Lebanon's Little Syria

Bashar al-Assad's enemies and allies are battling it out in the flashpoint city of Tripoli.

Most Lebanese certainly wished otherwise, but it was only a matter of time before the bloodshed that has overwhelmed Syria for the past 15 months arrived at their doorstep. The conflict has now come to the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, which possesses a social fabric and history that make it fertile ground for the long-awaited proxy war between enemies and allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The latest conflagration was triggered by the May 12 arrest of previously unknown Sunni Islamist activist Shadi al-Mawlawi and five others by Lebanon's General Security Directorate (GSD). Within hours of Mawlawi's arrest, Sunni protesters took to the streets, blocked the highway, and burned tires to demand his immediate release -- a call joined by the city's politicians and clerics. The standoff soon spiraled out of control: Armed men deployed in the poor Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh, battling with gunmen of the adjacent district of Jabal Mohsen, which is inhabited by staunchly pro-Assad members of Lebanon's small Alawite community. So far, the conflict, which has escalated to include rocket-propelled grenade and mortar attacks, has left five people dead and more than 100 wounded.

But there's more to this conflict than meets the eye. It seems that GSD officers mounted a trap -- Mawlawi was lured to a social services center under the pretext he would receive health care -- and had no valid warrant at the time of the arrest. The agency later leaked that Mawlawi had returned days ago from Syria, where he allegedly partook in the rebellion, though it is impossible to confirm these claims. Lebanon's Sunni prime minister, Najib Mikati, a native of Tripoli, called the manner of the arrest "unacceptable," adding that he "rejected and condemned [it]" during a meeting of Lebanon's Higher Defense Council, the top body in charge of internal and external security. Notwithstanding this torrent of words, a military prosecutor charged the six men on May 14 with belonging to an "armed terrorist organization" and "plotting to carry out terrorist acts inside and outside of Lebanon." A Lebanese newspaper on May 15 quoted intelligence sources saying Mawlawi confessed to the accusations.

The arresting party is, to say the least, controversial. GSD is one of Lebanon's many competing security agencies, and it is perceived as the internal arm of Hezbollah. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who previously served as Hezbollah's and other Shiite factions' go-to man in military intelligence, heads the organization, which has a broad mandate that includes monitoring political activity, foreigners, and the media. An anti-Assad Lebanese parliamentarian on May 14 laid the blame for the conflict squarely at Ibrahim's feet, accusing him of "following a Syrian agenda in Lebanon."

In the absence of any history of impartial justice -- other security agencies are similarly corrupt and dominated by other sects -- Tripoli residents have focused their anger on the GSD for overstepping its authority. One friend in the city angrily asked me on May 14: "Does the Internal Security Forces [an agency seen as sympathetic to anti-Assad groups and the Sunni community] dare arrest someone in the south or Dahiyeh [the Hezbollah-controlled suburbs of Beirut]? No. So why is General Security even operating here?"

Lebanon's own pathologies have been exacerbated by the bloody crisis next door. Northern Lebanon has been particularly welcoming of the Syrian opposition, rebels and refugees alike. This is not surprising. The region suffered greatly during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, notably in the 1980s when a brutal war arrayed Islamist and Palestinian factions against the ultimately victorious Syrian military and its Lebanese Alawite allies.

Tripoli and the Sunni-dominated north, in general, have predictably become an anti-Assad and anti-Hezbollah bastion since Syrian troops withdrew in 2005. Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, the city and its suburbs have seen many pro-revolution rallies, and many roads are decorated with anti-Assad slogans and flags, some espousing extreme sectarian views. Unsurprisingly in this city on the edge, which is also plagued by poverty and state neglect, deadly clashes have repeatedly occurred between Sunni and Alawite gunmen in recent months.

On my visits to the areas even closer to the Syrian border, further north and east of Tripoli, the local population's enthusiasm for the revolution was unmistakable. This was particularly true in the region of Wadi Khaled, from where one can see the Syrian city of Homs and which has provided shelter for many of the refugees fleeing the military crackdown on that city and nearby villages. In the absence of the state, traditional networks supply the help needed. Syrian refugees stay in mosques and private homes; members of the Free Syrian Army regroup and find respite; and injured civilians and rebels receive medical care and sustenance.

