Lebanon’s Christians dance with the devil

A return to the era of self-security following the Al-Qaa bombings would be an unwise tactic

The wave of terror that swept the predominantly Christian village of Al-Qaa, on the eastern border with Syria, prompted Christian militias that were disarmed after the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990 to call for rearmament. In less than 24 hours, many Christians reversed over 25 years of regret over ever having formed armed militias that undermined the Lebanese state.

And since at least 2005, Christian parties have vowed to denounce non-state actors, like Hezbollah, and rally behind the state and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) as their only protector.

The Al-Qaa bombings, however, seem to have reversed the Christian position and replaced it with one built on empty bravado. While self-defense is understandable, countering terrorism is impossible through violence. If Christians do not believe the futility of going to war with terrorist groups crossing the border from Syria, they should consider the American experience.

America, with the strongest military in the world, battled terrorists for a decade in Iraq, but to no avail. What America learnt is that ejecting terrorists required peeling the population away from the militants, which in turn necessitates coming to terms with the local communities.

Betting against Washington, former President George Bush entrusted the military with not only defeating the terrorists militarily, but reconnecting with local populations and winning them over. America eventually succeeded in defeating a raging insurgency, and its experiment was recorded in US military manuals.

But President Obama, with his poised, professorial yet reluctant demeanor, trashed the military’s recommendation of keeping a residual force in Iraq to maintain ties with local communities in order to ensure that terrorists did not come back. For Mr. Obama, politics trumped strategic and military considerations, and he ordered not only the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, but also a total American disengagement from Iraqi affairs. Needless to say, Obama broke Iraq after Bush had patched it up.

Now that one of Obama’s feet is outside the White House, US experts are coming up with suggestions for the coming president on how to defeat terrorism in Iraq and Syria. The most seasoned of these experts believe that the Islamic State (ISIS) will be defeated, yet these same experts think that capturing ISIS territory will not spell the end for the group. ISIS will turn from a “state” to an insurgency, which means — short of winning over the Sunnis of Syria and Iraq — terrorism will continue to ravage populated areas in Iraq, Syria and neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Turkey.

Until America replicates its 2009 effort with which it beat terrorism and stabilized Iraq, minorities such as Christians and Druze will have to fend off the terrorist danger. After the Al-Qaa attacks Christians announced their intention to reconstitute and rearm their militias from the days of civil war, perhaps with assistance from Hezbollah, which has an interest in the proliferation of non-state actors at the expense of the state, its archenemy.

The Christian reaction to the Al-Qaa bombing is dangerous, and mimics the errors that other minorities — like Bashar Assad’s Alawites — have committed by going against Syria’s majority Sunni population. Assad might think he is still the leader of Syria, but it is clear now that the man is a mere water carrier for bigger players, like Iran, Russia and America. Assad should ask Lebanese lawmaker Michel Aoun how, after two years of war and devastation, a changing international mood allowed Assad’s father to sweep Christian Lebanon in 1990 and send Aoun to 15 years in exile.

Both Christians and Alawites should learn from a much smaller minority, the Druze. In late 2014, a tank shell exploded in the predominantly Druze village of Qorneh in southwest Syria, killing several Druze. The perpetrator remained unknown, even though tanks are the weapon of choice of Assad’s army, which claimed that the vehicle that fired the shell had defected to the rebel side.

In a tribal fashion, and with instigation from pro-Assad Lebanese Druze, a few Syrian Druze took revenge by killing a number of civilians in a nearby Sunni village. Assad’s plan was working. If revenge ensued between the Druze and the Sunnis, the Druze would have jumped off the fence and joined Assad’s forces in fighting rebels.

But Assad’s plan was thwarted by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who went out of his way to reconcile with the Sunni tribes that extend from the Syrian Golan Heights to Khaldeh, south of Beirut. As part of Jumblatt’s appeasement of Sunni clans, he promised, and delivered, the shutdown of the Naameh national dumpster located in their area.

Jumblatt also toned down Druze defiance, and called on the Druze to practice their actual religion, presumably Sunni Islam. He also promised to open a mosque in Mokhtara.

During his reconciliation, some Sunnis in the Nusra Front took revenge by massacring Druze in the northern province of Idlib, which made Jumblatt double down on his appeasement. Jumblatt’s reconciliation worked, even though the Naameh dump was temporarily reopened after piled up garbage had become a national emergency throughout Lebanon.

The Druze are not appeasers. Rather, they are known for being ferocious warriors, but they also choose their battles in order to avoid possible annihilation and displacement. When they think they stand a chance of winning, and when fighting is absolutely necessary, the Druze fight and often win. But when the conflict is as regional and international as the war in Syria, the Druze sit it out and appease the fighting groups to buy peace.

Druze behavior is a textbook example of minority neutrality. Bravado talk might win populist leaders favor with their followers, but choosing losing wars results in further annihilation, especially when war is one of attrition with no clear winner. The Christian reaction to Al-Qaa's bombings was the wrong choice.