Michael Bell has been four times a Canadian ambassador in the Middle East. He teaches at Carleton University; Tom Najem is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Windsor, who has written widely on Lebanon, returning only last month from Beirut.
Blood, guts and unmitigated human tragedy have become the leitmotif of the Arab Middle East. Failing states have become failed states, with relentless civil wars in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen. But it doesn't stop there. Ideology and ethno-nationalism are running amok throughout the region as national borders yield to ethnic imperatives, permeating virtually every crevice. Still another humanitarian tragedy looms.
Missing from the headlines right now is Lebanon. That country's uneasy confessional balance between competing Christian, Sunni, Druze, and Shia communities, and a multitude of contesting factions within each of them, is breaking down, overcome by the region's chaos.
Lebanon's borders and ethnic composition are the artificial creation of the old French colonial power. It has consequently been under stress at the best of times, always vulnerable to regional currents and perpetually unable to control its own borders, whether it be with Israel or Syria, and unable to protect itself from dissidents at home or over-reaching "imperial" powers, most notably Iran.
The seemingly imminent calamity may make an immensely troubled past seem pale by comparison. The truce Lebanese factions were able to reach in the aftermath of their fifteen-year civil war (1975-90) is in danger of collapse. Indeed, even Hezbollah, Lebanon's enfant terrible, has become a status quo player on the domestic scene; afraid the region's catharsis will threaten its hard won role in the domestic political system. Lebanon's political, security, and economic systems are facing enormous pressure because of the same intense religious and social divisions which dominate neighbouring Syria.
Syria's civil war has created an excruciating burden for Lebanon, given its porous border, and the familial, sectarian and elite linkages that bind the two. Seldom content, and as a function of its precarious identity, many Lebanese factions are engaged in a conflict which has now spread from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. Despite the Beirut government's official dissociation from the events to their east, the Shiite community through Hezbollah, a major partner in the governing coalition, has militarily shored up the Shiite/Alawi dominated Assad regime in the border regions and peripheral towns, where fighting has become a daily routine. Many in Lebanon's indigenous Sunni community actively support Syrian opposition militias on the ground in the fighting.
Lebanon has been victim of a massive influx of Syrian refugees – more than 1.2 million – a number equalling 25 per cent of the entire Lebanese population. To put this in context, this is the equivalent of Canada absorbing more than eight million refugees, or indeed, the United States accepting 80 million. This flood has overwhelmed both state and society, which is incapable of providing the resources to deal in any meaningful way with these numbers, destabilizing the fabric of society.
Indeed, armed men (sources say there are at least 100,000 men among the refugees with military training) use the refugee communities as a base to carry out activities against the Syrian regime, in turn inviting Syrian military strikes into Lebanon. Tensions between Syrian refugees and their Lebanese host communities (which themselves are impoverished) are further strained by competition over jobs and scarce resources, exacerbated as usual by primordial ethnic tension.
The refugees are mostly Sunni, raising fears that those displaced will dramatically alter the sectarian balance in Lebanon. If the Syrian war were to end today (it won't of course), it would take at least 15 years to repatriate the dispossessed. But the hard truth is that they have nowhere to go, leaving a very large and poor population living on the margins of Lebanese society. The possible destabilizing scenarios are endless.
Extremist groups (ISIS being the most notorious) have found fertile ground among the various Sunni communities, especially those alienated by the power of Hezbollah and at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. A convincing link can be made between poverty and violence, accentuated by the vast influx of Syrian job seekers, most of whom live at the extreme margin. It should come as little surprise that Sunni jihadists are able to recruit in places like Tripoli, where poverty is extreme and unemployment is estimated as high as 80 per cent in that city's many impoverished neighborhoods.
The war weary Lebanese population, also victims, do not want the state to collapse but what can be done? The traditionally ineffective Lebanese armed forces have gained considerable popular support among those desperate to save their country from the worst, but despite limited success, the forces that confront them seem inexorable. A capacity building effort from the United States, the Europeans (the French and British in particular), and Gulf Arab States is underway. Canada contributes to United Nations food and relief agencies but our role seems dwarfed by others.
Given our substantial Lebanese community our modest contribution is puzzling, especially for a government given to courting such diasporas. If the worst comes we will inevitably be involved.