This article was first published by Stratfor Worldview and is reprinted here with permission.
In the Lebanese capital of Beirut, a deadly gun battle between militias has raised the risk of future violence. On Oct. 14, unidentified assailants opened fire on Hezbollah and allied al Amal protesters who were marching to Lebanon's Palace of Justice to demand the removal of the judge investigating the August 2020 Beirut port explosion. The shooting reportedly started when the mostly Muslim demonstrators marched through a largely Christian neighborhood in the Lebanese capital, leaving at least six people dead, including members of al Amal and Hezbollah. The attack then triggered hours of intense sectarian clashes in downtown Beirut, marking the worst day of sectarian violence in the city in more than a decade. The military eventually moved in to make arrests and secure the area. But while it appears this latest round of violence has ended, there are a number of possible triggers that could easily incite the next flare-up.
- Hezbollah and al Amal blamed the Lebanese Forces (LF), a Christian-dominated party with its own militia, for the apparent pre-planned attack against their supporters, though LF officials have denied involvement.
Political events that would increase the risk of violence by undermining the norms that have helped mitigate sectarian tensions include:
- The weakening or end of the alliance between Muslim and Christian members of parliament. President Michel Aoun’s Christian-dominated Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Hezbollah are major partners in the Muslim-Christian alliance that controls the majority of seats in parliament. In the wake of the sectarian violence in Beirut, Aoun will likely face increased pressure from the Christian community to abandon this alliance, which will increase tensions among its members. Should this severely weaken or collapse the alliance, it could put Hezbollah and FPM armed supporters on the opposite side of protests and even clashes.
- The collapse of the still-new Lebanese government. Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government currently has the backing of both Muslim and Christian parties. If just one of these parties withdraws support for Mitaki amid public pressure to punish Hezbollah in the wake of the Oct. 14 Beirut clashes, it would plunge the country back into political paralysis. This could radicalize public sentiment in Lebanon into favoring more assertive, even violent, tactics to pressure the political elite to reform.
- Disruptions to the ongoing investigation into the Beirut port explosion. Mikati’s government might seek to weaken the court probe of the port blast in reaction to pressure from Hezbollah. But such actions would enrage large parts of the population, especially Christians in Beirut, who want those responsible to be held to account.
Other potential flashpoints that could further deteriorate the security situation on the ground include:
- Funerals for those killed in the Beirut clashes. The public funerals held for the slain militia members will carry the greatest risk of turning violent, as these events will also serve as a political display of strength and be the site of calls for revenge. In August 2021, Hezbollah funerals were ambushed by individual gunmen, and such incidents could be repeated in the coming days.
- More protests. Additional street demonstrations are likely — both potentially at funerals and against the Beirut port explosion probe, either of which could lead to more clashes. If the court, led by assertive Judge Tarek Bitar, continues to seek to arrest prominent leaders who refuse to cooperate with the Beirut port investigation, it will likely inflame tensions, raising the risk of more rallies that turn violent.
- Acts of revenge by victims’ family members. The families of those killed in the Oct. 14 clashes may take it upon themselves to seek revenge for their deaths. Such personal vendettas could worsen sectarian relations, especially if the fighting spreads to involve wider militias. The August 2021 killings of Hezbollah members were sparked by personal disputes as opposed to greater political tensions.