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Riots in Lebanon’s Tripoli are Harbingers of Collapse
Riots in Lebanon’s Tripoli are Harbingers of Collapse
Report 235 / Europe & Central Asia

Eastern Ukraine: A Dangerous Winter

Winter in Ukraine is injecting further uncertainty into an already volatile conflict. After well over 5,000 deaths and eight months of war, eastern Ukraine – particularly the separatist-held parts of Donetsk and Luhansk – now runs the risk of a humanitarian crisis. All parties involved in the conflict should refrain from offensive operations, concentrating instead on helping the population survive the winter, and laying the groundwork for a political settlement.

Executive Summary

Winter in Ukraine is injecting further uncertainty into an already volatile conflict. Concerns are increasing about the strong risk of a humanitarian crisis in the south-eastern separatist-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. The separatists have a rudimentary administrative structure, few competent administrators, ill-trained militias and little in the way of a long-term strategy. They will be hard pressed to survive the winter without major Russian aid – financial, humanitarian or military. Ukraine, meanwhile, is dragging its feet on implementing reforms to address its manifold economic problems. Both Kyiv and the separatists are under pressure from their war lobbies. The near-term risk of further hostilities is high. There is an urgent need to halt the conflict, separate the troops, deploy substantially larger numbers of international monitors across the warzone and the Russian-Ukrainian border, as well as take immediate steps to assist civilians on both sides.

The separatists are clearly aware of their vulnerability, both in terms of security – their militias are a bewildering array of uncoordinated and poorly led military units – and in political terms – their inability to provide basic services for the population could seriously undermine their support base. They also admit an ambiguous relationship with Russia. They say that Moscow will intervene to avert major military or humanitarian catastrophes, but has no plans to recognise the separatist entities or provide major development or reconstruction aid. And they say that while Russia is playing a long game for the control of Ukraine, they are trying to stay alive for the next six months.

Renewed hostilities could take a number of forms. A Ukrainian offensive would almost certainly trigger a Russian military response, as Russian forces showed when in August 2014 they inflicted a devastating defeat on Ukrainian troops in Ilovaisk, near Donetsk city, stopping their hitherto successful offensive. The geographical status quo has prevailed since then. A ceasefire brokered in September has been largely ignored. A powerful group within the separatist leadership feels that they will not survive without more land, and clearly wants to resume offensive operations, in the belief that this would also bring in the Russians. Separatists are hoping for another “Russian Spring” – their term for Moscow-encouraged and fomented seizures of power in other south-eastern oblasts. And, should weather conditions impede resupply of Crimea by sea this winter, Moscow may intervene to open up a land route from the Russian border through Ukrainian territory. Either move would undoubtedly be viewed by the EU, U.S. and other supporters of Ukraine as a major escalation and lead to further sanctions.

EU and U.S. sanctions may well have deterred a further Russian advance along the Black Sea coast after Ilovaisk, and seem at the moment to be deterring any substantial separatist advance beyond the current frontline. They have also added to the pain of Russia’s economic downturn. The EU’s tough line on sanctions surprised Moscow, which assumed that consensus in Brussels would quickly disintegrate. But there is little sign that either the U.S. or the EU have thought about ways to de-escalate when the need finally arises. Russia is following a similar improvisatory path. It underestimated the implications of annexing Crimea or intervening in eastern Ukraine. It protects the entities from Ukrainian attack, but seems reluctant to do much more than that.

Improvisation needs to be replaced by communication between all sides. This would help defuse tensions, perhaps prepare the ground for consultations between the main warring parties, and allow all sides to concentrate on humanitarian assistance in the coming winter. Russia could confirm that it has no plans to recognise the separatists. It could reject the idea, often floated in Kyiv, of a major Russian offensive in the spring. Kyiv could similarly promise to refrain from offensive military operations during this period. It could spell out publicly and clearly to the people of the east what political solution it has in mind for their areas after the war, and offer a clear assurance that it will, with Western assistance, help rebuild the east. Such an approach by all sides would not only help Ukraine weather a dangerous winter, but also allow it to emerge in the spring with hope for the future.

This report concentrates largely on one of the lesser known aspects of the crisis – the thinking and capacity of the separatist leadership, their relationship with Moscow and their views of the future. It does not present an overall analysis of the U.S., European Union and member states’ policies on the crisis.

Security forces push anti-government protesters away from al-Nour square in the centre of Lebanon's impoverished northern port city of Tripoli on 31 January 2021 amid clashes. Fathi AL-MASRI / AFP

Riots in Lebanon’s Tripoli are Harbingers of Collapse

Four days of violent unrest in Tripoli on Lebanon’s northern coast could presage more to come, as a new coronavirus outbreak deepens the country’s severe socio-economic crisis. Humanitarian aid is urgently needed to keep the worst-case scenarios at bay.

