Lebanon: Fending Off Threats from Within and Without
Lebanon: Fending Off Threats from Within and Without
Commentary / Middle East & North Africa 10 minutes

Lebanon: Fending Off Threats from Within and Without

Lebanon’s imploding economy is deepening instability in the country. Public safety is further imperilled as state institutions weaken and regional tensions play out in Lebanese domestic politics. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2022, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to provide financial support to the Lebanese state, press for elections to be held on schedule and intensify efforts to reduce tension in the region. 

As Lebanon’s economic crisis deepens, its state institutions are also getting weaker, undermining the central security agencies’ capacity to maintain order amid a potential surge in social unrest. Self-dealing political elites have stymied the reforms necessary to keep the economy from further melting down and get it on the right track, and little progress seems possible before elections set to start in May. With public safety imperilled, local security structures that include non-state actors, often with political affiliations, take an increasingly prominent role. As the non-state groups proliferate, they may clash with one another over turf. Meanwhile, regional tensions – between Iran and its allies, on one side, and Israel plus Saudi Arabia and its Middle East allies on the other – are playing out in Lebanese domestic politics. Sunni and Christian parties increasingly blame Hizbollah, the Shiite Islamist movement close to Tehran, for the state’s paralysis, and vice versa. Regional frictions could also spill out into broader sectarian tensions, pitting Shiites on one side against Sunnis and Christians on the other, and raising the likelihood of armed confrontation. Israel, which considers Hizbollah a wholly owned strategic asset of Iran, might under certain scenarios be inclined to take military action against it; any such action could lead to dangerous escalation.

The European Union (EU) and its member states should:

  • Provide direct financial, material and technical support to Lebanese state security agencies, including stipends for salaries, preferably through an international mechanism, such as the UN Office for Project Services. 
  • Step up direct material aid to key public institutions and infrastructure, such as water systems (including for sewage and fresh-water treatment) and schools, while continuing to condition more substantial assistance on major reform.
  • Press Lebanese politicians to hold elections on schedule and signal readiness to sanction potential spoilers under the sanctions framework set up in July 2021.
  • Intensify efforts to reduce tensions involving Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia; and keep open channels of communication with Tehran and its allies.
  • Maintain troop contributions to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), back its efforts to perform a mediating role between local parties and reduce the risk of escalation, and support further mandate extensions at the UN.

Sources of Unrest Amid Compounding Crises

The greatest driver of instability in Lebanon is a shattering economic crisis that has spiralled increasingly out of control since late 2019. Politicians have been loath to make much-needed institutional reforms in part because of a desire to protect the prerogatives that they enjoy under the current system. In a country divided along sectarian lines among Christian, Sunni and Shiite factions, they instead use a mixture of identity politics and patronage to secure support. The result has been disastrous for most Lebanese. The Lebanese lira has plummeted in value from 1,500 to 25,000 to the U.S. dollar over a period of two years. Meanwhile, some reports over the past year suggest that food prices have risen by a factor of ten or more. The average family’s purchasing power has collapsed, with around 80 per cent of the population living in poverty.

Addressing the massive financial-sector crisis and the crushing public debt will require substantial foreign support, but that is not in the immediate offing. In order to obtain a stabilisation package from the International Monetary Fund, which will be key to opening the gates to more donor assistance, the country will need to take major steps toward restructuring its banking sector; cleaning up the central bank’s opaque accounting practices; shrinking the public sector; rooting out corruption and waste; and restoring a basic level of rule of law. The latter has been shaken of late as Hizbollah and its allies have exerted massive pressure to derail the investigation into the August 2020 Beirut port explosion. But pushing through major reforms will be a Herculean effort and there are few signs of progress. Certainly, there is little chance the government – led by Nijab Mikati, a Sunni businessman who is serving for the third time as prime minister – will make significant progress in that direction prior to the parliamentary, municipal and presidential elections that are all scheduled for 2022.

The impact of the country’s economic woes on its security forces is an especially pressing concern.

