With Syria in turmoil, little Lebanon remains in limbo

Five years into the Syrian crisis and with an all-out war on its doorstep, Lebanon is experiencing ever-worsening repercussions of its neighbour’s collapse. Yet the small country remains resilient, despite the influx of a million Syrian refugees, the regional turmoil, current tensions over a vacant presidency, and the fact that its institutions are barely functioning. It is therefore a small miracle that Lebanon’s relative peace in a turbulent Middle East has so far been maintained amid its near-total dysfunction, or that large-scale protests did not erupt sooner to lament the country’s many farces and absurdities. This article assesses how Lebanon has been able to contain and deter some of the deep-rooted problems that the Syrian war has made worse.

Lebanon’s existence is based on a sensitive balance of ethno-sectarian ambitions, which have clashed on several occasions, most famously during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war (1975-1990). Decades of conflicts and political paralysis have created a ripe environment for violence to spread. Existing security apparatuses – namely the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) – were stretched to the limit prior to the conflict and are still outmatched against the Hezbollah movement. [1]

Sides and factions changed numerous times; intra-sectarian violence was as common as inter-sectarian violence, as sectarian leaders attempted to consolidate power over their communities. Sectarian groups also changed allegiances due to foreign interventions, by the Syrians, Israelis and the US at points.

The 1989 Taef Agreement, brokered by Saudi Arabia and Syria, addressed some of these deep-seated sectarian challenges and brought an end to the fighting. Violence abated after 1990, but never disappeared and for years has been on a steady increase. Syria, whose troops first entered Lebanon in 1976 to control Palestinian forces and remained there until their withdrawal in 2005, remained in the country and de facto controlled Beirut in the post-war period. During this time, the conflict between Lebanon and Israel continued until the withdrawal of the latter in 2000, which was largely credited to the resistance military activities of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. This transformed Hezbollah into the primary political party for Lebanon’s Shia community.

Meanwhile, the businessman who had helped broker the Taef Agreement, Rafik Hariri, rose to become Lebanon’s Prime Minister and led a process of reconstruction in the country as well as creating the first major Sunni political party in Lebanon, the Future Movement. Hariri’s vision for Lebanon as a country that would be sovereign and open to economic engagement with foreign countries on an equal basis led to tension with the Syrian regime, which regarded Hariri’s strategy as a threat to its interests in Lebanon.

The Cedar Revolution

On February 14, 2005 a bomb attack on a convoy carrying the former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, killed him, his former economy minister, and twenty others. Popular outrage at the murders – in effect a regicide against the man synonymous with the reconstruction of post-war Beirut – unleashed the “Cedar Revolution”, forcing the involuntary withdrawal of Syrian troops after 29 years of occupation.[2]


Two weeks later, on February 28, 2005 the pro-Syrian Lebanese government resigned and called for new elections. After Syria announced an end to its military presence in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, called for a pro-Syrian rally to be held in Beirut on March 8. Six days later, on March 14, the anti-Syrian opposition organised a large rally, which marked a month after Hariri’s assassination. From this point, a battle for control of the Lebanese state began between the Sunni-dominated March 14 alliance and the Shia-dominated March 8 alliance and their regional and international allies.

March 8 v March 14

The March 14 alliance is largely made up from centrist Sunni Muslims with a significant number of Christians, and until August 2009, the Druze under Jumblatt. While some members had previously cooperated with Syria, by 2005 all members came to oppose Syrian influence in Lebanon and blamed Syria and its allies in Lebanon for Hariri’s assassination. Up until the Arab uprisings that began in 2010 it was closely allied with so-called ‘moderate’ Arab states and most of the Gulf States, and to Western countries, particularly France and the US.

Meanwhile, the March 8 coalition represented forces that had benefited from the Syrian occupation and continued to align with Syrian interests. This bloc was led by Hezbollah (literally “The Party of God”), a Shia organisation composed of a military branch, sociocultural institutions, and a political party.

Hezbollah Troops

Since its foundation, the movement has continued to play a consequential role in Lebanese politics. The group brought down the government of Saad Hariri, son of Rafik, in 2011. And though Hezbollah helped usher in a replacement in Prime Minister Najib Mikati, it forced his departure from office and a collapse of the government in March 2013 in a dispute over the Lebanese security forces.

Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah

At this time of heightened rivalry and political deadlock, Hezbollah entered a war with Israel after kidnapping two IDF soldiers on the Lebanese-Israeli border in the summer of 2006. During the two-month war, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, stated that he was going to have an open war with Israel, “whether the Lebanese wanted or not.” Nonetheless, Hezbollah managed to capitalise on the war to win hearts and minds not just all over Lebanon but also across the Arab world, as many came to regard it as the only Arab force able to stand up to Israeli aggression. After much negotiation a peace agreement came with UNSC Resolution 1701, drafted by the US, France and Israel on August 14, 2006. In the wake of the 2006 war Lebanon’s Hezbollah’s increased security role remained highly contested but it enabled Lebanon to effectively project power and influence outside its borders and against external threats.