Starting on 25 January, residents of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli took to the streets over four consecutive days. Many protested peacefully, but some attacked government buildings and clashed with security personnel, who fired upon them with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. Rioters torched the historic municipality headquarters, vandalised the Sunni religious court and government administration building, and hurled Molotov cocktails and, according to authorities, hand grenades at the security forces. By 31 January, the toll was one protester dead and more than 400 injured, along with at least 40 soldiers and police. Lebanese army and military intelligence units detained at least 25 men for their roles in the events. Lebanon’s international partners should continue pressing its elites to chart a viable path forward, while redoubling humanitarian assistance to an increasingly desperate population.

The immediate trigger for the protests in Tripoli was the social impact of a hard lockdown imposed by Lebanon’s caretaker cabinet in response to a new surge in COVID-19 infections.

The immediate trigger for the protests in Tripoli was the social impact of a hard lockdown imposed by Lebanon’s caretaker cabinet in response to a new surge in COVID-19 infections. The restrictions have left many unable to sustain themselves, mainly because the lockdown is only the latest in a series of calamities that have hit the majority of Lebanese since 2019. In that period, at least 500,000 have lost their businesses and jobs. The local currency’s value has dropped by more than 80 per cent in the black market, fuelling inflation. People have lost billions in savings and, according to the World Bank, more than half of Lebanese had fallen below the poverty line already in May 2020. Government officials estimate that some 75 per cent of Lebanese nationals need aid. Among the more than one million Syrian refugees living in the country, as many as 90 per cent require humanitarian and cash assistance, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. 

Tripoli and its surroundings are among the poorest areas of Lebanon, but hardship is worsening across the country. In their actions and responses, protesters, rioters and security forces in the city may have provided a preview of what awaits most of Lebanon in the months to come. During interviews conducted by Crisis Group over the past three months, Lebanese officials, political party operatives, political activists, security officers and NGO representatives across Lebanon all expressed similar fears: if the downward economic slide continues, or austerity measures such as subsidy cuts cause a sudden increase in social pressures, the country may become dangerously unstable.

Foremost among the challenges Lebanon faces are the stress on and erosion of state institutions, as inflation devalues public-sector salaries and already perfunctory services disappear altogether. Over the past months, tensions triggered or amplified by the crisis have repeatedly erupted in security incidents that appear isolated but, taken together, seem to indicate a worrying trend. Security forces, which number more than 130,000 with an additional hundreds of thousands of dependents, may increasingly struggle to preserve order, prevent violence and protect property. They may find themselves becoming the face of state failure, as they compensate for the absence of policy and governance by policing people whose grievances they share. As security deteriorates, political parties, local strongmen and business tycoons will step into the gap. 

Even the army has been under stress and may soon lose its lustre as one of Lebanon’s most capable and least partisan public institutions. Like civil servants, teachers and police, soldiers today earn a fraction of what they did a year ago, many as little as the equivalent of $150 per month. Even senior officers are expressing concern about their personal and institutional futures. As one told Crisis Group: “[The army] will abide by its mission, but at the end of the day, these soldiers are children of their society and environment. [Officers’] own sons and daughters are studying abroad and [we] can’t pay tuition anymore”.

No relief should be expected from politicians. Six months after the catastrophic blast in the Beirut port that brought down the previous government, they have yet to form a new one, much less engage in fundamental reforms required to unlock international assistance or explore long-range initiatives to create opportunities for development and investment. Political elites will more likely behave as they have in the past: buying time with money that is not theirs; distributing benefits narrowly and burdens broadly; and working to salvage the system that keeps them in power. In the improbable event that some Lebanese leaders come to their senses or that a future cabinet moves to act, vested interests and a low capacity for governance will stand in their way. Meanwhile, external partners such as the U.S., European states and Arab countries remain determined to withhold non-humanitarian assistance unless Lebanese leaders shape up. They are right to do so. Lebanon will escape its predicament only if and when its political elites change their behaviour, which has created the crisis.

Lebanon’s external partners must redouble their efforts to prevent state collapse and the onset of a severe humanitarian emergency.

Until such time, however, Lebanon’s external partners must redouble their efforts to prevent state collapse and the onset of a severe humanitarian emergency. On 30 January, the World Bank signed an agreement with the caretaker government for a loan of $246 million to provide cash assistance to some 800,000 of the poorest Lebanese. International donors should increase funding for humanitarian purposes and aim to reach as many beneficiaries as possible directly. Lebanon’s external partners should also consider deepening their cooperation with different security agencieswhile taking steps to minimise any danger that protests prompt unnecessarily tough policing. Outside cooperation would allow those agencies to help preserve order and avoid the proliferation of protests and local tensions into widespread unrest and violence. Lebanon’s international partners can help stop the country’s crisis from getting worse, but to do so, they must act now.