A new wave of suicide bombings is hitting Lebanon, but this time around, the regional context and the rapid developments in Iraq cannot be ignored. Today, everyone in Lebanon is asking the same question: Is ISIS coming here after conquering so much of Iraq? Are we going to see militants waving black flags coming through the borders to take over Lebanon?
The answers to these questions are not a simple yes or no. “ISIS” today is a vague enough term that it could be applied to any Sunni militant entity choosing extremism and violence to fight their enemies, i.e. Maliki, Assad, Iran, or Hezbollah. The phenomenon of “ISIS” has gradually developed in the region as the influence of moderate Islam has declined. In this sense, ISIS will not “come to Lebanon:” ISIS is already here, and it has emerged slowly but surely since the events of May 7, 2008, continuing through the Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir movement in Sidon, and escalating to today’s suicide bombers.
The promise of power
ISIS’ increased regional strength did not come from nowhere. In the 1980s, Hezbollah was empowered through a feeling of injustice within the Shiite community. After Lebanon gained independence in 1943, Shiites found themselves politically underrepresented and economically very poor compared to other sects in Lebanon. Decades of marginalization and poverty gave Lebanese Shiites less cause to trust the state and more reason to bank on groups like Hezbollah, which at least came with the promise of resistance and political power.
As years of civil war, Syrian hegemony, Israeli occupation, rampant corruption, and illegitimate weapons bled authority from the Lebanese state, Hezbollah came to look like the only protector of Lebanese Shiites, despite increasing criticism – by the Shiites themselves – of its corruption and its involvement in Syria. But that wasn’t enough for Hezbollah. It ignored Sunni resentment and consistently acted as if its power were eternally sacred.
Today, ISIS has become empowered by a similar feeling of injustice within the Sunni community, and what we are seeing is the emergence of what can be described as a Sunni Hezbollah.
This feeling of injustice has grown within the Sunni majority as Shiites and Alawites – Iran’s proxies – rose to power in Syria after 1970, Iraq after 2005, and Lebanon also after 2005, all with the international community’s blessing. So we shouldn’t be surprised that “ISIS” happened: injustice creates extremism and an inclination toward violent revenge.
The majority of Sunnis in the region are neither part nor fans of ISIS, but the group is extending the same promise as the one Hezbollah offered in the 80s: resistance and political power. Resistance to the Iranian hegemony in the region, and the reclamation of power for the Sunnis in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. These promises, if not necessarily the accompanying ideology, will appeal to the people.
Shiite extremism vs. Sunni extremism
Extremism is not limited to an ethnic or religious group in the Arab and Muslim world. These ideas and beliefs exist everywhere, in each dictatorship and autocratic regime. Any group or leadership that refuses to acknowledge state authority, practices violence to impose its own rules, and denies the freedom of the individual and their basic right to freedom, equality, and citizenship, is not that different from ISIS. Hezbollah is no exception: all Parties of God that use religion and ideology to force themselves on other citizens are “ISIS.”
Hezbollah refuses to acknowledge the Lebanese state’s authority and refuses to surrender its arms, which have killed innocent Lebanese civilians, to the Lebanese State. Hezbollah committed violence on May 7, 2008 against fellow Lebanese, killed Hashem al-Salman in 2013, and is still murdering – or at least is complicit in murdering – thousands of innocent Syrian civilians across the border. Hezbollah denies individual freedom in its own areas: good luck buying or drinking alcohol in the South or the Beqaa. Hezbollah does not accept democracy: they have toppled two governments since 2005 (Siniora and Hariri’s), the only two governments that resulted from the March 14 victory in the parliamentary elections.
Hezbollah, like ISIS, are foreign fighters participating in the Syrian war; indeed, they came to Syria even before ISIS was formed. And the Party further promises its martyrs the same heaven ISIS guarantees to theirs.
So how is Hezbollah really different from ISIS? Is it because they do not film their crimes and broadcast them on YouTube? Or is because they prefer to kill from a distance instead of beheading people?
Extremist groups feed on each other in order to grow and justify their existence. Today, ISIS is not as organized as Hezbollah, and it certainly does not have a recognizable sponsoring state like Iran. But this could be just the beginning. ISIS now has land, money, and revenues, and eventually could become more regimented.
A Sunni Hezbollah in conflict with a Shiite Hezbollah is bad news. A regional sectarian war between Sunnis and the Shiites, spearheaded by ISIS and Hezbollah, will only lead to more bloodshed and extremism that will spread to other states in the region. Moderate Islam will become history and no one will be safe from the consequences, not even western states.
As Iraqi Shiite groups return to Iraq to fight against ISIS, Hezbollah will have to fill the vacuum in Syria. This means more involvement in the war, but it also means spreading itself increasingly thin in terms of its military and logistical capabilities. The crisis in Iraq moreover makes it harder for Maliki to continue funding Iranian and Hezbollah operations in Syria, meaning even more hardship for the Party.
At the same time, ISIS appears to be bringing in arsenals seized in Mosul into Syria, mainly to Deir el-Zor and Hasaka. The result is that ISIS will probably take over more areas currently under FSA or Jabhat al-Nusra control.
Ultimately, this means ISIS and Hezbollah will clash in Syria and spark heightened sectarian violence in Lebanon – not merely through suicide bombings and explosions, but probably through a new civil war, this time between Sunnis and Shiites.
It is likely already too late to stop this. As long as the international community – especially the US – still thinks ISIS is bad news while Hezbollah and Iran are not, Hezbollah will never compromise, and ISIS will only grow.
Hanin Ghaddar is the Managing Editor of NOW. She tweets @haningdr