The withdrawal of the Syrian troops and the 2005 elections disrupted the Syrian hegemony and created a new context for security politics in Lebanon. The victorious March 14 forces were able to lead a new government, but parliament was closely divided and the cabinet included representation from the March 8 opposition, including the Hezbollah movement.

Spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon

Although President Bashar al-Assad of Syria withdrew his military forces from Lebanon in 2005, Syria continued to heavily influence internal events within Lebanon. Assad was confident that the Arab uprising that began in Lebanon in March 2005 would not affect Syria. However, on March 15, 2011, just as pro-US regimes across the region were facing waves of demonstrations, a revolution erupted in Syria, this contrary to Assad’s prediction.

The peaceful phase of the revolution was brief, and soon the military crackdown by the Assad regime led to armed resistance by the opposition with the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Increasingly, non-Syrian militias were to join the fight, depicting the Assad regime in Damascus as heretical and ungodly. The Syrian uprising threatened to topple the Assad regime, which, for Hezbollah, would have carried the risk of losing this important lifeline. Iran therefore summoned Hezbollah to help Assad in an attempt at crushing the Syrian opposition.

In the first months of the Syrian uprising, Hezbollah’s leadership refrained from taking a clear and decisive stance, cautiously weighing its options. After summer 2011, however, following the uprising’s increasing militarisation and some individual calls by Syria’s fragmented opposition for international protection and military intervention, Hezbollah began to prop up the regime and gradually increased its support, with a view not only to keep it alive but also to provide it with an edge.[3]

Not only has Hezbollah provided the Syrian regime momentum, it also averted its military defeat; dislodged rebels from areas adjacent to the borders; stopped further outrages against Shia Muslims; and prevented a detrimental recalibration of the regional balance of power. In the process the group has evolved at the military and political level, ultimately impacting upon its strategic outlook, capabilities and role—both in Syria as well as back home in Lebanon.

By May 2013, Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged that Hezbollah was dispatching fighters to Syria, a clear violation of the Baabda Declaration, a document outlining Lebanon’s policy of ‘disassociation’ from the conflict.


By then, Hezbollah had gained unrivalled power within Lebanon and seemed to be securing a stable political order and security position. But these soon began to unravel as the result of Hezbollah’s expanding engagement in the civil war in Syria and of growing sense of insecurity within the Lebanese Sunni community.

Hezbollah’s involvement has also heightened its rivalries and created new enemies within Syria. Because of its military role supporting Assad, it is not surprising to note that Hezbollah is seen as a key enemy by anti-Assad opposition forces. In particular, Hezbollah is especially despised and targeted by groups operating within the “Salafi-jihadist” camp. This is certainly true when it comes to groups like al Qaeda-linked Jahbat al-Nusra (JN) or Islamic State (IS): both organisations have engaged in a number of bloody clashes against Hezbollah and in both cases their military rivalry is heightened by their belief that the group and the Shia community in general is “heretical” in its interpretation of Islam.

Similarly, within Lebanon, Hezbollah’s assistance of the Syrian regime has not only fuelled political and sectarian tensions between the Shia and Sunni communities, but it has also resulted in direct violence against Nasrallah’s group and the Shia community in general. Hezbollah responded by establishing its own checkpoints and visible security patrols around Shia populations and institutions. However, these checkpoints caused tensions with non-Shia communities and Hezbollah faced criticism for claiming public authority over security in areas far from the Israeli-Lebanese border.[4]

2014 Security Plan

In response, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) launched in April 2014 a new security plan to restore the rule of law by setting up their own checkpoints and increasing raids along the Syrian-Lebanese border. Soon elements of the Lebanese security apparatus, spanning the LAF, Hezbollah and others, found themselves cooperating, despite their political divisions and historic background.[5]

Yet, despite this arrangement, the underlying problems caused by the Syrian conflict have not been resolved. A number of direct attacks against Hezbollah occurred in the past few years, including rocket attacks against the “al-Dahiye” – Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Beirut; suicide bombings against Shia, Hezbollah and Iranian targets and operations targeting the LAF. Al Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades bombed the Iranian Embassy in Beirut in November 2013 and, more recently, IS itself took responsibility for a tragic suicide bomb attack in a densely populated street of Bourj al-Barajneh – a predominantly Shia neighbourhood in Hezbollah’s southern suburb stronghold in Beirut in November 2015.[6]

The Bourj al-Barajneh bombings, killing over 40 people and wounding 200 others have highlighted the security plan’s intrinsic limitations. Its major shortcoming consists in putting the onus solely on security measures, while ignoring root causes: Sunni and Shia radicalisation, fuelled by political parties and regional sponsors; deplorable living conditions for Syrian refugees; the deteriorating socio-economic situation of Lebanese themselves; and eroding state institutions and services.

