This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The latest flare-up in Lebanon was not an isolated incident, but rather the beginning of a global war. Powerful historical forces are astir rendering diplomatic quick-fixes to no avail. Dormant hatreds are being awakened, and the Middle East is seized with the hallucinations of vengeful fever. It will turn ugly, bearing out the worst in every civilization, including the Western one.
I was blissfully certain that this war would take at least another two years to kick-off, but I was very wrong. My mistake derived from believing that the jihadists were setting the time-table, but I was too fixated on the Sunni jihadists to take notice of the Shia ones and their state-sponsors.
Many have conjured up explanations for why Hezbollah did what it did, and why Israel responded as it did. The result today is a far more diminished state in Lebanon, while the supremacy of Hezbollah’s rhetoric and tactics is paramount and held in high esteem.
Some Sunnis in Lebanon may be proud of what Hezbollah “achieved,” but soon they will wake up to a new political reality: the balance of power has shifted in the favor of Lebanon’s Shias.The Sunnis will ask themselves that persistent Lebanese question, “Who will protect me if a civil war breaks out again?” Certainly it won’t be the young and bumbling Sa’ad Hariri. They will need a counterforce as ferocious as Hezbollah. The only option that fits this bill is the jihadists.
There is a road that loops around the province of Akkar towards Lebanon’s northernmost geographic lump. It passes many disturbing realities in Lebanon: Greek Orthodox villages depopulated through low birthrates and immigration, isolated Maronite towns buffered by high-altitude forests of pine and cedar, and the stark poverty of the majority of Lebanon’s Sunnis. Akkar is considered the backwater to a backwater, but it is a net population exporter as poverty breeds numbers, yielding tens of thousands of young Sunnis. These are textbook conditions for multiplying the jihadist rank and file, especially since their ideas have been germinating in this environment through the numerous charities providing services that the Lebanese government, and the largesse of families like the super-wealthy Hariris, cannot deliver.
Lebanon itself is not much of a prize for the jihadists, but it has immense strategic value as a base of operations against Syria and Israel. From the highlands of Akkar one can peer over the plains of Homs and Hama in Syria, former bastions of jihadism that are eager to settle a score with the Ba’athists and Alawites in charge. From another Sunni enclave to the southeast of the country, the shallow canyons give access to the suburbs of Damascus, and bring Israeli settlements within range of projectiles. This is ideal real estate for those who hope to relocate the epicenter of jihad to Syria, and to open a front against Israel, which seems to confer instant super-hero status upon those who do such as Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah.
Lebanon today is the story of an impending Shia-Sunni clash. Lebanon’s Christians in their varying denominations cannot demographically muster the strength to really matter in this fight. Those of them who can will run, and those who can’t will shutter up and ride out the storm. It will be a long wait. Shia Iran and anti-Shia Saudi Arabia have too many assets and interests in Lebanon, and have been testing their respective strengths against each other for a while, resulting in heightened sectarian tensions over the last decade. Again, this is an ideal situation for the jihadists, who have made anti-Shi’ism one of the pivotal tenets of their ideology.
Starting small, the fire will spread to Syria. The jihadists enter this fight with supreme confidence: they think they have done quite well for themselves in Iraq. They believe they have done this without state-sponsorship and against incredible odds: a hostile population and in the face of the world’s fiercest fighting machine — the American military — and they have at least fought this battle to a draw. The jihadists believe they can outperform in Syria where a much weaker, and much more hated regime, currently holds sway.They also believe that the Hezbollah “victory” revealed an easily manipulated desire among the laypeople of the Middle East: a gullible longing for glory that is none the wiser since the time of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, finding more solace in the number of burning Israeli tanks rather than an increased GDP.
The Syrian regime will fight like a cornered animal. It is this or annihilation for the Alawites. Initially, the Saudis will react as they have always reacted: exporting their jihadist problem abroad, and trying to keep a lid on those who are too obstinate to leave. For the time being, the Saudis have been successful about rolling up terrorist networks in their midst, but as the jihadists restructure and get smarter, the royal house in Saudi Arabia will begin sustaining debilitating damage. As more Shia communities in the Persian Gulf and the Levant come under attack, the Iranians will likely shirk such a cumbersome responsibility as leading the world’s Shias. Suddenly, they will discover that their “Iranian” national interest is best served by staying out of this mess, and they will retreat.
Turkey will be recruited in some form into this fight. The Turks, the swordsmen of Sunni Islam through the centuries, are too culturally, economically and militarily relevant to stand above the fray. What form their participation will take is an unknown at this point, but the increased radicalism of their own laypeople portends darkness. In Egypt, the regime will do its best to hold on as its young men get recruited by the jihadists.
Europe, being so close to the explosion, will get singed here and there as its immigrant populations experiment with downloadable, do-it-yourself jihad. The Old Continent will also have to contend with prophesies promising Rome to the Muslims, and the enduring fantasy of recapturing lost Islamic domains in Spain, Sicily, and Eastern and Central Europe.
Sadly, the thought process of many in the West is to think in terms of the last world war: Munich-style appeasement, internment camps, and mushroom clouds. Surely, the west needs to defend itself, but such extreme measures will spell the collapse of its moral advantage in the face of the terrorists who target innocents.This will only give the jihadists a further example to prove to all those impressionable Middle Easterners that democracy is an illusion. The world has reached this moment by underestimating the enemy, and now we risk much more by the overreaction of panicked societies.
Explosions can sometimes fizzle out and get contained quickly. Or maybe this coming war is inevitable. What is certain is that leaders across the Middle East and the world need to get into crisis-management mode right now. This is not going away, the fuse has been lit in little Lebanon, and implications are grave for all.