Friday, August 22, 2014

Panic buying - Why arming against the Sunnis is a terrible idea

There have been reports recently of Christian villages arming themselves in northern Beqaa, allegedly with the help of Hezbollah. One story circulating this week was that Christian groups in Zahleh had acquired weapons. However, people in the town qualified the story, saying that some young men had been armed to protect their neighborhoods, and in one case had coordinated with Hezbollah located nearby. Nothing more.

All these stories have one thing in common, whatever their accuracy: they suggest growing Christian fear of Sunni jihadists, particularly the Islamic State, after the expulsion of Christians from northern Iraq and the recent Arsal battle. This attitude risks expanding into general animosity toward Lebanon’s Sunnis, most of whom have absolutely no taste for the group. A frequent comment among Christians is that moderate Sunnis have failed to sufficiently condemn the Islamic State.

The accusation is a false one, but it does reflect an unhealthy reality taking hold in Lebanon today. Panic among the country’s non-Sunni communities is pushing them into making reckless decisions. At the same time, the Sunni “moderates” have to be more conscious of the shifting mood in the country, and must do much more to address it, to the benefit of all.

Nor is the panic limited to Lebanon. All throughout Europe, people reacted with horror to the beheading of American journalist James Foley, particularly the fact that his killer appeared to be British citizen. At the United Nations, the United States and Europe are in the process of putting together an international coalition to combat the Islamic State, in collaboration with regional countries. In a bizarre twist of imagery, their aim is to “cut off the head of the [Islamic State].”

However, it is in Lebanon, with its complex sectarian makeup, that overreaction could have serious consequences. On the side of Christians, Shiites, and Druze – all minorities that would pay a heavy price were a Salafist-jihadist wave to sweep over the county – one principle must prevail: avoid falling into the trap of believing there is a widespread “Sunni threat” and taking steps to isolate the Sunnis. This would only strengthen the influence of the extremist fringe at the expense of the reasonable majority.

Arming and mobilizing for the worst will do one thing. It will provoke a similar counter-reaction among Sunnis, and set off dynamics guaranteed to be driven not by those who believe in coexistence, but by those who do not. Many of these people would have a vested interest in provoking conflict that could ultimately benefit them, both politically and financially.

When war comes, moderates stay home. That is why the campaign, spearheaded by the Future Movement, affirming the moderation of Lebanon’s Sunnis is both laudable and beside the point. A campaign directed at the outside is one thing; far more urgent is for the moderate Sunni leadership, above all former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, to take control on the ground and ensure that moderation prevails there.

Hariri returned to Lebanon recently, but almost immediately left the country again. He will probably reappear at the end of this month, but no sustained policy of taking the Sunni street in hand and calming sectarian tensions can work if the person in charge is never in the country long enough to follow through on such a plan. Hariri has security worries, and must take precautions. But he cannot delegate this effort to others.

When he returned with $1 billion of Saudi money to distribute to the Lebanese Army, Hariri had a mandate. He appears to have some money to distribute to Sunni communities vulnerable to influence by Islamist extremists. But this entails setting up an effective network to distribute and follow through on aid. The Future networks may have to be revived, but more importantly, a supervisory authority must be set up to avoid the corruption that undermined and discredited the movement’s patronage and assistance activities during the past decade.    

If this sounds as if “moderation” is something that has to be purchased, that’s partly true. Extremists find green pastures in communities that are poor and where frustration with the status quo, and with state authorities, is high. The Islamic State was able to take over large swathes of territory in Iraq, including Mosul, because it was acting in an environment already well-disposed to rejecting Iraqi government authority.

Many Sunnis in these areas had no real sympathy for the extremists’ ideology, yet had no will to oppose it. For them to turn against the extremists, however, the government has to provide them with a stake in the system, for which they would be willing to fight. Patronage works in much the same way. It can help expand a community’s commitment to stability and continuity.

For Lebanon’s Sunni moderates to regain the initiative, a multifaceted strategy is needed. It involves bolstering the security forces, intervening in vulnerable Sunni localities (this has been promised by Hariri in Arsal), marginalizing radical groups, and bringing on board those who are influential in local communities. More broadly, Hariri has to embark on a persistent dialogue with other communities, including Hezbollah, to reduce misunderstandings that can spark tension. And above all, Hariri himself must remain in Lebanon, to avert a new Sunni vacuum that extremists will try to exploit.

Hezbollah has sought to play on the mood of fear in Lebanon, portraying itself as a bulwark against the Islamic State. But the party must end such provocations, since it would be utterly incapable of containing an armed Sunni uprising in Lebanon, if one were to happen. Hezbollah needs the moderates, too, and everyone stands to gain from ensuring that extremism does not gain a foothold in Lebanon.

No comments: