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Lebanon: Managing the Gathering Storm

The shocks Lebanon has experienced in recent months might destabilise even a sturdy country, let alone one polarised along political and sectarian lines. That it has held together is in large part due to memories of the recent civil war.

Executive Summary

The shocks Lebanon has experienced in recent months might destabilise even a sturdy country, let alone one polarised along political and sectarian lines. That it has held together is in large part due to memories of the recent civil war. But Lebanon has a history of serving as an arena for proxy struggles, and communal divisions are deepening dangerously. The international community should continue to deal cautiously with Lebanese and related Syrian affairs, bolstering the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and preserving stability, while putting aside more ambitious agendas for Hizbollah’s disarmament or regime change in Damascus.

The legislative elections held immediately after Syria’s withdrawal showed the scale of the domestic challenge. The opposition, united in desire to force the Syrians out, fragmented once left on its own. Opportunistic new alliances were formed, with so-called pro- and anti-Syrians making common electoral cause to defend entrenched interests. Elections meant as a starting point for reform were a reminder of the power of sectarianism and the status quo, while assassinations and car bombs took more lives.

Decisions have been stalled by a power struggle between the Western-backed alliance of the prime minister and the son of the ex-prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, whose assassination started the chain of events, and the Syrian-backed president and his allies. Unsure whose orders to follow, security and civil officials sit on the fence. Fearful for their lives, many leaders have scattered, waiting in exile for the dust to settle.

Even after publication of the UN-sponsored Mehlis report on the Hariri assassination, politics remains in virtual suspension. The report offered a glimpse of an elaborate plan, allegedly involving senior Lebanese and Syrian officials, to murder the former prime minister, but in mid-December it will be followed by a more detailed account that is likely to exacerbate tensions further. All this reminds us that Lebanon’s predicaments predated, contributed to, and will outlive Syria’s occupation.

Sectarian rivalries bear much of the blame but international actors should recognise that their policies are liable to worsen the situation. Communal divisions offer rich opportunity for intervention, which in turn awakens the worst fears and instincts of rival groups. There is a potentially explosive combination of renewed sectarian anxiety born of the collapse of the Syrian-sponsored system, intense regional competition, and almost unprecedented foreign involvement – Security Council Resolution 1559 mandating Syrian withdrawal and disarmament of militias; the UN-sponsored Mehlis investigation; Western aid; and Iranian and Syrian support for Hizbollah and Palestinian organisations. Groups are lining up behind competing visions for Lebanon and the region’s confessional and ideological future. Domestic politics is being dragged into wider contests while foreign actors are pulled into Lebanon’s domestic struggles.

To weather the coming storms, the country needs sustained calm to design and implement reforms of the economy, judiciary, public administration, and security agencies as well as electoral law. For that, it desperately needs both economic and institutional support from the outside world and protection from the struggles in which that world is engaged. This is no easy task, as Iraq’s sectarian conflict spills over, the UN turns to Resolution 1559’s provisions on disarming Hizbollah and Palestinian militias, and Mehlis’s next report threatens to expose more Lebanese and Syrian complicity.

The U.S. and France have shown surprising unity, and have worked within a deliberately multilateral, UN-centred framework. It is a good formula to retain, which means focusing on supporting reforms, allowing the Mehlis investigation to run its independent course, and letting Lebanon deal with Hizbollah’s status without undue pressure.

With Syria’s withdrawal, Lebanon has turned an important page. But so many of the fundamentals that promoted Damascus’s intervention in the first place remain: deep sectarian divisions, widespread corruption, political gridlock, and a tense regional situation. Syria’s troops have left, but a stable, democratic transition has yet to begin.

Amman/Brussels, 5 December 2005

CrisisWatch Digest Lebanon

The CrisisWatch Digest Lebanon offers a monthly one-page snapshot of conflict-related country trends in a clear, accessible format, using a map of the region to pinpoint developments.

CrisisWatch Digest - September

What happened? The parliament approved the formation of a new government led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, ending a thirteen-month period during which Lebanon was governed by caretaker authorities. Separately, Hizbollah imported fuel directly from Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.

Why does it matter? The cabinet’s appointment ended an extended stalemate that had left Lebanon without an empowered government since August 2020. Hizbollah’s import of Iranian fuel underscores sub-state political actors’ expanded role in providing goods and security amid nationwide shortages and violent incidents.

Download the Somalia CrisisWatch Digest - September here.

CrisisWatch Digest Lebanon Archive

August 2021 CrisisWatch Digest on Lebanon is available here.