With 18 officially recognized religious communities, Lebanon is in many ways a microcosm of the modern Middle East—a land blessed with a wealth of diversity yet ever struggling to reconcile the manifest political differences that result from this demographic fertility. Perhaps no area in Lebanon represents this tension between people and their politics more than Arsal municipality in the northern reaches of the Beqaa Valley. Surrounding the majority Sunni Muslim township is a string of Shiite and Christian villages. The Syrian border is only a few miles away. And tens of thousands of Syrian refugees now living in Arsal further complicate the already tenuous demographic calculus. In many ways, these challenges are not new to Lebanon. However, the rise of Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and the civil war raging next door in Syria risk plunging the country in yet another vicious cycle of religiously inspired violence.In the midst of this convoluted security setting, U.S. Army civil affairs personnel are working with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to head off tensions between the various communities and deny the Islamic State space to promote its extremist ideology. Arsal, already economically stagnant, is buckling under the pressure of hosting thousands of Syrian refugees. Altogether, the fragile economy, contentious sectarian politics, and the perception of being neglected by the Lebanese state, combine to make the Sunni population of Arsal especially vulnerable to Islamic State influence and recruiting. Mindful of these security risks, in 2015 the LAF distributed 250 food packs—provided by SoA—to Syrian refugees in the Arsal area (read about our work in Lebanon here). More recently, as part of their effort to foster stability and counter the threat of ISIS, the LAF planned to conduct another food distribution aimed the town’s Lebanese residents. Arsal’s municipal leaders identified 300 families that are most in need to the LAF. Once identified, the local need was communicated to SoA by the U.S. team. Leveraging our regional understanding and years of experience of working with deployed troops, we rapidly funded the purchase of 300 food packs. We coordinated with the US military and their LAF partners to ensure timely purchase of food packs that contained culturally appropriate items, such as rice, wheat, beans, lentils, oil, sugar, and more. The targeted, rapid support we provided was recognized by Brigadier General Youssef Mechref, the former Director of the Office for Civil-Military Cooperation, who stated: “This is the 3rd time that Spirit of America helped communities in Lebanon. Their flexibility and quick response help us implement projects at the right time and place. Thank you, indeed.” The combined efforts culminated in the last week of August when soldiers of the LAF 8th Brigade, supported by members of the civil military cooperation team, convoyed to Arsal. On a bright August morning, with temperatures already rising past 80 degrees, the Lebanese soldiers, representing every sect and creed, distributed food supplies to their fellow citizens. The message was unmistakable: the Lebanese state cares for all its citizens and despite the challenges that abound, the government and the army will do their best to serve and defend all the citizenry in every town and village of Lebanon, regardless of their faith. It was a good day in Lebanon for democracy and a bad one for those who try to sow strife and discord. Once again, we’d like to thank our donors for their steady generosity. From the far off mountains of Tajikistan to the remote valleys of Lebanon, your contributions allow us to support the mission and priorities of our deployed troops — often delivering humanitarian assistance to people and places that need it most. Because of our supporters, we are countering extremism, alleviating suffering, and advancing the safety and success of our men and women in uniform. Thank you, Zack Bazzi Project Manager – Middle East
Zack served in the US Army and Army National Guard from 1997 to 2008, completing four overseas deployments to Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.