Developments in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon are so deeply intertwined that we might start speaking about these countries as a common space, as we do now with “AfPak.”
In less than a decade, pro-Iranian forces have entrenched themselves in Damascus and seized near absolute power in neighbouring Baghdad and Beirut. The structural marginalization of the Sunnis in Iraq and Lebanon is splitting these communities, as evident from the rise of jihadi groups. This is the context of Syrian conflict.
Three years after the Arab uprising the “Syrian revolution” is dead and to label it the “Syrian conflict” would not entirely be right either. Due to its entanglement with existing political and sectarian divisions in Iraq and Lebanon the war is no longer strictly confined to Syria: the region is witnessing the emergence of a single theatre of war in what we could call the SIL region—Syria, Iraq, Lebanon.
Some would argue this is solely the consequence of a spillover of the Syrian conflict into neighbouring states but that is too simplistic. After all, the consequences of the war are totally different to its other neighbours Turkey, Jordan and Israel. They too feel the burden (notably Jordan, in terms of refugees) but their fate is far less dependent on developments in Aleppo and Damascus.
The social fabric of society and the political alignments in Iraq and Lebanon, however, follow very similar fault lines as is the case in Syria. The SIL region faces a shared predicament: fragile state institutions, growing Sunni marginalization and, consequently, the rise of Al Qaeda-affiliated (or originated) groups that increasingly operate irrespective of national borders. As a result, domestic politics in all three countries is no isolated affair.
The Iranian belt of influence stretches from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea. But this position is increasingly under threat by jihadi groups such as Jabhat al Nusra (JN), the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), Abdullah Azzam Brigades (AAB) and Jabhat al Nusra in Lebanon (JNL).
The majority of Sunnis still support moderate political parties, such as Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and the Iraqi Islamic Party, which operate within the democratic system but with little success. The longer those parties are shunned from the centers of power, the more attractive the jihadi alternative will become.
The old adage holds here: if one cannot achieve participation through nonviolent means, violence becomes a credible and legitimate alternative to some. It should therefore come as no surprise that the opposition is becoming increasingly militarized.
The violent response to the power grab of pro-Iranian forces over the state apparatus and its security forces is twofold: Shiite neighbourhoods and state institutions have become legitimate targets for the various jihadi groups. In addition to the surge in anti-Shia terrorism, the region is witnessing an increase in attacks on the Iraqi and Lebanese Armed Forces, which are perceived to be tools of Iran.
In Lebanon, the radicalization of the Sunni citizenry (over a quarter of the population) can be traced back to Hezbollah’s gradual takeover of the Lebanese state. Through its omnipresent threat of violence and assassination of top Sunni figures, it has made itself the most powerful political party in Lebanese politics.
Meanwhile opposition leader and former prime minister Saad Hariri has not set foot in Lebanon in two years over fears of facing the same fate as his late father. With Hariri out of touch with his constituency, local hardliners, such as sheikh Assir in Sidon and Sheikh Houssam al-Sabbagh in Tripoli, seized the opportunity to present themselves as alternative resistance figures against Hezbollah.
Hassan Nasrallah has de facto pushed Hariri out of politics and is now finding himself having to deal with Al Qaeda instead, as evident from the regular car bomb attacks in the Hezbollah strongholds South Beirut and Hermel. Like their “brothers” in Baghdad, Lebanese Shiites have now become one of the main victims of jihadi terrorism.
Iraq’s political mess is strikingly similar. Nouri al-Maliki has championed Shia politics within the Iraqi political system and has increasingly marginalized the Sunni population whilst not shying away from sectarianism. Al-Maliki framed the battle with ISIS “a fierce confrontation between the supporters of Hussain and the supporters of Yazid,” a reference to the battle of Karbala in 680, a key event in Shia identity and tradition. Meanwhile, numerous pictures emerged on social media of Iraqi soldiers carrying Shia flags and symbols.
Similar to Lebanese Sunni dilemma, Iraqi Sunnis are also forced to choose between mainstream political parties that have little influence and radical groups that offer violent resistance against the Shia-dominated state apparatus. For groups such as ISIS this provides fertile ground for mobilisation of new recruits. Al Maliki’s sectarianism reinforces their message that the Shiites have taken over the country.
2014 was not even a week old and ISIS has already engaged in heavy fighting with rebels in Syria, detonated a deadly car bomb in Beirut and attacked Iraqi-government troops in Ramadi and Fallujah. ISIS is more active and controls more land than Al Qaeda Central in over two decades. ISIS’ cross-border activities, and the emergence of a Jabhat al Nusra faction in Lebanon, are clear indicators of the rise of jihadi networks in the SIL region.
The take-over of the Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese state by pro-Iranian forces paints a complex and dark picture for the future. As the Sunnis continue to be shunned from decision-making, more and more young men will opt for the black flag of Al Qaeda instead. This is the shared predicament that Syria, Iraq and Lebanon face.