Arsal in the Crosshairs: The Predicament of a Small Lebanese Border Town
Middle East Briefing N°46
23 Feb 2016
This briefing is also available in: العربية
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