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Arsal in the Crosshairs: The Predicament of a Small Lebanese Border Town
Arsal in the Crosshairs: The Predicament of a Small Lebanese Border Town
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Riots in Lebanon’s Tripoli are Harbingers of Collapse
Riots in Lebanon’s Tripoli are Harbingers of Collapse
People gather amid damage and the remains of tents for Syrian refugees that were burnt in the fighting between Lebanese army soldiers and Islamist militants in the Sunni Muslim border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa, 9 August 2014. REUTERS/Ahmad Shalha

Arsal in the Crosshairs: The Predicament of a Small Lebanese Border Town

The fate of the border town Arsal mirrors Lebanon’s many policy failures. The government applies heavy-handed security at the expense of basic services and fair economic opportunities. It should change its policies to become more flexible, accountable and supportive of Syrian refugees – and receive more international help in return.

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I. Overview

Weakened by deepening inter- and intra-communal rifts, the Lebanese state has gradually abandoned its primary role in governance and as manager of representative politics and relies increasingly on security measures to maintain stability and the political status quo. The remote border town of Arsal in the north east is emblematic of this security-centric method of tackling unrest. The approach, which escalated after the Syrian war began next door, is short-sighted and dangerous, as it fights symptoms while inadvertently reinforcing underlying factors that drive instability. If the government were to address Arsal’s plight in a more balanced manner that takes those factors into account by folding its security component into an overall political strategy, it could yet turn a vicious circle into a virtuous one, preventing the town’s downward spiral and providing a model for tackling such problems in the country overall.

Arsal combines many of Lebanon’s woes: economic erosion and poor governance at its fringes; sectarian fault lines shaping the fate of a Sunni enclave within a majority-Shiite governorate (Baalbek-Hermel) in the Beqaa Valley; the weakening of Sunni national leadership and growing assertiveness of Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement whose militia is actively fighting in Syria; and the spillover of the Syrian conflict. The latter has turned the town into a rear base for anti-regime fighters, a trans-shipment point for explosive devices, and – for both these reasons – a threat for Hizbollah and Lebanon’s security apparatus. It has also turned the town into an initial haven for waves of refugees, adding to severe pressures on both the Lebanese state and individual localities throughout Lebanon.

A five-day battle between Syrian jihadis and the Lebanese army in August 2014 put Arsal on the map as a national threat in the minds of many Lebanese. The army then cordoned off the town, its checkpoints making it extremely difficult for ordinary Arsalis to travel, outsiders to visit, aid to reach tens of thousands of refugees hunkered down in the area and even local peasants to access their lands. The economy collapsed, while Syrian armed groups stayed put, seemingly enjoying a modus vivendi with the army provided they kept a low profile. In this festering stalemate of social disruption and popular resentment, radical Syrian groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra benefit the most, as they can mobilise local anger and harness it to their worldview.

Violence in and around Arsal has decreased as a result of the army’s cordon but not ended. Lebanon’s military response might be understandable. The country’s brittle stability does not leave room for much leniency or political risk taking, especially in today’s highly dangerous regional environment. The state’s dysfunction gives carte blanche to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) by default, because it is one of the country’s rare functioning institutions. Moreover, the massive refugee influx, amounting to more than one quarter of Lebanon’s population, has aggravated pre-existing problems and strained already scarce resources, making it very difficult for even an effective government to cope with socio-economic needs.

Nevertheless, the state’s heavy reliance on security to solve all manner of political and social ills offers no durable solution. If anything can explain more specifically how the situation in Arsal spun out of control, it is a long track record of central authority neglect; and if there is anything its inhabitants truly want, it is a greater presence of the state’s non-security parts: improved basic services, economic opportunities, better political representation, a solution to, or at least mitigation of, the refugee crisis and effective policing instead of collective punishment.

Beyond the Arsal case, which is troubling in its own right, lies the bigger story of the state’s gradual abdication of its duties. As its performance on governance and representative politics grows more dismal by the day, it increasingly falls back on security measures devoid of any serious political, humanitarian or developmental component. This approach has proven dangerously seductive, by maintaining an appearance of stability while catalysing the state’s further decay in a self-reinforcing loop in which the measures the government takes to compensate for its shortcomings make matters worse. Over the years, such behaviour has become a pattern in Lebanon; beyond its borders, the same logic has been taken even further in Iraq, the progressive disintegration of whose state should be a cautionary lesson. Rather than suppressing the symptoms wherever instability metastasises, Lebanese authorities should be treating the causes.

Arsal would be a good place to start. To arrest the downward spiral, the authorities should reduce army security measures in and around it in ways that would still be security-effective. For instance, nothing prevents them from either abolishing the permit required for outsiders to visit, or granting it by default, except when there is clear evidence of ill-intent. Allegations of human rights abuse by security officers should be promptly and vigorously investigated and proven offences punished. Procedures are needed that would enable local farmers to cultivate their land. Authorities should facilitate adequate humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and relieve Arsal by relocating some of them to other areas in Lebanon, an idea discussed by the government but not acted upon.

If this comprehensive approach can succeed in Arsal, perhaps the government and donors could then apply the lessons to the country’s other multiplying trouble spots. In that case, donor countries would have to significantly increase their support to Lebanon to help it address the refugee crisis and its impact on host communities. The Lebanese government would then need in turn to allocate adequate funds to other areas like Arsal that are hosting high numbers of refugees, with the aim to set up viable and sustainable economic and infrastructure projects.

