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The Beirut Bombings Reflect the Minority Trap of the Levant

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 13/11/2015 Faysal Itani
BEIRUT © JOSEPH EID via Getty Images BEIRUT

It was a matter of time before residents of Dahiyeh, the Hezbollah-controlled suburb of Beirut, Lebanon were bombed again. Thursday, after nearly two years of quiet, suicide bombings claimed by the Islamic State reportedly killed 43 people and wounded hundreds of others.
The mass murder of innocents is obscene of course, but there is a larger tragedy at play: that of the Lebanese Shiites, trapped by a sectarian militia that they can neither abandon nor live with. Indeed, their plight is eerily similar to that of the Syrian Alawites fighting to protect their sectarian leader, Syrian President Bashar Assad, in a war he started without their permission. These perverse relationships between embattled minorities and their leaders in a hostile Sunni environment explain a great deal about the intractability of the Syrian conflict.
Lebanon's Shiites have sent thousands of young men to fight for Hezbollah and its Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah against a Sunni-dominated insurgency in neighboring Syria. This has provoked a jihadist backlash from Syria into Lebanon in the form of bombings against Shiite civilian areas. Hezbollah has suffered thousands of casualties in Syria, but other than an initial spate of jihadist bombings in 2013 and early-2014, its home front has been relatively secure.
That is probably not for lack of trying: Sunni jihadists have never given up the goal of hitting soft targets in Hezbollah territory but they struggled to overcome heavy security cooperation between Hezbollah and Lebanese security and intelligence branches. As productive as that cooperation has been, both Lebanon and its neighbor are awash with arms and governed by weak states. Something had to give.

Herein lies the minority trap: the greater the punishment that Hezbollah and Assad inflict on the Sunni majority, the more they expose themselves and their supporters to violent retribution, which in turn drives the minority population further into their embrace.

The latest bombing highlights Hezbollah's core problem and by association the Lebanese Shiite community's. Hezbollah became a successful organization because Nasrallah promised and delivered to his Shiite base security, dignity and (for some) prosperity. None of this would have been possible however without at least the passive acceptance from the Sunni populations of Lebanon and Syria. Hezbollah lost whatever Sunni goodwill it had by intervening in Syria.
Nasrallah and his party have thrown the Shiites into an endless conflict with their Sunni surroundings, and the only protection they have is Hezbollah. Meanwhile, their enemies have grown from ragtag local Syrian militias with a parochial anti-Assad agenda to transnational Sunni jihadist groups whose mandate is to kill Shiites.
The Shiite community is not alone in its predicament. Across the border in Syria, Assad, whom Hezbollah and the Shiites have paid such a high price to keep in power, has plunged an even more outnumbered minority of Alawites into perpetual war with the majority-Sunni population. By many accounts, many Alawites outside the narrow circle of power had mixed feelings about leaping into this abyss. Perhaps many Shiites felt the same about Hezbollah's adventure in its early days. But it is one thing to have doubts before the fact and quite another to abandon your leadership once it's made you a healthy amount of enemies through a deliberate strategy of sectarian murder. At some point, reflection and doubt became a luxury most Syrian Alawites feel they cannot afford.
Neither the first Vienna summit on Syria negotiations nor the second one planned for this weekend appears to address the tragedy of these two minorities -- the Lebanese Shiites and the Syrian Alawites.

Herein lies the minority trap: the greater the punishment that Assad and Hezbollah inflict on the Sunni majority, the more they expose themselves and their supporters to violent retribution, which in turn drives the minority population further into their embrace. Assad and Hezbollah are efficient tyrants because they needn't always force or persuade their supporters to risk their lives -- instead, they have trapped them into doing it.
The Lebanese Shiites and the Syrian Alawites can neither win this endless war against their Sunni surroundings nor retreat from the battle. They are stuck. At some abstract level, defeat might give these embattled minorities some solace and deliverance from their predicament, if it were not catastrophic. But Assad and Hezbollah's actions have almost guaranteed that it would be.
The Alawites and Shiites will remain imprisoned by their leaders until international forces can help break them out or offer them an alternative. This alternative cannot be one that sustains itself on endless repression of the Sunni majority, if only because that will only endanger the minorities once again. The very notion that Assad could retain a political role or Hezbollah a presence in Syria is a danger to the Shiites and Alawites, not a shield for them.
Without a lifeline thrown from outside powers, the bond between hijacking despots and hijacked population will almost certainly grow tighter.

Thus far, neither the first Vienna summit on Syria negotiations nor the second one planned for this weekend appears to address the tragedy of these two minorities. Foreign powers always seem more comfortable keeping the discussion in the realm of abstract power politics, constitutions, elections and so on. Not a word has been spoken about how the minorities could conceivably be convinced to abandon their captor-champions or whether they will even be given a choice.
Perhaps the Lebanese Shiites are just several suicide bombings and innocent deaths away from questioning Hezbollah's mission in Syria. Maybe the Alawites will eventually lose the heart for the fight as well. But the opposite is more likely: that each suicide bombing in Dahiyeh and each regime-controlled village lost to Syrian insurgents will make abandoning Hezbollah and the regime more difficult; and that each atrocity these two commit against their Sunni enemies merely reminds the Shiites and Alawites that they are accomplices in crimes their opponents cannot forgive.
Regardless, without a lifeline thrown from outside powers, the bond between hijacking despots and hijacked population will almost certainly grow tighter. Minutes after the terrible bombings in Dahiyeh, crowds gathered around the bombing sites chanting, "At your service, Nasrallah."

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