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Lebanon: Hizbollah’s Weapons Turn Inward
Lebanon: Hizbollah’s Weapons Turn Inward
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Lebanon Needs Help to Revive its Waning Welcome to Syrian Refugees
Lebanon Needs Help to Revive its Waning Welcome to Syrian Refugees

Lebanon: Hizbollah’s Weapons Turn Inward

Hizbollah’s takeover of much of West Beirut began as a cost-of-living strike on 7 May 2008. Yet the course of events, their speed and ultimately violent turn exposed the true stakes.

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I. Overview

I.overview

Hizbollah’s takeover of much of West Beirut began as a cost-of-living strike on 7 May 2008. Yet the course of events, their speed and ultimately violent turn exposed the true stakes. For almost four years, Lebanon has been in a crisis alternatively revolving around the government’s composition, its program, the international tribunal investigating Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination, the choice of a new president and the electoral law. All attempts at peaceful resolution having failed, it has reverted, more dangerously than ever, to its origins: an existential struggle over Hizbollah’s arms. The government’s 14 May decision to reverse the measures – removal of the airport security chief and questioning Hizbollah’s parallel telephone system, a key part of its military apparatus, precipitated the crisis – is welcome as is the Arab League-mediated solu­tion. The onus is now on all Lebanese parties to agree a package deal that breaks the political logjam and restricts how Hizbollah can use its military strength without disarming it for now.

No party can truly win in this increasingly volatile lose-lose confrontation. Hizbollah clearly prevailed in the military showdown, demonstrating its ability to overrun any opponent. Politically, however, the balance sheet is far different. Outside its own constituency, it is seen more than ever as a Shiite militia brutally defending its parochial interests rather than those of a self-proclaimed national resistance. The blatantly confessional aspect of the struggle has deepened the sectarian divide, something the Shiite movement long sought to avoid. Hizbollah’s principal Christian ally, General Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, appears deeply embarrassed. Although Lebanon’s intense polarisation might enable him to retain most of his followers in the short term, over time his alliance with Hizbollah will become ever more difficult to justify. The government has remained in place and will be able to continue rallying domestic and international support.

But the principal Sunni party, Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement, has equal reason to worry. The March 14 coalition was forced to back down and revoke its controversial measures. The Sunni community is bewildered, stunned by its inability to resist Hizbollah’s three-day takeover and angry at a leadership accused of letting it down. Pressure on the heads of the Future Movement to bolster its military capacity will grow; simultaneously, some militants will be drawn to more radical, possibly jihadi movements. Its other allies, notably Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, appear demoralised and defeated. The army, too, has been dam­aged, unable to restrain the opposition and harshly criticised by the ruling March 14 coalition as well as many ordinary Sunnis. The risks of an escalating sectarian conflict are real and dangerous.

By withdrawing its decisions, the government has helped calm the situation. But a threshold has been crossed, and it will be very hard to turn back the clock. To minimise the risks of a more dangerous conflagration, renewed efforts pursuant to the Arab League agreement are needed to settle on a new president and national unity government that accepts for now Hizbollah’s armed status while strictly constraining the ways in which its weapons can be used. In the longer term, stability will require that third parties cease using Lebanon as the arena for their fierce regional and international competition and, just as importantly, that Lebanese political leaders cease enabling such costly interference.

Beirut/Brussels, 15 May 2008

Lebanon Needs Help to Revive its Waning Welcome to Syrian Refugees

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.

Syrian accents are now omnipresent in Lebanon. Busy streets are choked with an influx of Syrian cars. At least 1,700 informal Syrian refugee settlements crowd the landscape from Beirut to the Bekaa Valley.

Everywhere we went in Lebanon this month, the impact of the Syrian war was immediately evident, as were tensions rippling out from the escalating Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the region. It is a tribute to Lebanon’s generosity that this country of 4.5 million people is hosting an estimated 1.5 million refugees. That’s the most, on a per capita basis, of any country in the world – akin to the United States taking in over 80 million refugees.

Travelling across Lebanon as part of a delegation from International Crisis Group, an independent conflict prevention organisation, and meeting more than 50 Lebanese and Syrian actors in the crisis, we were impressed by how Lebanon has managed to cope so far, in spite of the immense challenges it has faced. But we also heard that limits are being reached in what Lebanon can do, and in what Lebanese are ready to do. Lebanon needs help.