Still, the margin of action of these militant groups remains limited. They may inflict damage on Lebanon and its people, but not in a systematic, strategically meaningful way. For instance, in August 2015, IS and JN, along with smaller armed groups, attempted to take over a town in north-eastern Lebanon, but their efforts were thwarted by the Lebanese Armed Forces. Moreover, hardly a week goes by without reports of security forces announcing the arrest of a jihadi activist or the dismantling of explosive devices.

The Resistance Axis

The reasons behind Hezbollah’s ‘all-in’ approach with respect to the Syrian civil war are related to the historical strategic alliance between the Lebanese-Shia organisation and the Syrian regime; to the geo-strategic importance of preserving the so-called ‘Axis of Refusal/resistance’ as well as to the strength of the personal relationship between Nasrallah and the Assad regime. The term resistance axis (jabhat al muqawama) designates the alliance among the Islamic Republic of Iran, Syria and the strongest Arab non-state actors, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas.

As Iran and Saudi Arabia jostle for power in the Middle East, Beirut has managed to maintain an uncomfortable balance between the two. However, the last few months the Saudis have grown understandably impatient with the fact that Lebanon, and especially its armed forces, remains under the hegemony of Hezbollah. For the first time, Riyadh is playing hardball in their dealings with Lebanon, deciding on February 19, 2016 to cancel about $4 billion worth of aid to the Lebanese army and internal forces. The aid had been offered in a bid to bolster the army and make it more able to hold its own and operate independently from Hezbollah.

Moreover, Arab Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia have declared Hezbollah a terrorist organisation. These two developments, and other similar moves looming on the horizon, are likely to exert serious pressure on Lebanon’s economic and political stability. It may also make Lebanon less secure. Signalling its concern, the UN has called on other countries to make up the $4 billion.[7]

Political stalemate

The Syrian crisis also tore along political divides, with March 14 supporting the uprisings and their March 8 adversaries the Assad regime. Both sides view the Syrian conflict as potentially leading to a transformation in the domestic balance of power in Lebanon.

After Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced his government’s resignation in March 2013, policymaking in Beirut halted and the economy nosedived as pro- and anti-Assad factions struggled to agree on a new cabinet. The appointment of a new interim cabinet in March 2014 was in part the result of foreign patrons putting pressure on Lebanese actors—pressure that was spurred by developments on the ground in Syria.

Also, Lebanon has been without an executive head of state – a position traditionally reserved for Maronite Christians – since President Michel Suleiman’s mandate ended in May 2014. Parliament has convened since then more than 35 times without electing a new president due to the lack of a two-thirds quorum.[8]

In the past few months, however, key Lebanese political players have switched partners, undermining the two main blocs. Late 2015, in an apparent breakthrough, Future Current (FC) leader Saad Hariri struck a counterintuitive deal with Suleiman Frangieh, a Christian politician and close friend of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.[9] This would have made Frangieh president and Hariri, reportedly, prime minister.

This gambit was soon countered by another: earlier this year, Samir Geagea, the head of the Christian political party Lebanese Forces, who had been a candidate for the post, endorsed the candidacy of his greatest rival, Michel Aoun, the 80-year-old leader of the Free Patriotic Movement. The surprise announcement marked a rare show of unity in a Christian community riven by divisions for decades.[10]

Both leaders continue to have deeply divergent political postures, both internally and concerning the region. Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah has grown stronger over the years; he has supported Assad in the Syrian conflict and built close ties with Iran; he is also a harsh critic of the Future Current (FC) and Saudi Arabia. On the other side, Geagea remains a visceral opponent of Hezbollah, Damascus and Iran, and has forged important ties with Riyadh.

Trash collection crisis

Meanwhile, Lebanese citizens have been mired in their own filth since July 2015, when the country’s main landfill closed its gates, without providing an alternative. The protest campaign “You Stink”, led by youth and civil society activists who, being opposed to politicians, claim to be ‘non-political’, pointed the finger at the politicians, who failed to find new disposal options despite nearly a year’s warning.[11]


These activists saw the piles of rubbish as symptomatic of the failure not only of the political class but also of the Lebanese political system. The peaceful protests turned violent by late September and continued throughout the following months amid enduring discontent over the internal political stalemate.

Removal of garbage from the Beirut suburbs began on March 19, 2016 after the goverment approved an emergency plan to temporarily reopen the Naameh landfill.


Lebanon has one of the weakest governments in the entire Middle East, yet it has managed to subvert popular demands for reform more effectively than virtually all of the surrounding Arab states. Nonetheless, a growing number of Lebanese are fed up with the rules of the game in their country: sectarian, patron-based politics and a culture of impunity for elite corruption have left little space for good governance.

In short, the current crisis is the product of the accelerating erosion of state structures, growing social dislocation and displacement, but also communal consolidation and de facto devolution of power to militias. These trends are profoundly reshaping the fragmented Lebanese society, economy and polities, the particular dynamics of which largely are eclipsed by political actors’ single-minded focus on the terrorist threat, the reflexive responses which are exacerbating, not alleviating, the underlying causes.

