HARIRI’S RETURN STRENGTHENS MODERATES
By Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA
Hariri’s Return Strengthens Moderates but Incomplete without Rushing Arms to LAF
12 Aug 14. “He is back,” was what most Lebanese said with a sigh of relief about the sudden return of Saad Hariri, former prime minister and leader of the largest parliamentary block. Even his arch enemies the Shiite Parties Hizbullah and Amal, have welcomed his return even though they were largely behind the downfall of the government he headed in December 2010, and his subsequent self-exile due to security threats to his life by Syrian and Iranian-backed groups. Hariri’s opponents discovered after three years that the substitute for his moderate policies would be the rise of extremist Muslim Sunni groups in Lebanon associated with terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This fact became very clear in the recent showdown between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Syrian rebel armed groups in the town of Arsal on the Syrian borders north-east of Lebanon.
A few thousand gunmen from ISIS and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front carried out a surprise attack on LAF positions around Arsal, killing 15 Lebanese troops and capturing some 20 others. The LAF regained the momentum a couple of days later and recaptured its lost positions. However, what caused concern to many Lebanese officials was that sectarian tensions rose in the country between Sunni and Shiites. The Shiite Hizbullah has been sending fighters into Syria to assist the Syrian regime in its fights against Syrian rebels. The Lebanese authorities have not done anything to stop Hizbullah fighters crossing the borders back and forth into Syria. This has frustrated the mostly moderate Lebanese Sunni community who first saw their Lebanese political leadership weaken with the ouster of Hariri and then felt unable to do much to help the Syrian Sunni rebels. This political vacuum made room for Sunni extremist clerics to appear on the Lebanese political scene and begin influencing opinions of few Lebanese Sunni communities who grew more sympathetic to Syria rebels, even the extremist ones. In the last battles in Arsal it was not the Sunni politicians who were out there trying to defuse the situation in the Sunni town. Instead, some Sunni clerics grouped in the so-called Muslim Scholars Association headed the mediations with the Syrian armed groups that led to their withdrawal from Arsal into Syria.
The Arsal incident was only the latest episode in a series of events that heightened sectarian tension in Lebanon. A few months ago, several Shiites neighborhoods in Lebanon witnessed a wave of suicide bombings by extremists, Lebanese and Arabs associated with ISIS and Al Nusra Front. Also the predominantly Sunni city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon was the scene of clashes between Sunni gunmen and an Alawite group associated with Hizbullah and the Syrian regime. These clashes ended with the fleeing of the Alawite’s group commander and the deployment of Lebanese troops in the areas of fighting. Moreover, the weakening of Lebanese Sunni political leadership was in turn undermining the Sunni spiritual leadership that was preparing for the election of a new Grand Mufti. Hence, in the midst of all this tension and chaos Hariri’s return became a must to all players in Lebanon.
Hariri did not return empty-handed. He came back carrying a one-billion-dollar donation from Saudi Arabia to LAF and security agencies, in a move that underlined the difference between Riyadh’s and Tehran’s policies towards Lebanon. While Iran supplies Hizbullah with weapons, which weakens the Lebanese central government, Saudi Arabia is providing funds to LAF to better arm itself to counter threats posed by terrorist groups and strengthen the state. Riyadh announced last April its intention to fund a 3-billion-dollar procurement plan between Lebanon and France to equip the LAF with variety of weapons and de