Regional War, Local Victims: Lebanon and its Syrian Refugees

In November 2017, a team of International Crisis Group senior staff visited Lebanon, accompanied by members of its Council and Ambassador Council. CRISIS GROUP

The outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011 and the huge influx of Syrian refugees since then have exacerbated the deep structural challenges already faced by Lebanon. Poor public services are worsened by a government paralysed by sectarian divisions, amplified by external interference. Since 2011, economic growth has dropped from 8 to 2 per cent. Job creation, insufficient before the crisis, is now stagnant. 76 per cent of Syrian refugees and 29 per cent of Lebanese live in poverty.

It is a tribute to Lebanon’s generosity that this country of 4.5 million people is hosting an estimated 1.5 million refugees.

The country is in no state to withstand a new external shock, and is vulnerable to internal political turmoil and outside proxy maneuvers. We heard that 300,000 Lebanese are working in the Gulf sending up to $7 billion home annually. Lebanon’s strong foreign currency reserves – $50 billion, or three years of imports – mask the fact that any economic disruption will quickly strain the country’s public debt, 156 per cent of GDP in 2016. Any loss of or remittance income alongside a lagging international community’s commitment and donor fatigue could bring down the Lebanese economy. U.S., French and other international assistance is critical to calm regional tensions and forestall this threat.

Yet we also saw signs of hope, as we met enterprising and resourceful Lebanese and Syrians who are working to address the challenge. For example, Lebanese academic Rabih Shibli of American University in Beirut’s Center for Civic Innovation is building excellent schools for deprived Syrian refugee children in Shtoura in the Bekaa valley. These temporary structures can actually be dismantled and moved back to Syria when the conflict burns out, refugees return and the country starts being rebuilt. At one of these schools, cheek by jowl with an informal settlement, we met Syrian schoolchildren, and were moved by the sight of Syrian children being given what is the best hope for the future, an education.

In a women’s support centre nearby, we met Syrian women being trained to deal with the harassment and challenging circumstances that they deal with every day. Beyond basic language, vocational and computer training, they also offer leadership courses so women can be empowered to broker peace and participate in politics in their home communities.

And Lebanon’s Makhzoumi Foundation, which briefed us on the range of medical care, vocational training and microloans they are making available for vulnerable Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian and Iraqi populations, estimates that at least 1,700 informal settlements set up by Syrians are now scattered around the country.

However, these inspirational examples could not hide the difficult reality that though many  Lebanese initially opened their arms to the fleeing Syrians – 80 per cent of whom are women and children – the welcome has worn off. 90 per cent of the Syrian refugees are concentrated in the most impoverished areas of Lebanon. Vulnerable Lebanese feel abandoned by the international community, seeing an influx of funds supporting newcomers while they suffer alone.

Since 2011, the Middle East has seen millions of people dragged into destructive wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen. The Lebanese fear their turn is next, and they need support to avoid falling victim to forces beyond their control.

Senior Lebanese foreign ministry officials warned us that Lebanon was being pushed too far. Scarred by the destabilising influx of Palestinian refugees that led to civil war in the 1970s, officials insisted on calling Syrians “displaced persons” rather than refugees, warning against permanent stays that could cripple the fragile country.

At a “Tension Mapping” exercise of the UN Refugee Agency, we heard of Lebanese mayors setting up curfews and hanging banners telling refugees to leave. Case workers noted hostile inter-community relations doubling in recent months while indicators of community isolation rose from 22 to 55 per cent. Such frictions have been a recipe for civic unrest throughout history.

Since 2011, the Middle East has seen millions of people dragged into destructive wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen. The Lebanese fear their turn is next, and they need support to avoid falling victim to forces beyond their control.

Though these challenges seemed distant to us in California, we are now more conscious that the consequences could stretch far. The U.S. government should urge regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Israel to refrain from escalating the situation, enhance funding to UN and entities supporting the Syrian refugees, and sustain its military and civil assistance to the Lebanese government.

Amy Benziger and Theodore Waddelow are Co-chairs of Crisis Group’s Ambassador Council chapter in San Francisco. Benziger leads Partnerships and Engagement for Refugees Welcome, a lab structured to incubate and spin out innovative approaches to inspire the public to take action in support of refugees around the world. Waddelow is a Director of Global Public Policy at Visa. Opinions expressed are of the individuals and do not express the views or opinions of their employers or of International Crisis Group.

Contributors

Amy Benziger
Co-chair of Crisis Group’s Ambassador Council chapter in San Francisco
Theodore Waddelow
Co-chair of Crisis Group’s Ambassador Council chapter in San Francisco