Although the Assad regime in Damascus is consolidating military gains on the ground, an outright regime victory remains unlikely. However, should the regime emerge victorious, the prospect of widespread renewed conflict in Lebanon could diminish, particularly if Hezbollah withdraws from Syria, removing a major impetus of sectarian violence in Lebanon.

From delayed parliamentary and presidential elections to protests about uncollected garbage, Lebanon remains in limbo. Fortunately for the Lebanese, the country has lost its status as the prime locus of proxy and sectarian wars in the region. In the meantime, Lebanon has no choice but to provide shelter for over one million Syrian refugees.


[1] YOUNG, W., STEBBINS, D., FREDERICK, B.A. & AL-SHAHERY, O. (2014). “Spillover from the Conflict in Syria: An Assessment of the Factors that Aid and Impede the Spread of Violence”. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, p. 29.

[2] GARDNER, D. “Ten years on, Hariri’s murder has reshaped Lebanon’s landscape”, Financial Times, February 16th, 2015, p. 4.

[3] MOHNS, E. & BANK, A. “Syrian Revolt Fallout: End of the Resistance Axis?”, Middle East Policy Council, Fall 2012, Vol. 19, No. 3.

[4] International Crisis Group. “Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria”. Retrieved March 25th, 2016 from International Crisis Group: http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/middle-east-north-africa/syria-lebanon/lebanon/153-lebanon-s-hizbollah-turns-eastward-to-syria.aspx.

[5] “Lebanese Army launches Bekaa Valley security plan”. Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from The Daily Star Lebanon: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Apr-11/252980-lebanese-army-launches-bekaa-valley-security-plan.ashx#axzz33V7khACX & KHATIB, L. “Regional Spillover: Lebanon and the Syrian Conflict”, Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from Carnegie Middle East Center: http://carnegie-mec.org/publications/?fa=55829.

[6] BERTI, B. “The Syrian Civil War and its Consequences for Hezbollah”, Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from ISN ETH Zurich: http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?id=195591.

[7] “When elephants battle”, Retrieved April 1st, 2016 from The Economist: http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21693898-little-guy-gets-hurt-saudi-arabia-and-iran-squabble-over-lebanon.

[8] SAAB, B.Y. “Back to Lebanon’s Future: The Political Revival of the Country’s Christians”, Retrieved April 1st, 2016 from Foreign Affairs: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/lebanon/2016-01-26/back-lebanons-future.

[9] PERRY, T. & BASSAM, L. “In unexpected twist, Assad ally may be Lebanon’s next president”. Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-lebanon-presidency-ins-idUSKBN0TJ26620151130.

[10] PERRY, T. “Geagea reshapes Lebanese politics, backs rival Aoun”. Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-lebanon-idUSKCN0UW24V.

[11] SOLOMON, E. “Lebanon rubbish crisis: a pungent symbol of political inaction”. Retrieved March 22nd, 2016 from Financial Times: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/3aa1fc0c-3752-11e5-bdbb-35e55cbae175.html#axzz41lN4eDax.



Violence in Israel has been rising for months, with attacks spreading beyond East Jerusalem and the West Bank. At the time of writing seven Israelis and around 32 Palestinians, including eight children, have died in more than two weeks of bloodshed, fueled in part by Muslim anger over increasing Jewish visits to the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. Israel has tightened security and clashed with rioting Palestinians, leading to deaths on the Palestinian side. The violence has also spread to the border with Gaza. Neither side appears fully in control amid “lone wolf” stabbing attacks by Palestinians and attempted lynchings by Israelis – including an incident in the seaside town of Netanya when a mob set on three Palestinians.

Once again the Holy Esplanade – known to Jews as the Temple Mount (har habayit) and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary (al-haram al-sharif) – is again the epicentre of a violent escalation. A small plaza (59sq. km) in Jerusalem`s Old City, the Holy Esplanade is Judaism`s holiest site and of great significance in Islam. There is no coincidence that the escalation occurred during the Jewish high holidays – religious festivals in which the ancient Temple, and so today the Esplanade, figure prominently.


Managed by an Israeli-Jordanian condominium, the site exemplifies political exclusion of Palestinians from what they consider their capital and the inability of their fractured national movement to defend it meaningfully.

Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst with the Middle East And North Africa program at International Crisis Group: “Since the Jewish ‘high holidays’ began in mid-September, Palestinian youth have been throwing stones and firecrackers at the Israeli police to prevent the entry of groups of religious Jews, who have been ascending the Esplanade with the intention of changing the current arrangements at the compound. The Palestinians, who have suffered the desecration of many mosques and holy sites since 1948, feel like they have seen this movie before and fear where it ends.”

The recent tensions have also eroded the status quo arrangement that has mostly kept the peace since Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967.