Assad's Lebanese allies have tried, unconvincingly, to paint all this activity as the work of Islamist radicals. Asked about the accusations by the pro-Assad Lebanese defense minister that al Qaeda was running the smuggling to Syria, a village chief laughingly responded, "We are doing all what this villain says, except that we are not al Qaeda or extremists."

He has a point: Residents of Wadi Khaled belong to tribes living on both sides of the border, and they support the Syrian rebels out of kinship rather than religious ideology. Smugglers in the area once transported cheap Syrian goods and gasoline into Lebanon -- when the uprising erupted, they simply reversed the flow. Now they carry everything from weaponry to medical equipment and drugs across the minefields that the Syrian regime has laid along the border, bringing goods and supplies to the hot zones around the western Syrian cities of Homs and Qusayr. It should come as no surprise that the Lebanese Navy recently seized a ship bound for Tripoli from Libya that was carrying arms presumably destined for Syria.

The more radical Sunnis reside further to the south, in the rugged mountains of Dinniyeh and in the slums of Tripoli (though, of course, many moderate Sunnis live alongside them as well). There, the Salafi influence is visible to anyone who drives through. In December 1999, Islamist militants fought fiercely against the Lebanese military, backed by Syrian forces. Dozens were killed and hundreds arrested. In 2007, a shadowy jihadi group, Fatah al-Islam, took over the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared and battled the Lebanese Army for four months. Hundreds were killed in vicious fighting, and the camp was almost entirely destroyed. According to Lebanese intelligence, Fatah al-Islam members are now fighting alongside the rebellion in Syria, where a few were reportedly killed in April. The irony is not lost on many Lebanese who suspect, with good reason, Syrian intelligence of having contributed to its rise.

Ever since Syria's uprising began, Hezbollah and its allies in the Lebanese government have wanted to see a more forceful state crackdown on anti-Assad activities. This, however, would fatally destabilize a government over which they wield decisive influence -- alienating their shrinking number of Sunni allies at the risk of further inflaming sectarian passions. For his part, Prime Minister Mikati has tried to tread a thin line between assuaging his Sunni constituency and his pro-Assad allies in government, touting a shaky policy of neutrality and "dissociation" from developments in Syria. This has not prevented Lebanon's security agencies from monitoring, harassing, and even aiding in the rendition of Syrian dissidents, to the anger of the country's large anti-Assad constituency.

The possibility that the violence in Tripoli will spread across Lebanon remains limited, but the situation is undeniably deteriorating. Mikati's strategy depends on the ability and willingness of each faction to control the more destructive tendencies of its followers. As the case of Tripoli demonstrates, however, this is easier said than done: Sunni groups, feeling triumphant or angry, may think (mistakenly) the time is opportune to strike a blow against their rivals at home, as well as Assad abroad. Hezbollah, militarily strong but politically on the defensive, may decide that preemptive action is warranted. Any of the two scenarios would throw Lebanon into a sectarian hell.

Tripoli's descent into violence reveals two other ominous trends: the fragmentation of Sunni politics and the weakening of its mainstream politicians. Mikati, who came to power by displacing the vehemently anti-Assad Saad Hariri in January 2011, is one contender for the loyalties of Lebanon's Sunnis, as is the Lebanese finance minister, Mohammad Safadi, another Tripoli native and wealthy candidate for the premiership. Hariri remains a powerful figure, but his standing has taken a hit because of his lackluster performance and a long absence from the country. All three are increasingly seen as weak, indecisive defenders of their sect.

This provides an opening for radical Sunni groups. Tripoli already plays host to several competing Salafi factions. Incredibly, one group -- Harakat al-Tawhid -- is aligned with Hezbollah. Most, however, are vehemently anti-Shiite and anti-Alawite. Omar Bakri Muhammad, a Syrian Salafi cleric who was expelled from Britain for his support for al Qaeda and a darling of the Western media for his fluency in English, resides in Tripoli. Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, a previously unknown Salafi cleric from the southern city of Saida, has emerged as a vociferous champion of Syria's revolutionaries and a challenger of Hariri's political dominance in the city.

