democracy”, in Politics in Lebanon, ed. by Leonard Binder, New York: John Wiley, 1966, 187-212.

Kessler, Glenn, “In 2003, U.S. Spurned Iran’s Offer of Dialogue”, The Washington Post, June 18, 2006, A16.

Kullab, Samya, “Why More and More Lebanese are Joining Extremist Groups?”, The Daily Star, October 10, 2014, 2.

Mandeville, Laure, “Michael Hayden: « L’Irak n’existe plus, la Syrie non plus »”, Le Figaro, July 6, 2015, 22.

Mervin, Sabrina (ed.), Les mondes chiites et l’Iran (Paris: Karthala-IFPO, 2007).

Nerguizian, Aram, “Lebanon at the Crossroads”, CSIS, February 25, 2014,

Rosenau, James, Distant Proximities: Dynamics Beyond Globalization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

Salem, Paul, “Can Lebanon Survive the Syrian Crisis?”, The Carnegie Papers, December 11, 2012,

Zein, Jihad, “Al ʿilāqāt al Sūriyya al Irāniyya: hilf wathīq wa tanāqud masālih”, An-Nahar, May 15, 2003.


Notes :

[1] According to a former director of the CIA, “Iraq no longer exists, nor Syria”, while “Lebanon is nearly undone”. Mandeville, Michael Hayden, 2015.

[2] By this term we mean “symbolic struggles over the power to produce and impose the legitimate vision of the world” (Bourdieu, Social Space, 1989) or coercive struggles to achieve these goals.

[3] Gause III, Beyond Sectarianism, 2014.

[4] Apart from the almost unanimous opposition to Israeli military campaigns.

[5] An-Nahar, April 11, 2003, 13.

[6] Interview with Ibrahim Bayram, journalist with An-Nahar in March 2004, Beirut.

[7] A close aide to late Rafiq Hariri estimates the number of Lebanese volunteer fighters that went to Iraq at 1500. Interview with Radwan Al Sayyid in March 2004, Beirut.

[8] Interview with late Hani Fahs, independent Shia cleric in August 2004, Beirut.

[9] Mervin, Les mondes chiites et l’Iran, 2007.

[10] Interview with Abou Maysam Al Jawahiri, representative of the Iraqi Daawa Party in November 2005, Beirut.

[11] Bayram, Hizbullāh ba‘da suqūt Baghdād, 2003.

[12] Zein, Al ‘ilāqāt al Sūriyya al Irāniyya, 2003.

[13] Kessler, In 2003, U.S. Spurned Iran’s Offer, 2006.

[14] Atassi, Fī talāzum al taghyīr, 2005. Successful talks would have probably led to a split between Syria and Iran.

[15] Haddad, La concurrence à distance, 2007.

[16] Salem, Can Lebanon Survive, 2012.

[17] Gause III, Beyond Sectarianism, 2014.

[18] Salem, Can Lebanon Survive, 2012.

[19] Cammett, The Syrian Conflict’s Impact, 2013.

[20] Kullab, Why are More and More Lebanese Joining Extremist Groups?, 2014.

[21] Nerguizian, Lebanon at the Crossroads, 2014.

[22] ICG, Too Close for Comfort, 2013.

[23] Including a substantial Saudi military aid which could help the Army to counter allegations that it is adopting an anti-Sunni approach in dealing with security challenges.

[24] Salem, Can Lebanon Survive, 2012.

[25] Barthe and Smolar, Israël et Le Hezbollah, 2015.

[26] Kerr, Political Decision Making, 1966.

[27] ICG, Lebanon’s Self-Defeating Survival Strategies, 2015.

[28] Rosenau, Distant Proximities, 2003.

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