The impact of the country’s economic woes on its security forces is an especially pressing concern, as runaway inflation has devaluated the operational budgets of Lebanese security agencies, such as the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces, and the salaries of their personnel. Morale has deteriorated, with many personnel resorting to moonlighting and a growing number deserting. The state’s capacity to police the streets is hollowing out, particularly in peripheral areas, while crime rates are rising sharply. More citizens are buying firearms in the black market to protect their families and properties. A mosaic of local security arrangements is forming as municipal police and political party activists join with commercial providers and resident volunteers to keep neighbourhoods and villages safe. Official security agencies, witnessing the erosion of their own capacity, will have to cooperate with these actors to keep performing their role, blurring the lines as to who is authorised to use force. The effectiveness of local security providers varies. It depends, among other things, on the presence and capacity of political actors, local economic resources and social, sectarian and political cohesion. Areas where these are lacking, or where security actors compete for influence and resources, will almost certainly suffer increased crime and security disturbances. 

Political polarisation and institutional deadlock can only aggravate the situation. The leading national parties remain stuck, trading accusations as to which is preventing reform. A broadening array of politicians charge Iran-backed Hizbollah, in particular, with blocking progress and deepening Lebanon’s isolation, in particular from the Gulf states, on which it depends as export markets and sources of diaspora remittances. Meanwhile, Hizbollah and its support base believe its domestic opponents are doing its regional enemies’ bidding. 

The Hizbollah question has come to dominate political debate, causing tempers to flare and proving yet another impediment to constructive discussion about suitable strategies for exiting the economic crisis. The resulting rancour fuels spreading sectarian tensions, pitting Shiites (who make up at least 30 per cent of the population) against other groups. In combination with the increasing difficulty of maintaining order, such tensions could provoke violent incidents in areas dominated by the Shiite parties Hizbollah and Amal that border those where their opponents prevail. The risk could heighten if external powers such as Saudi Arabia increase material support for Hizbollah’s rivals and/or if an escalation of regional tensions amplifies the party’s threat perception. 

Regional tensions may increase the risk of a military escalation between Hizbollah and Israel. Israel has repeatedly indicated that it might act unilaterally to destroy parts of Iran’s nuclear program if talks to revive the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran collapse or fail to address its security concerns, though some officials have called into question its capacity to do so. Even if the capacity issue were addressed, however, Israel would also need to take into account Hizbollah’s missile arsenal, which the latter could use to retaliate on Iran’s behalf by launching attacks at Israeli targets. A sudden worsening of regional tensions or problems at the nuclear negotiations might prompt Iran to strengthen its deterrence of Israel by sending more missiles to Hizbollah, or to Tehran’s Syrian affiliates, deepening Israeli threat perception. Some combination of these factors could lead Israel to take military action against Hizbollah in Lebanon to degrade its retaliatory capacity. Such action might involve Israel sabotaging military infrastructure, carrying out other covert operations or launching direct attacks on Hizbollah in Lebanon, in addition to intensifying its longstanding campaign against the party’s supply routes through Syria and against Iranian assets there. 

While neither Israel nor Hizbollah appears to want open conflict at the moment, should either undertake operations against the other, even if limited in scope, it would come with a considerable risk of escalation – through miscalculation, error or otherwise. Attacks on Israel from Lebanon by other militant groups that have relations, even if ambiguous, with Iran and Hizbollah, such as Hamas, would further increase the danger. 

Against this backdrop, the 10,500-strong UN peacekeeping mission, UNIFIL, provides a modest but important buffer between Hizbollah in Lebanon and Israel. It monitors the Lebanon-Israel border and has access to certain areas but has come under attack from local communities supportive of Hizbollah, who accuse it of espionage. A further degradation of UNIFIL access would increase the margin of manoeuvre for Hizbollah and other groups and might affect the UN force’s ability to perform a mediating role that reduces the risk of escalation. 

Preserving the Pillars of the State and Managing Regional Risks

The EU and its member states can take several steps to help Lebanon manage these challenges.

