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ISIS' Next Target

ISIS has announced that Lebanon will be the next state to fall under the sway of its “caliphate.” According to Beirut's Daily Star newspaper, the only reason ISIS hasn't attacked yet in force is because they haven't decided on the mission's commander.

The Lebanese army is one of the least effective in the Middle East—and that's saying something in a region where the far more capable Syrian and Iraqi armies are utterly failing to safeguard what should be their own sovereign territory.

So France is going to send a three billion dollar package of weapons to Lebanon and the Saudis are going to pay for it. It won't solve the problem any more than a full-body cast will cure cancer, but it beats standing around and not even trying.

It may seem surprising at first that Riyadh is willing to fund a Lebanese Maginot Line. Saudi Arabia is the most culturally conservative Arab country and Lebanon is the most liberal, partly because of its one-third Christian minority, but also because Lebanon's Sunni Muslims are, for the most part, Mediterranean merchants rather than isolated desert-dwellers. They've been exposed to cosmopolitan ideas and culture for centuries while most Saudis outside the Hejaz region on the Red Sea have been hermetically sealed off from the wider world and its ways for millennia.

Despite the vast cultural differences between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, the Saudis want Beirut to remain exactly as it is—a freewheeling Arabic-speaking “Amsterdam” or “Hong Kong” on the Med. The Saudis vacation there in droves when they need a break from their fanatically conservative homeland. The country is like a pressure release valve. If they were to lose it, they'd have to holiday in France where they feel profoundly unwelcome.

But aside from all that, the Saudis feel just as uneasy about ISIS as everyone else. Never mind the ideological overlap between the upstart jihadists and the Wahhabi-backed monarchy. ISIS threatens every single government in the region. It would make permanent alliances with none and conquer all if it could.

The Lebanese, of course, are in far more immediate danger. They can feel ISIS' hot breath on their necks. The army has been scrapping with them along the Syrian border for some time now. A majority of Lebanon's population is either Christian, Shia, or Druze, and all three populations rightly see ISIS as a potentially genocidal threat to their very existence. Even the Sunnis, though, fear and loathe ISIS. Other than the nominal sectarian sameness—ISIS also is Sunni—Lebanon's culturally liberal Sunnis have little more in common with ISIS than the French or Italians do.

A serious invasion of Lebanon by ISIS could unleash a bloodbath that makes the civil war in Syria look like a bar fight with pool sticks and beer mugs. It would be tantamount to a Nazi invasion. Every family in Lebanon is armed to the gills thanks to the state being too weak and divided to provide basic security, but people anywhere in the world facing psychopathic mass-murderers will fight with kitchen knives and even their fingernails and teeth if they have to.

The only good thing that might emerge from an attempted ISIS invasion is that the eternally fractious Lebanese might finally realize they have enough in common with each other to band together for survival and kindle something that resembles a national identity for the first time in their history.

Foreign armies don't do well in Lebanon over the long term. The Israelis managed to invade and occupy a large part of the country during the civil war in 1982 and even exiled Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, but they ended up fighting a grinding counterinsurgency against Hezbollah until 2000. The Syrians invaded and dominated the rest of the country, but the biggest demonstrations in the history of the Middle East forced the Assad regime into a humiliating retreat in 2005. Those are just the most recent examples. At the mouth of the Dog River is a mural of sorts. Seventeen conquering armies carved inscriptions into the stone cliffs congratulating themselves for seizing new territory. All, Ozymandias-like, have been vanquished.

So ISIS will eventually lose if thrusts into Lebanon, but the cost could be unspeakable. Few of Lebanon's prior invaders murdered innocent people with such gleeful ferocity. If ISIS makes any headway at all in that country, the rest of us will see just how barbaric they really are when they violently encounter large numbers of people unlike themselves. And the odds that the West will get sucked even deeper into the great war of the Eastern Mediterranean will only loom larger. 

Postscript: My latest collection of dispatches, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is now available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

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