Palestinians clash with Israeli border police in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat following the reports of the body of a Palestinian teen from East Jerusalem who was found killed, in the Jerusalem forest, in a suspected revenge attack for the killing of three Jewish teens. July 02, 2014. Photo by Sliman Khader/
Palestinians clash with Israeli border police in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat following the reports of the body of a Palestinian teen from East Jerusalem who was found killed, in the Jerusalem forest, in a suspected revenge attack for the killing of three Jewish teens. July 02, 2014. Photo by Sliman Khader/

Benyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, blamed the recent attacks on “incitement” by the Palestinian Authority (PA). However, it is more likely that the Palestinian resentment has been stoked by a growing frustration over continuing Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank and, even more so, over the lack of any prospect for a peace deal and the creation of a Palestinian State.

According to Mr Netanyahu the number of West Bank settlers has grown by about 120,000 since he took office in 2009. Under international pressure, the Israeli Prime Minister decided to withdraw his plan to build 538 housing units in the northern West Bank settlement of Itamar, sources said last week. Instead, he will promote a master plan for Itamar that retroactively approves existing buildings, but does not allow for the construction of new buildings.

The deteriorating landscape presented intense political challenges for both Mr Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Neither is ready to make a dramatic diplomatic move that could ease the conflict, yet the spiraling situation tests their ability to maintain control of restive constituencies.

For Mr Abbas, who has preached nonviolence for his entire tenure, the escalating unrest undermines his credibility with international supporters and benefits his more militant rivals, like the Hamas Islamists, who have egged on the attackers. A recent report by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research found that two thirds of the Palestinian public want the ageing Palestinian leader to resign, while a growing amount of Palestinians also said they supported ‘armed resistance’ against Israel.


For Mr Netanyahu, who has made fighting terrorism the centerpiece of his political life and is still reeling from his failure to stop the Iran nuclear deal, the crisis has exacerbated tensions in his narrow, conservative coalition and left many Israelis asking why he cannot keep their streets safe. He also told parliament that the knife attackers would fail just as suicide bombers had failed a decade ago.


Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, urged people to join in the expanding confrontation with Israel during his sermon Friday 9 October. “Gaza is ready to fight in the battle of Jerusalem,” he said. “The battle of Jerusalem is our battle, and we will not relent to always be in the right place.” Haniyeh was referring to a wave of protests and violence over the previous week across both Israeli and Palestinian-controlled territory.

Hamas fought a 50-day war with Israel in the Gaza Strip last year. More than 2,000 Palestinians and 66 Israeli soldiers died in the conflict. The Gaza war turned 2014 into the bloodiest year of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There is concern among diplomats and analysts in the region that the recent escalating violence could turn into a new intifada, or uprising. At the time of writing around 61 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds more injured since 1 October 2015. During the same period at least eleven Israelis have been killed by attacks launched by Palestinians.

By mid-October Israel’s cabinet authorised police to seal off “parts of Jerusalem”, in an attempt to halt a wave of deadly attacks. After an emergency meeting, the cabinet said soldiers would also be deployed to help police in some areas. In a measure apparently aimed at Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem who hold Israeli IDs, attackers will also loose their residence rights.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat encouraged all Israelis with a gun license to carry a weapon with them at all times in order to counter a recent wave of Palestinian attacks. “I have a licensed gun,” Barkat said in an interview on 8 October. “Every time there is tension, I instruct people who are allowed to carry weapons and are experienced in using them to carry their guns with them. If you check, you’ll see that in many cases, those who neutralised terrorists were citizens who aren’t necessarily police officers, like former soldiers.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated he is planning to travel soon to the Middle East to try to calm violence between Palestinians and Israelis and move the situation “away from this precipice.” The trip would mark Kerry’s most direct efforts to broker peace between the two sides since talks led by the United States failed in 2014. Work is also underway to arrange a meeting with US, Israel, Arab and Palestinian representatives to quell the wave of the recent violence. The United Nations Security Council also held a special meeting Friday 16 October to discuss the recent spate of violence between Israel and the Palestinians. The meeting was called at the request of council member Jordan.


Meanwhile Hamas’s leader Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza, amongst others, declared the current unrest in Jerusalem and the West Bank an intifada, as six Palestinians were shot dead protesting at the border fence, further raising the stakes after a week of escalating violence. In a sermon for Friday prayers at a mosque in Gaza City, Haniyeh said: “We are calling for the strengthening and increasing of the intifada. It is the only path that will lead to liberation. Gaza will fulfil its role in the Jerusalem intifada and it is more than ready for confrontation.” These comments resulted in an increasingly widespread use of the hashtag #intifada on Palestinian social media.

Also Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, Hizbollah’s secretary general, declared his unwavering support to all forms of Palestinian resistance.

Historically, an intifada occurs when a Palestinian leader openly endorses and coordinates widespread resistance, as the local committees (and later the Palestine Liberation Organization) did during the first intifada of the late 1980s and early 1990s and as Abbas’ predecessor, Yasir Arafat, did during the second intifada of the last decade.

