The Boomerang Effect

Will the civil war in Syria incite a Sunni-Shiite holy war in Lebanon?

BEIRUT — It always starts with the posters. On Nov. 11, followers of the Sunni Salafist leader Ahmed al-Assir tore down a poster of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in the southern Lebanese city of Saida. The destruction of the sign -- the traditional way for parties to mark their territory in Lebanon -- provoked a sadly predictable response: A shootout erupted in the neighborhood, claiming the lives of three people, including two of Assir's bodyguards, and wounding a Hezbollah official.

In the clash's aftermath, Assir mulled forming a militia himself -- but soon suspended the formation of his "resistance brigade" after a public outcry. Tensions, nevertheless, remain high: On Nov. 19, a Lebanese judge issued search warrants against 24 gunmen seen at the funeral of Assir's bodyguard. The question seems to be when, not if, the conflict flares up again.

The Oct. 19 assassination of Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, the country's most powerful Sunni intelligence chief and a staunch opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, spurred this recent bout of instability. Angry anti-Assad groups took to the streets after Hassan's death, accusing Syria and Hezbollah of the crime and calling for the downfall of the government in Beirut. But there was a twist: In a departure from their normal political leanings, Lebanon's Sunni protesters had taken on a distinctly Islamist hue.

In the hours following Hassan's assassination, Sunni Islamist militias deployed in the streets of the northern port city of Tripoli and in central Beirut, taking the fight not just to rival groups but also toward Lebanese Army patrols. In all, at least six people were killed and 27 wounded over one mad weekend.  

A Lebanese security source, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, told Foreign Policy that militant jihadist groups across the country had increased activities significantly in the past 20 months.

"The current situation gives these groups a safe haven to operate, mainly inside the [Palestinian] camps," the source said. "Their modus operandi is ambushes and attack. These are guys who have been to Afghanistan or Iraq and there is no doubt that they are joining [the fighting] in Syria at the moment."

Assir has been the public face of this newfound religiosity among Lebanon's Sunni community. The firebrand cleric, whose day job is as imam at Saida's Bilal bin Rabah mosque, shot to prominence this summer as the most vocal opponent of Assad's dominance in Syria, and Hezbollah's dominance in Lebanon.

"The Sunnis remain dominated by [Hezbollah] and its weapons. We are vulnerable in particular," he told Foreign Policy at his office in Sidon. "If this continues, there will not be a war in Lebanon. There will be an attack on the Sunnis and they will not last one day."

Assir sees the Syrian regime and Hezbollah as working to advance Shiite domination of the region, and warns that Lebanon's Sunnis will be at risk as long as Assad lives. "Most people in the region are Sunni and refuse the Iranian project [of keeping Assad in power]," Assir says. "In [Lebanon], the Sunnis have been disappointed by successive governments. There is a glitch here and all parties need to be aware of it."

The rise of Assir -- and many more like him -- has been made possible by the prolonged absence of former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who had previously been the undisputed leader of Lebanon's Sunni community. But after Hariri lost the premiership in June 2011, he departed the country for Paris amid rumours of money troubles and concerns for his safety, and has yet to return. As one Sunni fighter explained lamely when asked what connection his community has with its former standard-bearer, "he communicates with us over Twitter."

With Hariri gone, pro-Assad sources have accused countries sympathetic to the Syrian revolt of using Lebanese jihadist groups for their own purposes. As one high-ranking Lebanese Shiite political source termed it, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar "insist on continuing to send fighters and snipers through Lebanon" and into Syria.

The State Department currently lists seven officially designated terrorist groups as operational inside Lebanon. One is the Shiite militant organization Hezbollah, but most are radicalized Sunni groups with alleged links to al Qaeda.

Their operations over recent years have been limited to smash-and-grab attacks. They were accused, for example, of being behind the roadside bombings in 2011 that targeted U.N. peacekeeping patrols in south Lebanon.

But now, emboldened by the outbreak of violence in Syria, several groups appear to be expanding their operations. Lebanon's tenuous security situation, not to mention its virtually non-existent border with Syria, allow the groups to launch jihadist operations against Assad - and also threaten his supporters closer to home.

Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, estimates there are currently at least 600 Lebanese fighting alongside rebel groups inside Syria. And he warns this will eventually boomerang back on Lebanon.

"We have seen this before with conflicts in the past -- which are termed jihad -- that when fighters in other countries come home it leads to destabilization," Zelin said. "And Syria is the most popular jihadist conflict in a while."