Perhaps most important, Brussels and member states should provide direct material, financial and technical support for key state institutions, in particular to help the security sector make payroll, and thereby attenuate the conflict risks arising from the declining security situation. Direct assistance to state security agencies will help keep them central in the emerging hybrid security arrangements, potentially allowing them to impose minimum standards of conduct on non-state actors and mediate in disputes among them. It will also help them maintain public safety in areas where local elements cannot. Lastly, direct assistance and cooperation will allow donors a measure of influence over the state agencies’ own compliance with human rights standards. The EU and its member states should cooperate with efforts to consolidate such support in a UN-sponsored mechanism to achieve coordination, bring transparency and address legal obstacles faced by some potential donor countries.

The EU and member states should also support other fraying state institutions in an effort to help stave off state failure. They will need to balance the overall goal of encouraging reforms, so that Lebanon can stabilise and recover, with the immediate objective of providing targeted support that dampens the immediate crisis. European and other donors can best achieve this end by continuing to condition significant support on comprehensive reform, while at the same time providing broadly defined humanitarian assistance that includes funding for institutions like schools and infrastructure like waterworks. Keeping the public education system functional is critical not only for the well-being of the nation’s youth but as a safeguard against increased use of child labour and a deterioration of women’s participation in the work force. 

Beyond the humanitarian imperative, there are strategic considerations that militate for this approach to supporting the security sector and other essential state functions. The last thing the eastern Mediterranean or adjoining regions need, next to the disaster in Syria, is another failed state incapable of providing for the basic needs of its citizens, who then feel impelled to seek a better life elsewhere.  Continued humanitarian support for refugees and Lebanese citizens alike will also be crucial as destitution grows. 

The EU should ... press hard to ensure that Lebanon’s elections – scheduled for 15 May – occur on time.

The EU should also press hard to ensure that Lebanon’s elections – scheduled for 15 May – occur on time. In the recent past, the country’s established parties have often postponed elections until they reached a basic consensus over the future balance of power. But a delay under current circumstances would deepen both the state’s paralysis and citizens’ alienation from the system. While elections are unlikely to be transformative, they may at least allow some of the social forces emerging from the protest movement that has formed over the past two years to gain a foothold in formal politics. These forces are unlikely to win a large share of power, but if they could get a bloc of parliamentary seats, it would be another crack in the establishment parties’ control that might make them recalculate the cost of maintaining their obstructive positions on reform. In 2021, the EU created a framework to impose targeted sanctions on politicians who obstruct the democratic process; it should be used to deter attempts to derail the polls. The EU could offer to supply technical assistance to electoral institutions and to deploy an electoral observation mission. 

Broader efforts to ease regional tensions could encourage Lebanese politicians to modulate their polarising rhetoric and refocus their attention on finding solutions to the country’s problems. European states involved in negotiations to restore the Iran nuclear deal are particularly well positioned to make a contribution in this area. Together with the three European signatories to the agreement, the EU should keep pressing all signatories to return to full compliance. It should also urge the continuation of dialogues between regional rivals such as that between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Finally, while the EU and member states should look for ways to help manage the risks of confrontation between Israel and Hizbollah in Lebanon, which will increase should Israel conclude that an evolving international understanding with Tehran will not address its security concerns sufficiently or (worse still) if the nuclear negotiations fail. Just as they will no doubt deepen their focused engagement with Israel in the interest of discouraging conflict, EU member states should use their existing channels of communication with Tehran to encourage it to act prudently at flashpoints across the region, including in Lebanon. EU members and other European states that retain contacts with Hizbollah (such as France and Norway) should intensify their engagement in order to suss out and seek to mediate possible points of friction. UNIFIL is an invaluable asset for escalation control and cross-line communication; the EU and its member states should maintain their participation in the force, vigorously support further mandate extensions at the UN, and use existing channels to Hizbollah to urge the party to refrain from interfering with its mission.

VIDEO | Lebanon: A State on the Brink

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