Israeli media, columnists have now started to ask whether the latest events fitted the pattern of the two previous intifadas. However, unlike the first intifada, which began in 1987, no political decision has been made to fund what is happening as it has emerged. Secondly, the attacks on Israeli that have occurred in recent weeks have been limited to low-tech assaults using ordinary kitchen knives and screwdrivers, and assaults involving cars, most often in what Israel`s security forces call “lone-wolf attacks”.

The current casualty count does not yet compare with either of the intifadas, but the frequency of the attacks has been intense. Tuesday 13 October alone saw five in which three Israelis died.

Both Israeli and Palestinian commentators note that what is happening is a reflection of deeper shifts in both Palestinian and Israeli society. Also, the individually motivated nature of the recent attacks have both blindsided Israel`s domestic intelligence agency Mossad and police, and left politicians with no obvious enemy to pursue.


Beaumont, P. (10.10.2015). Palestine clashes: Netanyahu and Abbas are losing their grip. (The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/10/israel-palestinians-violence-fears).

Gaza Emergency Situation Report (04.09.2014). UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – Occupied Palestinian Territory.

International Crisis Group (30.06.2015). The Status of the Status Quo at Jerusalem`s Holy Esplanade. Middle East Report N°159.

Rudoren, J. (09.10.2015). Israeli Soldiers Kill 6 Palestinians in Gaza as West Bank Unrest Grows. (New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/10/world/middleeast/israeli-soldiers-kill-6-palestinians-in-gaza-as-west-bank-unrest-grows.html?_r=1).

The Economist (07.10.2015). Killing in Jerusalem raise fears of a new cycle of violence. Thrall, N. (29.09.2015). Abbas’ Bum bombshell. Foreign Affairs.

Times of Israel Staff (08.10.2015). Jerusalem mayor calls on residents to carry guns. (Times of Israel: http://www.timesofisrael.com/jerusalem-mayor-calls-on-residents-to-carry-guns/).

Zalzberg, O. (07.10.2015). The Crumbling Status Quo at Jerusalem`s Holy Esplanade. (International Crisis Group Blog: http://blog.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/2015/10/07/the-crumbling-status-quo-at-jerusalems-holy-esplanade/).

Crisis in Syria: a view from Russia

Until recently, Russia, in conjunction with China, prevented any attempts at the UN to condemn the Assad regime in Syria, ensuring that no motion could proceed even if there was the will from others states. Even when the deadlock was eventually broken on chemical weapons in summer 2013, Moscow ensured a favourable outcome for Damascus. However, by the beginning of September 2015, Russia has been initiating a significant escalation in its military role in Syria. It has done so conspicuously, in a manner that appears aimed to maximise political impact as Washington’s hapless Syria policy hit a new low.

Despite claiming to target IS in Syria, recent Russian bombs have peppered central and north-western Syria, regions that are crucially important to the survival of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad`s government in Damascus and his power base close to the Mediterranean coast.

This increased Russian willingness to act in the region can be illustrated by its latest military activity in Syria, sending military advisers, technicians and security guards with the main goal of setting up a military air base near the coastal town of Latakia, a stronghold of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

With a Little Help from My Friends

On Wednesday 7 October 2015, Russia and the Syrian government unleashed a coordinated assault by land, air and sea on Wednesday, seeking to reverse recent gains by rebel groups that were beginning to encroach on the Syrian coast, a critical bastion of power for Mr Assad. Although in its early stages, the coordinated attack has revealed the outline of a newly deepened and operationally coordinated alliance among Syria, Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hizbollah.


According to pro-government officials, Russia has focused its earliest operations on the insurgent coalition known as the Army of Conquest, or Jaish al-Fatah, rather than on IS, as it is the Army of Conquest’s positions that most urgently threaten the crucial government-held coastal province of Latakia, while IS forces are farther to the east and can later be isolated and hit.

The evolution of the revolt into a mostly-Sunni insurgency battling a regime dominated by the minority Alawite community, an offshoot of Shia Islam has turned Syria into a battlefield for regional score settling, sectarian bloodletting and international rivalry, Financial Times reported.

Kremlin`s motives

It is important to understand the view of Syria from Moscow. At the beginning of the crisis, Western analysts mistakenly believed Mr Putin’s support was about preserving Russia’s interests in Syria: a tiny naval base in Tartus and a modest arms market. Yet such material interests are, in reality, marginal. Instead, many aspects of the Russian-Syrian alliance are in fact more symbolic than material. Moreover, it has given Moscow a foothold in the Middle East – a region it partly dominated during the Cold War. Giving this up would be a serious geostrategic error, particularly as US influence seems to be waning in this region.

Russia also felt betrayed for endorsing (by abstention) the 2011 humanitarian UN resolution on Libya that was then used by NATO to topple Gaddafi, and now believes the US has the same goal in Syria. The ‘humiliation’ over Libya is strongly felt, and Putin is determined to draw a line to prevent any more Western-led regime changes.