Sunni animosity toward the Assad regime, which is dominated by the minority Alawite sect, has deep roots. Under former President Hafez al-Assad, Syria extended its military hegemony over Lebanon and implemented an unrelenting crackdown on Lebanon's Islamists.

In Tripoli, the suppression was particularly fearsome. Islamist groups both aligned and non-aligned to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood were routinely rounded up by security personnel and arbitrarily imprisoned, or worse.

Ahmed Qasas, a senior member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a global Islamist organization that was banned from operating for decades in Lebanon, was one of the thousands to spend time in jail at former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's leisure. "We were followed constantly," he told Foreign Policy at the party's Tripoli headquarters. "Most of the party's youth were put in jail. We were the most targeted by the mukhabarat [Syrian secret police]."

Hizb ut-Tahrir -- which boasts more than one million members worldwide and seeks the establishment of a global Islamic state -- has been a mainstay of public demonstrations calling for Assad's departure, flouting a ban on its gatherings with ever-increasing numbers. And politically, the party has been invigorated by the regional gains made by Islamist organizations in the wake of the Arab Spring.

"There has been more acceptance of the culture of Hizb ut-Tahrir across the region," Qasas says. "People for the first time are seriously looking for a political project and we believe that there is no project capable of change apart from ours."

Qasas is at pains to point out that Hizb ut-Tahrir does not advocate violence. At the same time, he wholeheartedly supports the Syrian rebellion against Assad: "The Syrian people have had to take up arms after the regime attacked them," he says.

Lebanon's political establishment has largely eschewed descriptions of the Syrian conflict as a struggle between Sunnis and Shiites. Those sympathetic to the revolt depict it as a people's struggle for freedom, while those opposed paint it as a sovereign administration fighting off foreign terrorist intervention. However, in the absence of a cohesive political opposition to Assad, less orthodox figures like Assir have filled the political vacuum by presenting events as an epoch-defining showdown between rival Muslim sects.

Assir, for his part, blames the international community's inaction for the presence of al Qaeda-inspired groups in Lebanon, and maintains that he would support any group -- no matter how extremist -- that struggles against the government in Damascus.

"In battle -- in history -- there is no clean kill," the firebrand cleric says. "You always have inappropriate things that happen that people don't agree with. I want to see Bashar killed in battle."



That Other War

The bloody conflict you didn't read about this week is in Congo, and it threatens to redraw the map of Africa.

KIGALI, Rwanda — One of Congo's biggest eastern cities fell to a powerful rebel force on Tuesday, Nov. 20, in a war that may redefine the region but has produced little political action by the United Nations, the United States, and international powers that heavily support neighboring governments -- notably Rwanda, a Western darling and aid recipient -- that are backing the violence, according to U.N. experts. The fighting has displaced nearly 1 million people since the summer, and the battle for the city of Goma marks the latest episode of a long struggle by Rwandan-backed rebels to take control of a piece of the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- a struggle the rebels are now decisively winning. The fighting has also highlighted the ineptitude of the United Nations mission, one of the world's largest and most expensive, charged with keeping Congo's peace.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Rwandan President Paul Kagame on Saturday "to request that he use his influence on the M23 [rebels] to help calm the situation and restrain M23 from continuing their attack," as the U.N.'s peacekeeping chief put it. And French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius affirmed that the rebellion in Congo was supported by Rwanda, expressing "grave concern." But the violence has only escalated since. The U.N. Security Council called an emergency session over the weekend, but its condemnation of the violence, demanding that the rebels stop advancing on Goma and insisting that outside powers stop funding the M23 rebels, have all simply been ignored. The Security Council announced it would sanction M23 but did not even mention Rwanda, the main power behind the rebellion. And even as the fighting has intensified, the U.N. mission in Congo has been making public pronouncements about new access to drinking water for people in eastern Congo -- producing a surreal image of the war.

The well-equipped and professional M23 fighters, perhaps better armed and organized than any rebel unit in Congo in the past decade, put on a remarkable show of force over the weekend to move within a few kilometers of the provincial capital, Goma. The rebels not only withstood heavy shelling by U.N. helicopter gunships, but simultaneously gained ground and forced back the Congolese national army on two other fronts, according to reports. The Congolese army and U.N. peacekeeping forces subsequently stayed out of the rebels' way, allowing M23 to capture large parts of Goma with virtually no resistance. In the end, some 3,000 Congolese soldiers, backed by hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers with air power, were unable to contain M23 forces numbering in the few hundreds.