The Sunni gangs fighting on the streets of Tripoli are not jihadi outfits -- yet. Rather, they are a mishmash of armed political activists, religious militants, and neighborhood strongmen who think they are protecting their communities. But the growth of Salafi movements would not only adversely affect Lebanon's fragile equilibrium -- it could well taint the Syrian revolution. It would provide Assad with timely evidence that his domestic opponents are not struggling for freedom and democracy, but are allied with violent, foreign Salafists who object to his government on fundamentalist religious grounds.

In the meantime, the Lebanese military has been called in to rescue Tripoli. The Lebanese Army is generally seen as the country's least politicized and least sectarian security force, though this image suffered when it stood idle as Hezbollah and its allies invaded Beirut in May 2008. Its deployment on the streets of Tripoli may contain the clashes for the moment, but it will merely serve as a Band-Aid -- the military will neither seize weaponry nor arrest militiamen involved in the fighting, thus doing nothing to prevent the same bloody cycle from repeating itself.

The sad fact is that there are precious few saviors willing to guide Lebanon through this crisis. The military on which many Lebanese have pinned their hopes reflects, rather than transcends, the country's many ills. Nor can the Lebanese count on their politicians -- the Syrian crisis has crystallized the existing divides in Lebanon, with each side hoping that its allies next door will come out on top in the conflict. It looks like all sides will be disappointed -- with little prospect of a game-changing development, the Syrian revolution will likely gain in complexity and violence, slowly dragging Lebanon down with it.



How to Outsmart China

In its naval clash with Beijing, Manila seems to be taking its cues from a third-century Roman dictator.

Quintus Fabius lives. And the third-century B.C. Roman dictator celebrated as Fabius "the Delayer" seems to be advising Philippine President Benigno Aquino III on strategy at Scarborough Shoal, where Philippine and Chinese ships have faced off for more than a month.

In early April, the Philippine Navy flagship Gregorio del Pilar discovered Chinese fishing boats at the shoal, a group of rocks enclosing a lagoon some 120 nautical miles west of the Philippine island of Luzon. Boarding parties found coral, giant clams, and live sharks on board the boats and prepared to arrest their crews for poaching in Philippine-claimed waters. Within 48 hours, ships from China Maritime Surveillance -- a nonmilitary agency entrusted with enforcing jurisdiction in Chinese-claimed waters -- arrived on the scene and interposed themselves between the Gregorio del Pilar and the alleged poachers.

Manila quickly withdrew its frigate and replaced it with an unarmed Philippine Coast Guard search-and-rescue ship, evidently foreseeing a diplomatic debacle (imagine the political furor should photos emerge of a Philippine warship with civilian Chinese ships under its guns). Stalemate between nonmilitary ships ensued. Although neither government flinched from its claim to the atoll and surrounding waters, both disarmed their presence.

To understand the military mismatch between China and the Philippines, look no further than the Gregorio del Pilar itself. The warship -- the pride of the Philippine Navy -- is a retired, 1960s-vintage U.S. Coast Guard cutter grandiosely rebranded as a frigate. The Philippines' previous flagship, an old U.S. Navy destroyer escort, fought in World War II. Juxtapose these relics against the increasingly modern Chinese Navy that keeps U.S. and allied naval commanders up nights.

By relying on coast guard-like vessels, Beijing reaffirms the legal boilerplate that it holds "indisputable sovereignty" over most of the South China Sea -- including the waters lapping against Scarborough Shoal. Its ships, according to this narrative, are simply enforcing domestic law in waters that have belonged to China since antiquity. And indeed, last week the official China Daily reported that Beijing will add 36 more nonmilitary vessels to its fleet by next year.

But Beijing's victory is far from certain. Manila seems to be employing what could be called a Fabian strategy -- one premised on delay, diplomatic maneuver, and righting military imbalances. The Philippines stands no chance of winning in combat. It may win a peacetime confrontation.

Historians of classical antiquity considered Fabius the paragon of guileful, patient military statecraft. Polybius, a Greek historian of Roman imperialism, tells the tale expertly. As the Carthaginian general Hannibal's vastly superior army rampaged through Italy, Fabius assumed personal command of Roman forces and encamped near the foe. Upon learning that the legions were nearby, Hannibal resolved to "terrify the enemy by promptly attacking," Polybius writes.

