Austerity measures have triggered countrywide unrest in Lebanon. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Heiko Wimmen says the prime minister’s emergency measures may be too little, too late. Most protesters appear bent on the government’s resignation if not the political system‘s complete overhaul.
Originally published in Middle East Eye
Govt’s announcement of austerity measures sparked nationwide anti-govt protests which paralysed country and PM Hariri resigned. Govt 17 Oct announced austerity measures to address economic crisis, including tax on use of social media platform WhatsApp, prompting thousands to take to streets, first in capital Beirut and then across country; crowds complained of govt corruption and economic mismanagement and demanded that govt resign. In Beirut, police 17-18 Oct tried to disperse protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, leaving several dozen protesters and police injured, and arrested at least 70 protesters. Two Syrians 18 Oct died in Beirut after building they were in near protests caught fire. In Tripoli, protesters 18 Oct attacked former MP attempting to join demonstration, prompting his bodyguards to open fire and reportedly kill two. Christian party Lebanese Forces 19 Oct resigned from govt citing latter’s lack of will to reform. Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah same day expressed support for protests, but opposed govt’s resignation. In strongholds of Hizbollah and Shiite Amal Movement in south, protesters attacked Hizbollah and Amal offices. Gunmen allegedly affiliated with Amal movement 19 and 20 Oct attacked protesters in Tyre and Nabatieh leaving several injured; Amal denied involvement. PM Hariri’s 21 Oct announcement of economic reform package to resolve crisis failed to appease demonstrators. Security forces 21 Oct blocked hundreds of purported Hizbollah and Amal supporters from reaching downtown Beirut; Hizbollah and Amal denied involvement. Hassan Nasrallah 25 Oct claimed protests were diverging from initial goals and serving political and external interests and announced withdrawal of Hizbollah supporters; in following days violence by Amal/Hizbollah supporters against protesters increased. PM Hariri resigned 29 Oct over differences concerning govt reshuffle and reform agenda. President Aoun next day requested govt to remain in place until new cabinet formed. In south, civilian 23 Oct shot down Israeli drone over Kfar Kila.
Four years after plunging into Syria’s civil war, Hizbollah has achieved its core aim of preserving the Assad regime. Yet with no clear exit strategy, the Lebanese “Party of God” faces ever greater costs unless it can lower the sectarian flames, open dialogue with non-jihadist rebel groups and help pave the way for a negotiated settlement.
The fate of the border town Arsal mirrors Lebanon’s many policy failures. The government applies heavy-handed security at the expense of basic services and fair economic opportunities. It should change its policies to become more flexible, accountable and supportive of Syrian refugees – and receive more international help in return.
Lebanon is surviving internal and regional strains remarkably well, but this resilience has become an excuse for tolerating political dysfunction. If the Lebanese political class does not take immediate steps like holding long-overdue elections, fighting corruption and promoting the rule of law, its complacency will only make an eventual fall harder and costlier.
Hizbollah’s intervention in Syria strengthens the Assad regime but transforms the Shiite movement as it redefines the enemy and itself within the confines of an increasingly sectarian struggle.
As the Syrian conflict increasingly implicates and spills over into Lebanon, a priority for its government and international partners must be to tackle the refugee crisis, lest it ignite domestic conflict that a weak state and volatile region can ill afford.
Syria’s civil war is spilling beyond its borders and threatening Lebanon’s stability. More than ever, it is crucial that Lebanon’s leaders address the fundamental shortfalls of their governing structure, which exacerbate factionalism and leave the country vulnerable to the chaos next door.
[The Trump administration] is content allowing Israel to take the lead in pushing back against Iranian and Hezbollah influence in Syria.
The real risk [for Israel and Lebanon] is that of a miscommunication or accident being a trigger of a conflict across their border.
[The return of Assad’s forces to the border] has the potential of creating a more united front of resistance between Lebanon and Syria against Israel.
Hezbollah thrives on its position of being a state within a state, an alternative provider for all kinds of things [when Lebanon's political institutions are weakened].
Hariri as [Lebanon's] Prime Minister created the impression that coexistence with Hezbollah and by extension with Iran was possible; his departure is designed to erase any doubt.
For months now, [Israel] has been sounding alarm bells about Hezbollah’s and Iran’s growing footprint in Syria, and about the Lebanese capacity to produce precision-guided missiles.
The Israel-Lebanon border has been relatively quiet for the past 13 years. The latest tit-for-tat threatens the balance.
Originally published in The American Prospect
With the U.S. threatening a retaliatory response to apparent chemical attacks in Syria and escalating tensions between Israel and Iran, Crisis Group has raised the threat of confrontation to the highest possible level in its early-warning platform the Iran-U.S. Trigger List.
Eight members of International Crisis Group’s Council and Ambassador Council joined a trip to Lebanon alongside Crisis Group staff in November 2017 to examine the consequences of the Syrian war since 2011. In this op-ed and an accompanying video, Crisis Group supporters from the Council reflect on the Syrian refugees they met and Lebanon’s increased fragility as a result of its enormous new burdens.
Lebanon is caught between Iran and Saudi Arabia as regional tensions rise following the resignation of Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri on 4 November. In this video from Beirut, Crisis Group's Project Director for Lebanon, Syria and Iraq Heiko Wimmen argues that the resignation alone is unlikely to destabilise Lebanon, but that sanctions by Gulf states might well derail its fragile economy.