This unprecedented military capability of the M23 rebels in a country of ragtag militias has led to many credible claims -- backed by findings from U.N. experts -- that Rwanda is providing weapons, soldiers, and military guidance to the rebels, with orders coming directly from Rwanda's defense minister, Gen. James Kabarebe. Human Rights Watch says it has extensively documented Rwandan troops crossing into Congo to support the M23 rebels. Uganda, too, is accused of providing M23 with a political base, though on a request from the Congolese government it recently closed a key border-crossing point that had been helping to finance the rebels. Both Rwanda and Uganda are relatively ordered countries -- in stark contrast to Congo -- with well-entrenched authoritarian governments that receive significant military and financial aid from the United States and the West.

Such powerful backing means the rebels can deliver on their far-reaching threats. As Goma fell, M23 spokesman Lt. Col. Vianney Kazarama told me that rebels intended to "capture a good part of eastern Congo," including its other major city in the east, Bukavu. The rebels have demanded that Congo's government negotiate with them -- without specifying precisely what they want. But Congo has said it will only speak with Rwanda, "the real aggressor," and not to a "fictitious" group that is serving as a cover. For now, the M23 rebels are regrouping in Goma. And there may well be a calm interlude in the war, as parties attempt to negotiate. But given the rebels' history, at the back of their minds is likely an old dream -- of a place of their own in eastern Congo -- that has become distinctly more real with Goma's capture.

The situation closely resembles another attack on Goma, four years ago, by Laurent Nkunda, a rebel also backed by Rwanda who led M23's predecessor group and who told me that he hoped to create a new country in eastern Congo called the "Republic of Volcanoes." Some 200,000 people had been displaced in that battle as fighting came right up to the city. In the end, Nkunda chose not to take Goma, and during the negotiations that followed his forces agreed to disband and join Congo's national army. This spring, however, some of those same fighters declared that the Congolese government had reneged on its promises and formed the M23 rebellion.

M23's and Nkunda's forces have been accused of grave human rights abuses, including mass rape (in one instance, of some 16,000 women in one weekend in Bukavu), massacres, and the recruitment of child soldiers. Bosco Ntaganda, an M23 leader, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for recruiting child soldiers. Congo issued an international arrest warrant in 2005 for Nkunda, citing war crimes, but he remains in secret detention in Rwanda, which has refused to hand him over to Congo.

Rwanda's support for the M23 rebellion stems from a mix of historical sympathies and financial interests. The M23 is composed mainly of Tutsi fighters who represent a historically marginalized ethnic group in eastern Congo. Several leaders of M23 and its predecessor rebel group had fought alongside Rwanda's now-president, Kagame -- who, like many of his senior aides, is also Tutsi.

Then there is also eastern Congo's immense mineral wealth, which Rwanda has illegally profited from for years since its invasion of Congo in 1996. Rwanda has made hundreds of millions of dollars -- probably much more -- by supporting rebel groups who control lucrative mines in Congo and by smuggling the minerals into Rwanda for export to world markets.

There is also history. Many Rwandans, including officials in government, believe that eastern Congo is a rightful part of Rwanda, taken away when European colonial powers carved up the continent in 1885 and made those rich, fertile lands a part of Congo. They see the M23 as righting this historical injustice, despite international laws to the contrary.

Rwanda's foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, highlighted such sympathies this summer when she began a private diplomatic meeting, on the topic of the M23 rebellion, with a map of ancient Rwanda that encompassed much of eastern Congo, according to several diplomats who attended the event. Her point was that the region's history is complex, but it was only a logical step from there to assert that Rwanda exercised some right over Congolese land. Kagame, for his part, has remained oddly silent since the new surge of violence on his country's border, though he has previously refuted all allegations that his country supports the rebels. And Kagame has so far, despite international appeals, refused to condemn the M23 rebellion.

The rebels, however, insist that their movement is purely Congolese. Kazarama, the M23 spokesman, told me that the M23 is combating "years of poor governance, a lack of public services, and constant insecurity." When I asked where the M23 had obtained its sophisticated military equipment -- the U.N. has noted that it possesses 120 mm mortars and even night-vision goggles -- Kazarama said he had purchased them on the "black market in Dubai" and insisted that the weapons "had not come from Rwanda."

Rwanda, though it receives vast amounts of aid from Western countries, has remained a decisive force in Congo's destabilization. The vast majority of Congo's territory, despite being mineral-rich and open to pillage by other neighbors, is relatively peaceful. But Congo's border with Rwanda, its tiny neighbor, remains a flash point for new conflict.

