Yesterday, following the suicide bombing in Haret Hreik, Hizbullah’s deputy secretary-general Naim Qassem warned that Lebanon was on “the road to ruin”. Such statements have become just as routine as the security incidents that prompt them. Political figures and newspaper columnists tell us daily that Lebanon risks opening the gates of hell, that it teeters on the brink of the abyss, that the worst-case scenario will soon be upon us. Grave euphemisms and portents of doom pretend to invite a sober accounting of the situation, but they actually function as palliatives to keep the grittiest realities at bay.
A member of my family has the habit of asking me to predict Lebanon’s future. “Is it safe to go out in the streets today?” she asks me. “Is this neighborhood secure?” “What’s going to happen next?” Much to her annoyance, I am allergic to prognostication, but in light of the recent events at Starco and in al-Dahiya, and in the vain hope that such an exercise might have some apotropaic value, I’ve broken custom and written the following essay. Whether it is of any relevance to Lebanon’s future or just a reflection of my dark mood is for you to decide.
What is the worst-case scenario? Let’s dispense with the PG-rated version and be adults, shall we? In 2014, Lebanon’s worst-case scenario begins with a sequence of car bombs targeting various mosques, embassies, and party headquarters in al-Dahiya, Tripoli, Sidon, and downtown Beirut. The tit-for-tat bombings rapidly become more brazen and spectacular, going after busy residential and commercial areas, major hotels, and even that long-discussed assassination attempt of a Shiite leader that Nabih Berri has been warning us about for years. (The Esteez escapes unharmed, natch.)
By early March, the civilian death toll is in the several hundreds. Hospitals are filled to capacity; calls for blood donations are announced daily; the economy totters; the banks eye their softening credit ratings; foreign nationals are recalled; sales of alcohol, weapons, and drugs skyrocket; schools are closed two days out of five.
Strained to capacity, the Lebanese Army stands by as Hizbullah re-establishes its security cordon in South Beirut and various Sunni “neighborhood watches” take control of large swaths of Tripoli. Salafist suspects are arrested and a prison riot at Roumieh results in the deaths of a dozen security guards and a near jail break. Ahmad al-Assir releases a fire-and-brimstone videotape (from somewhere in northern Syria, it is said) vowing revenge and calling for jihad against the Lebanese Army.
Hizbullah’s mood remains defiant as the party doubles down on its commitment in Syria, cycling hundreds of fighters in and out each month. Nasrallah continue to speak of an existential struggle in Syria, while hinting darkly at the consequences of forming a government without his party’s involvement. Roads to ruin, gates of hell, you get the idea…
Meanwhile, the UN prosecutors for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon begin presenting their case against Hizbullah. Each day, the M14 press reports on a new batch of evidence linking Mr. Ayyash and co. to the Hariri assassination. The M8 media yawns and dismisses the spectacle as an Israeli pantomime for external consumption, even as they blame the deteriorating security situation at home on a foreign conspiracy. Coincidentally, open season is declared again on March 14th-allied politicians, military officials, and media figures. Many of them leave the country. When they return, they are surveilled by nameless assassins and liquidated in their decoy cars.
With the arrival of spring, Syria’s masses stumble out of their beleaguered winter fastnesses, only to find the skies full of barrel bombs, hurtling down at them from Syrian Army helicopters. The death tolls are sickening. Tens of thousands of civilians flee across Syria’s borders each week. The refugees in Lebanon now amount to a third of the country’s population. There are more destitute Aleppan Sunnis living in refugee camps than there are Lebanese Druzes, Alawites, Evangelicals, Protestants, and Roman Catholics combined. People mutter sourly about adding “refugee” to Lebanon’s list of official communities and granting them seats in Parliament.
Militias begin to form in the camps despite the siege-like efforts of the LAF to contain them and the constant surveillance of Hizbullah intelligence and Syrian mukhabarat. When an ISIS-linked group tries to declare one of the camps an Islamic state and impose sharia law, Lebanon’s Christians and Druzes decide they’ve seen enough. The LF, Kata’ib, and PSP quietly resuscitate their wartime paramilitary units and begin covert training programs to transition their truant children from Call of Duty to real mountain combat.
By early autumn, clashes between Syrian refugee militias in Lebanon, Tripolitan platoons led by the umara al-aziqqa, SSNP fighters, and Hizbullah black-shirts are routine. There’s a security incident every other day. A suicide bomber attacks the funeral of a major Hizbullah commander killed in Syria, killing dozens of mourners. Two days later a high-ranking intelligence official from a Gulf Arab state is assassinated in his hotel room in a Central European country.
As the year draws to a close, Lebanon exists in a state of low-intensity civil war. The Army has begun to fracture along sectarian lines. Saudi-bought French weaponry begins to arrive, but the army’s arsenals are raided by militia groups, and sophisticated bomb jamming devices begin appearing on the tops of warlord convoys in the refugee camps. Hizbullah fears it is over-committed in Syria so Iran sends IRGC special-ops groups to man command stations in case of an Israeli attack, which looks increasingly likely as Abdullah Azzam Brigade rocket attacks into northern Israel become a weekly occurrence. The refugee crisis grows worse by the day. The borders are un-policeable. The economy is in free fall. Even Skybar has to initiate an evening happy hour to attract weekend revelers.
The struggle grows more “existential” despite the reality that, as in Syria, there is less and less to fight over with each passing day. This is the worst-case scenario.
Happy New Year.