MS Risk Blog

Lebanon’s battle with ISIS: a proxy war for Saudi Arabia and Iran

Posted on in Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria title_rule

On Wednesday, Lebanon’s Parliament voted to extend their terms in office to 2017, arguing that the nation’s fragile security situation makes it too difficult to hold elections. The lawmakers, who were elected to four-year terms in 2009, voted last year to remain in office, citing the same security threats. The decision has been denounced by foreign diplomats and human rights organizations who feel that the vote undermines the democratic process. However to many Lebanese citizens, the decision does not come as a surprise.

Lebanon’s government has been paralysed by disagreements among powerful political blocs, and decisively split on the issue of Syria’s civil war. The Prime Minister appointed a new cabinet in February, but the group has been unable to achieve much. Nearly two decades after the end of their own civil war, policymakers have only agreed to prevent new battles from erupting within the nation.

Lebanon has been without a president since May. The Lebanese Parliament does not elect the president; rather the chosen leader is “rubber stamped” after a regional consensus is met. Currently, the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is forestalling that agreement, and Lebanon’s growing battle with ISIS has become a proxy battle between the two nations.

ISIS relies upon a strategy of destabilising a region and entrenching themselves, while avoiding local organised fighting forces until they are ready to engage. This strategy is currently being enacted on the Syrian border with Lebanon. Last week, the terror group killed 11 soldiers north of Tripoli, and ISIS leaders have threatened to plunge the country into another civil war.

Lebanon, a member of the US led coalition to combat ISIS, has received approximately $1 billion in training and equipment from the US since 2006. However the US has been constrained in providing further support as the threat of ISIS encroaches upon the Lebanese border. This is in part due to an American domestic law that guarantees that the US will provide Israel a “qualitative military edge” over its neighbours in the region.

In the absence of US support, Saudi Arabia and Iran have offered competing aid packages to Lebanon; the combined offers amount to billions of dollars in arms from the two opposing nations. However, the offers of assistance are being perceived as political one-upmanship between the foes. Lebanon’s acceptance of either aid package amounts to tacit approval of either the Shiite or Sunni dominated governments.

On Tuesday, France and Saudi Arabia signed a contract to give $3 billion worth of French-made weapons to Lebanon’s military. In August the kingdom provided a $1 billion grant for emergency aid to Lebanon’s military and intelligence agencies. The combined pledges are more than twice the Lebanese estimated annual military budget. The aid, which is set to arrive in the first quarter of 2015, will include training, as well as land, sea and air equipment, including armoured vehicles, heavy artillery, anti-tank missiles, mortars and assault weapons.

In September, Ali Shamkhani, secretary to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council offered a package consisting of antitank weapons, artillery and heavy machine guns. Lebanese Defense Minister Samir Moqbel’s delegation declined to formally respond to Iran’s offer, which could violate a 2007 U.N. Security Council resolution restricting Iranian arms trade.

The Saudi government believes that the Iranian weapons will be directed toward Hezbollah; a Shiite dominated political organization that is opposed by Saudi Arabia. Hezbollah supports President Assad, whose troops are battling Sunni opposition, which is backed by Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom believes that Iran is more interested in countering Saudi backing than assisting the Lebanese military.

The 65,000-strong Lebanese military (arguably the least sectarian organization in the country), is less effective than Hezbollah, whose armed wing is better equipped and organized, and battle hardened after wars with Israel. However as many Hezbollah fighters have deployed to the war in Syria, the group has become increasingly reliant on the Lebanese military. The Lebanese military has not prevented Shiite Hezbollah fighters from entering Syria to confront Sunni militants fighting against Assad, and they deploy to areas that Hezbollah has cleared and set up checkpoints.

Because of this relationship, Tehran now has a perceived interest in supporting the Lebanese military. However, this relationship has also led the Sunni Muslim community in Lebanon to believe that the army is now taking orders from Hezbollah.

As ISIS moves closer to Lebanon’s border, they benefit from the Lebanese military’s unwillingness to cooperate with Assad. Experts believe that Syria has the only Arab military currently capable of confronting ISIL. More worrisome, Hezbollah has shown a reluctance to battle ISIS, arguing that their involvement will enflame already strained sectarian tensions in Lebanon. It is this enticement that leads ISIS to believe they can ignite a second civil war. ISIS has expressed interest to create new supply routes between Lebanon and Syria as winter unfolds.

In recent weeks, the Lebanese army has suffered setbacks along its long border with Syria. Lebanon shares a short border and rocky relationship with Israel on its only other border. Israel is not a member of the ISIS coalition. The nearest ally, Jordan, does not have the capacity to confront ISIS in Lebanon and protect its own borders with Syria.

Meanwhile, in the absence of a president and a split parliament, the Lebanese policymakers are in gridlock, agreeing only to preserve civil peace and avoid civil or sectarian clashes. However in the face of a growing threat, it is likely that peace will become more difficult to maintain.  The nation is relying on a consensus between Saudi Arabia and Iran before it can put its government in working order, and it appears that consensus is not forthcoming.

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