Lebanon’s Gathering Storm

BEIRUT – With all eyes focused on sectarian violence in Iraq and Syria, little attention has been paid to Sunni-Shia relations in Lebanon. Yet the potential for a perfect storm is brewing.

In the Bekaa Valley town of Arsal, a Sunni enclave in a Shia-majority region, jihadists recently attacked Lebanese army units and abducted soldiers, whom they accused of working with Hezbollah. Arsal borders Syria’s Qalamoun region, where the Syrian army and Hezbollah are fighting Syrian rebels and jihadists.

When the Islamic State reportedly beheaded a Sunni army member in Arsal, few of the town’s inhabitants interviewed on Lebanese television publicly condemned the group. Instead, they focused their anger on Lebanese politicians. Many people blame worsening sectarian relations on Lebanon’s deteriorating social and economic situation, itself a consequence of the conflict in Syria.

Services and construction – two main pillars of Lebanon’s economy – have suffered badly, and tourism has all but dried up. The country’s infrastructure is in calamitous shape. Power is rationed – in some places to just a few hours per day. A dry winter has resulted in severe water shortages. The Lebanese now rely increasingly on private generators and water suppliers, which are costly and therefore reduce consumption and economic growth. With debt levels estimated at nearly 150% of GDP, economic collapse is now a serious possibility.