The Roman riposte: nothing. Fabius grasped his army's "manifest inferiority." He "made up his mind to incur no danger and not to risk a battle" against battle-hardened Carthaginians, according to Polybius. And Rome was fighting on home turf. Its armies were beneficiaries of an "inexhaustible supply of provisions and of men." He could convert these assets into superior military might -- eventually.

Fabius's story reads like a parable about contending strategic paradigms. Soldiers typically covet decisive engagements that yield clear results along with renown for the victors. That means offense. But Fabius was an atypical, defensive-minded soldier. Rather than risk everything in offensive actions, he mastered the art of lurking near superior enemy forces yet shunning decisive battle, waiting and watching until ideal circumstances arose. Only then, when the risk was low and the likely gains high, would he undertake major combat.

The Fabian precedent does not fit precisely with today's Sino-Philippine deadlock. The mismatch between Carthaginian and Roman forces was far narrower than the chasm separating the Philippine from the Chinese military. Rome wasn't dependent on outside intervention. Over time, Fabius could transform latent into usable military power, marshaling the Italian peninsula's resources to redress the force imbalance.

Philippine leaders have no such luxury. Nevertheless, they evidently believe time is on their side -- and they could be right. Great powers boast obvious material advantages when confronting lesser opponents. But weak powers can stall for time, opening up new strategic vistas. With an adequate respite, they can marshal additional resources, seek help from powerful allies, or try to undercut the stronger contender's advantages.

Sure enough, Manila has done what the weak do. Aquino's government has appealed to law and justice while courting allies. The leadership has entreated Beijing to submit the quarrel to the Law of the Sea Tribunal. And it has requested American support under the 1951 U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty, which obliges the United States and the Philippines to "act to meet the common dangers" of "an armed attack" on either party's territory or armed forces.

For its part, Beijing appears visibly flummoxed by the Filipinos' refusal to bow to overwhelming physical might. China seems to be waging "war by algebra" in the South China Sea, and expecting outmatched neighbors to abide by that austere mathematical logic. Coined by Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz, it's the idea that war can be drained of its dark passions under certain circumstances. If dispassionate war occurred, "one would never really need to use the physical impact of the fighting forces -- comparative figures of their strength would be enough."

When a controversy erupted, diplomats and soldiers would in effect compare their militaries' write-ups in Jane's Fighting Ships or the IISS Military Balance. Whoever sported the biggest, most capable, most deployable military would win without ever firing a shot -- simply because everyone would know who would have won a shooting war. That's peacetime coercion.

But even Clausewitz appeared to view war-by-algebra as a largely artificial construct, doubting that diplomacy and war could be rid of the passions that suffuse competition. One would think China -- which has started out as the lesser belligerent in almost every war since the 19th-century Opium Wars, yet oftentimes prevailed through popular passions, patience, and sheer hardheadedness -- would instantly recognize the motives behind Philippine actions. Not so, it appears.

Aquino & Co. shouldn't take too much comfort in Chinese myopia: Perseverance and delay on their part aren't enough. If Manila cannot muster enough resources to win a war of perceptions, it must attract outside help -- particularly from the United States, which has other interests in Southeast Asia apart from honoring its defense treaty with the Philippines. Freedom of navigation ranks high on Washington's priorities list, as does avoiding needlessly affronting a major trading partner that also happens to be a great power on the rise.

While the United States would doubtless defend Philippine soil, offshore waters or uninhabitable territory like Scarborough Shoal is another question. Nor is it clear what the lightly armed U.S. Navy vessels that anchor the American presence in Southeast Asia would contribute during a showdown with heavy Chinese naval forces. Effective U.S. support for the Philippines is scarcely a foregone conclusion -- and Manila's Fabian gambit cannot succeed without it.

But the longer an impasse with a sorely outclassed rival drags on unresolved, the more the stronger antagonist starts looking both bullying and irresolute -- the worst possible outcome in power-politics terms. Although militarily, China can do what it wants at Scarborough Shoal, the controversy looks increasingly like a political loser for Beijing.