Beirut/Brussels, 23 February 2016

Security forces push anti-government protesters away from al-Nour square in the centre of Lebanon's impoverished northern port city of Tripoli on 31 January 2021 amid clashes. Fathi AL-MASRI / AFP

Riots in Lebanon’s Tripoli are Harbingers of Collapse

Four days of violent unrest in Tripoli on Lebanon’s northern coast could presage more to come, as a new coronavirus outbreak deepens the country’s severe socio-economic crisis. Humanitarian aid is urgently needed to keep the worst-case scenarios at bay.

Starting on 25 January, residents of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli took to the streets over four consecutive days. Many protested peacefully, but some attacked government buildings and clashed with security personnel, who fired upon them with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. Rioters torched the historic municipality headquarters, vandalised the Sunni religious court and government administration building, and hurled Molotov cocktails and, according to authorities, hand grenades at the security forces. By 31 January, the toll was one protester dead and more than 400 injured, along with at least 40 soldiers and police. Lebanese army and military intelligence units detained at least 25 men for their roles in the events. Lebanon’s international partners should continue pressing its elites to chart a viable path forward, while redoubling humanitarian assistance to an increasingly desperate population.

The immediate trigger for the protests in Tripoli was the social impact of a hard lockdown imposed by Lebanon’s caretaker cabinet in response to a new surge in COVID-19 infections.

The immediate trigger for the protests in Tripoli was the social impact of a hard lockdown imposed by Lebanon’s caretaker cabinet in response to a new surge in COVID-19 infections. The restrictions have left many unable to sustain themselves, mainly because the lockdown is only the latest in a series of calamities that have hit the majority of Lebanese since 2019. In that period, at least 500,000 have lost their businesses and jobs. The local currency’s value has dropped by more than 80 per cent in the black market, fuelling inflation. People have lost billions in savings and, according to the World Bank, more than half of Lebanese had fallen below the poverty line already in May 2020. Government officials estimate that some 75 per cent of Lebanese nationals need aid. Among the more than one million Syrian refugees living in the country, as many as 90 per cent require humanitarian and cash assistance, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. 

Tripoli and its surroundings are among the poorest areas of Lebanon, but hardship is worsening across the country. In their actions and responses, protesters, rioters and security forces in the city may have provided a preview of what awaits most of Lebanon in the months to come. During interviews conducted by Crisis Group over the past three months, Lebanese officials, political party operatives, political activists, security officers and NGO representatives across Lebanon all expressed similar fears: if the downward economic slide continues, or austerity measures such as subsidy cuts cause a sudden increase in social pressures, the country may become dangerously unstable.

Foremost among the challenges Lebanon faces are the stress on and erosion of state institutions, as inflation devalues public-sector salaries and already perfunctory services disappear altogether. Over the past months, tensions triggered or amplified by the crisis have repeatedly erupted in security incidents that appear isolated but, taken together, seem to indicate a worrying trend. Security forces, which number more than 130,000 with an additional hundreds of thousands of dependents, may increasingly struggle to preserve order, prevent violence and protect property. They may find themselves becoming the face of state failure, as they compensate for the absence of policy and governance by policing people whose grievances they share. As security deteriorates, political parties, local strongmen and business tycoons will step into the gap. 

Even the army has been under stress and may soon lose its lustre as one of Lebanon’s most capable and least partisan public institutions. Like civil servants, teachers and police, soldiers today earn a fraction of what they did a year ago, many as little as the equivalent of $150 per month. Even senior officers are expressing concern about their personal and institutional futures. As one told Crisis Group: “[The army] will abide by its mission, but at the end of the day, these soldiers are children of their society and environment. [Officers’] own sons and daughters are studying abroad and [we] can’t pay tuition anymore”.

No relief should be expected from politicians. Six months after the catastrophic blast in the Beirut port that brought down the previous government, they have yet to form a new one, much less engage in fundamental reforms required to unlock international assistance or explore long-range initiatives to create opportunities for development and investment. Political elites will more likely behave as they have in the past: buying time with money that is not theirs; distributing benefits narrowly and burdens broadly; and working to salvage the system that keeps them in power. In the improbable event that some Lebanese leaders come to their senses or that a future cabinet moves to act, vested interests and a low capacity for governance will stand in their way. Meanwhile, external partners such as the U.S., European states and Arab countries remain determined to withhold non-humanitarian assistance unless Lebanese leaders shape up. They are right to do so. Lebanon will escape its predicament only if and when its political elites change their behaviour, which has created the crisis.

Lebanon’s external partners must redouble their efforts to prevent state collapse and the onset of a severe humanitarian emergency.

Until such time, however, Lebanon’s external partners must redouble their efforts to prevent state collapse and the onset of a severe humanitarian emergency. On 30 January, the World Bank signed an agreement with the caretaker government for a loan of $246 million to provide cash assistance to some 800,000 of the poorest Lebanese. International donors should increase funding for humanitarian purposes and aim to reach as many beneficiaries as possible directly. Lebanon’s external partners should also consider deepening their cooperation with different security agencieswhile taking steps to minimise any danger that protests prompt unnecessarily tough policing. Outside cooperation would allow those agencies to help preserve order and avoid the proliferation of protests and local tensions into widespread unrest and violence. Lebanon’s international partners can help stop the country’s crisis from getting worse, but to do so, they must act now.