In spite of the facts on the ground, Rwanda has a history of denial regarding its involvement in Congo. Throughout its 1990s invasion of Congo, Rwanda denied accusations of its presence on Congolese soil, even as photographs emerged of Kabarebe, Rwanda's current defense minister and operational commander of that Congo invasion, in Kinshasa, standing beside Congo's then-president, Laurent Kabila, whom Rwanda had helped put in power. For years, Rwanda also denied backing Nkunda's rebel forces, only to rein him in and secretly detain him in Rwanda, where he remains today. And now, President Kagame continues -- even angrily -- to deny his government's assistance to M23.

On Tuesday, as M23 rebels took control of Congo's border with Rwanda -- an event that should have caused concern -- news agencies reported that Rwandan soldiers and policemen "did not seem particularly nervous and no significant reinforcements were visible."

The international community has historically chosen to take Rwanda's side in its vehement denials of interference in Congo, continuing to send almost $1 billion each year to Rwanda's government, which depends for almost half its budget on foreign aid.

In July, however, several Western governments suspended foreign aid payments to Rwanda after reports emerged that it was arming the rebellion in Congo. The United States led the way, suspending a symbolic $200,000 in military assistance (a tiny percentage of its real support to Rwanda). But several of Rwanda's biggest financiers -- including the European Union, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank, many of which channel money directly to the Rwandan treasury -- have continued to gift and loan the government money and have refused to publicly condemn Rwanda's support to the rebels, despite the mounting evidence.

In September, Britain, which had previously suspended its payments, reinstated 16 million pounds in aid to the Rwandan government. Britain's former international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, who enjoys a close relationship with Kagame and whose charity work in Rwanda has been praised by the president, was criticized as a "rogue minister" by British members of Parliament for signing off on that aid on his very last afternoon in office. Other countries, including the United States, have hinted that they will merely not make any "new" aid commitments to Rwanda, but that existing promises -- which amount to several hundred million dollars -- will continue to be delivered.

Simply put, the international community seems reluctant to apply pressure on Rwanda to help end the enormous humanitarian crisis unfolding in Congo. Western countries claim that putting pressure on Kigali could bring new instability to the region -- despite the inherent absurdity in this argument, given Rwanda's destabilizing influence in Congo both now and historically.

Aid donors also fear losing what they consider a model country for development in Africa -- though such notions of development success are strictly economic. While Rwanda has reported striking economic growth since its 1994 genocide, its government is severely repressive and shows scant respect for fundamental human rights.

The latest attack on Goma also highlights the inadequacy of the 17,000-strong U.N. force, which is staffed mostly with soldiers from poor countries -- in eastern Congo, mainly soldiers from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh -- who are sent to such missions as a reward for good service at home. The U.N. per diems represent, for many soldiers, four times their regular army salaries. Peacekeepers often told me they were using their Congo stint to save up for a house or for their children's education -- they were "not in Congo to die."

The U.N. has said that once the Congolese army had fled Goma, it did not stop the M23 rebels for fear of causing civilian casualties. French Foreign Minister Fabius has meanwhile called for a review of the United Nations mission in Congo, saying it was "absurd" that the rebels had been able to parade past the idle peacekeepers. Meanwhile, the Congolese and Rwandan armies have reportedly begun to bomb each other, in the first open hostilities between the countries in years.

The resumption of fighting this spring ended a few years of gradual progress in Congo's east, in which relative stability had been established in the areas around Goma for the first time since 1996. The famous Virunga National Park had seen increasing numbers of foreign tourists keen on visiting the endangered mountain gorilla in its natural habitat. And Goma was enjoying a flurry of new construction, largely of multistory hotels.

What seems clear now is that the M23 rebels have made a decisive push to take over a part of eastern Congo. The Rwandan state also seems to be moving with conviction -- not backing down from its support for the rebellion despite repeated international appeals. And the government has been emboldened by its recent successful bid for a seat on the U.N. Security Council, despite credible evidence even then that it was supporting M23. And now there is talk in the region of the emergence of a new quasi-country -- a South Sudan-style annexation of mineral-rich territory in Congo.

A peaceful end to this conflict is now difficult to imagine, and it is Congo's civilians who will suffer, as they always have, the most. It is highly unlikely that the M23 rebels can be reintegrated into the Congolese national army once again -- trust has been broken by this conflict. But if the M23 are defeated, sentiments against the Rwandan-speaking minorities in Congo will become even more vitriolic and may well lead to more violence. The rebels, and Rwanda, are no doubt aware of their great gamble.