Russian Su-24 pilots at the Hmeymim airbase in Latakia, Syria Photo: TASS/Barcroft
Russian Su-24 pilots at the Hmeymim airbase in Latakia, Syria Photo: TASS/Barcroft

While geostrategic factors have led Russian Syria policy, regional and domestic factors have also been a concern. Fourteen per cent of Russia’s population is Muslim and Moscow has long been worried about the potential for radicals within the Syrian opposition to inspire domestic Islamist violence, particularly in the troubled spots of the north Caucasus. The rise of IS confirms what Moscow has long said to the West: backing Assad’s opponents will lead to state collapse and jihadism.

Other US officials believe Mr Putin is partially motivated by a desire to make a success of his 2015 visit to the UN, shifting the conversation of the Ukraine crisis and potentially weakening support for sanctions on Russia`s economy.

Putin vs Obama

Years of war in Syria have killed thousands of people, displaced millions from their homes and contributed to the rise of IS. It was the central focus of the opening day at the UN General Assembly. On the sidelines, Mr Putin emerged from a rare US-Russian meeting with Barack Obama, saying Russia and the US could find a way to work together on Syria, despite deep differences over the country’s leadership.

Mr Putin, making his first appearance at the UNGA for a decade, was not in the chamber during Obama’s address. He arrived at the UN headquarters in midtown Manhattan just after the US president had left the podium.

Likewise, when Putin was speaking, the US presence was reduced to relatively junior officials. And Ukrainian officials walked out during the Russian address.

At the core of the US-Russian power struggle was the fate of Bashar al-Assad and whether he is the root of the problem or part of the solution.

The US president indicated that he was ready to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, in seeking common ground on the issue, but equally clearly laid out US red lines, the most important of which was transition away from Assad.

Alternative approach is for the Obama administration to respond to Russia`s build up with an increased intervention of its own – to call Putin`s bluff.  A US military $500m effort to train Syrian forces against the Islamic State, however, has resulted in only a handful of fighters actively battling the jihadi army.

Mr Putin’s address was different in tone. While Mr Obama had repeatedly paused for dramatic effect, the Russian leader galloped through his lines, defending his country`s support of the Syrian government.


In his speech Mr Putin showed no sign of willingness to compromise on Assad’s fate, not even conceding that Damascus might be ripe for “reform” after Isis was defeated. “Now do you realise what you have done?” he asked. Mr Putin also called on UN member states to take part in a ministerial meeting, which would lead to a new UN resolution on combating IS, presumably built around support for the Damascus regime.

The Russian position is effectively that once IS is defeated, there can then be a conversation about a political transition while the US believes that Mr Assad`s departure is necessary to defeat IS.


For Israel, the presence of Russian troops and ground-to-air missiles makes it much riskier to conduct air strikes on Syrian territory to prevent weapons transfers to the Lebanon-based Hizbollah without first coordinating with Moscow. These missiles also complicate plans for a no-fly zone in northern Syria that Turkey is keen to establish with US help.

During an urgent visit to Moscow on Sept. 21, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to persuade Mr Putin to prevent any direct friction with the Israeli air force in the Syrian skies.

Tension Rises In Israel Amid International Talks Of Military Intervension In Syria...GOLAN HEIGHTS, UNSPECIFIED - AUGUST 29: Israeli soldiers during a military exercise on August 29, 2013 near the border with Syria, in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. Tension's are rising in Israel amid international talks of a military intervention In Syria. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Tension Rises In Israel Amid International Talks Of Military Intervension In Syria…GOLAN HEIGHTS, UNSPECIFIED – AUGUST 29: Israeli soldiers during a military exercise on August 29, 2013 near the border with Syria, in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. Tension’s are rising in Israel amid international talks of a military intervention In Syria. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

The best scenario for Mr Netanyahu would be an ongoing war of attrition, which keeps Israel’s enemies busy fighting each other instead of uniting against it. After more than four years of terrible internal war and devastating losses, the Syrian army is no longer any kind of match for Israeli forces.

The Iranian nuclear deal, and the intense disagreements it sparked between Israeli and U.S. leaders, looms large over this new challenge in Syria.


Days after Moscow began its raids to support Syria’s government, NATO urged Russia to end air strikes “on the Syrian opposition and civilians”. Earlier, on the 3rd of October, Turkish F-16 fighter jets were scrambled after a Russian plane entered Turkey’s airspace. Russia said the violation was for just a few seconds and due to poor weather. Ambassadors from the 28 NATO member states soon after held an emergency meeting in Brussels to respond to what the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, called “unacceptable violations of Turkish airspace” by a Russian jet.

Turkey has been vehemently opposed to Russia`s intervention in Syria. Earlier this year Turkish jets shot down a Syrian helicopter that had crossed into their country`s airspace.

Although the option was considered, diplomats at NATO said Turkey had not invoked an “article 4” emergency meeting, a more serious trigger to discuss a threat to its territorial integrity or stability.

At the time of writing, US-coalition nations conducting airstrikes in Syria include the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.


Even more than Russia, Iran has long been Mr Assad’s main backer, providing him with financial and military lifelines as he has battled rebel groups and Islamic State, the Sunni Muslim extremist group. During the first week of October, Iran continued to expand its already sizable role in Syria’s multisided war in the wake of Russia’s airstrikes, despite the risk of antagonizing the US and its Persian Gulf allies who want to push aside Mr Assad.

Iran`s leader Hassan Rouhani blamed US military action for giving rise to terrorist groups in the Middle East.


Meanwhile, in Jordan, Syrian refugees make up more than fifteen per cent of country`s population. Abdullah II Ibn AL Hussein, King of Jordan, urged protecting the purity of the Muslim faith from worldly contamination.  “As Muslims, this is our fight and our duty,” he stressed. Moderation did not mean accepting those who trampled on others. Today’s global fight is not between peoples, communities or religions; it is between moderates of all faiths against all extremists in all religions.


Gulf countries

In a statement the ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council urged a political solution to the Syrian crisis “without any foreign intervention” – a clear swipe at Russia and Iran. The GCC comprises the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already embroiled in an expensive and bloody war in Yemen that may limit both their military and financial resources.  Saudi officials are particularly worried that the Americans might retreat from their strategy of containing Iran, following the landmark deal struck in July to curb Tehran’s nuclear programme in return for lifting international sanctions.

The Syrian conflict has also been a major concern for many Gulf Arab states since the outbreak of the uprising against the Baathist dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad over four years ago. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait, among others, have been some of Assad’s leading regional opponents and strong proponents of regime change in Damascus. They have therefore reacted strongly to Russia’s escalation in Syria and are among the harshest critics of Moscow’s direct intervention into the conflict by conducting airstrikes against rebel groups and building up Russian ground forces. These developments will likely encourage a deeper engagement by Gulf Arab countries in the Syrian conflict in the coming months.

It remains unclear whether Gulf Arab states would want the Syrian rebels they fund to engage Russian forces in battle – a prospect that would further upset the regional balance of power.


In 2015, a weaker economy and the domestic threat of IS may limit some of the tools available, but are unlikely to alter Moscow’s overall view and strategy in Syria. In that sense, the latest developments simply mean that Russia is finally joining the other states involved in the Syria crisis: pursuing a costly policy, yet still unwilling to compromise.


Barnard, A. & Kramer, A. (07.10.2015). Russian Cruise Missiles Help Syrians Go on the Offensive, (Financial Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/08/world/middleeast/russia-syria-conflict.html?_r=0).

Dagher, S. & Fitch, S. (02.10.2015). Iran Expands Role in Syria in Conjunction With Russia’s Airstrikes, (Wall Street Journal: http://www.wsj.com/articles/iran-expands-role-in-syria-in-conjunction-with-russias-airstrikes-1443811030).

Harel, A. (06.10.2015). Israel`s Vanishing Red Lines in Syria, (Foreign Policy: http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/06/israels-vanishing-red-lines-in-syria/).

Khalaf, R. (06.10.2015). The many sides of the Syrian conflict. Financial Times: p.4. Maclean, W. (22.09.2015). Gulf Arabs oppose Russia role in Syria, still bent on Assad’s ouster, (Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/09/22/us-mideast-crisis-gulf-russia-idUSKCN0RM1JX20150922).

Turner, M., Kühn, F. P. (2015). The Politics of International Intervention: The Tyranny of Peace. Routledge.

Zalewi, P. & Barker, A. (06.10.2015). Ankara warns Moscow to stay out of Turkish airspace. Financial Times: p. 4.

°Opinion: Heroes and losers

Tuesday 18 October 2011 was an emotional day for both Israel and Palestine. The abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (25) was released after five years of captivity by the militant Palestinian Islamist group Hamas in exchange for the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. However the release will not bring about changes to the fundamental problems in the Israel-Palestine conflict, on the contrary.

After five years the Israel government agreed to swap Sgt First Class Gilad Shalit for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. This deal with Hamas made Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the hero of the day.

As the 477 freed prisoners were crossing the Egyptian border as returning heroes, tens of thousands of Palestinians celebrated in the Gaza Strip the homecoming of their beloved ones.

© Israeli Government Press Office/Associated Press

Hamas, which had negotiated the swap for sgt Gilad Shalit, organised a mass celebration that turned into a show of strength for the Islamic militant movement. In Ramallah in the West Bank the Palestinian Authority (PA) of Mahmoud Abbas did the same thing.

Israeli opinion polls showed an 80 percent majority for the deal. Almost every civilian in Israel has served in the army and so the loss of one soldier becomes the loss of an entire nation. But not everyone was in favor for the prisoner exchange. According to the Israeli extreme-right wing Israel has surrendered to terrorism.

© Majed Hamdan/Associated Press

The top loser of the day was the rival Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Politically he is likely to suffer due to the swap, the most significant for the Palestinians in nearly 30 years.

In fact the deal has further weakened Mr. Abbas’ position of authority in relation to his more aggressive opponents.

The prisoner exchange cannot be seen as a new step in the right direction, it is merely a deal between two extreme parties who needed a political success. Time out!