Lebanon’s Resilience under the Weight of Syria’s War
Lebanon’s Resilience under the Weight of Syria’s War
Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute
Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute
Syrian refugees are driven through the Lebanese village of Labweh in the Bekaa Valley, 7 August 2014. AFP/Joseph Eid

Lebanon’s Resilience under the Weight of Syria’s War

Crisis Group Lebanon Senior Analyst Sahar Atrache discusses how Lebanon remains resilient in the face of Syria’s violent collapse – at least for now.

Lebanon and Syria have always been closely intertwined, from the days when they were both provinces of the Ottoman Empire, to a shared experience of French colonial rule, to the 1975-1990 civil war and post-war period during which Syria claimed a big brother role.

Lebanon has now failed to elect a new president for a year. Who are the actors and why can’t they agree?

Since President Michel Suleiman stepped down in May 2014, parliament has convened more than 20 times without electing a new president, a post that holds important political and symbolic power. The backroom dealing that has become the Lebanese political norm has failed to yield a successor.

According to the traditional sectarian formula that balances Lebanese politics, the president must be a Maronite Christian. But there is a stalemate between the two main Christian groups. One is the Free Patriotic Movement, led by Michel Aoun, 80, a former president and army general. The other is the Lebanese Forces, led by Samir Geagea, 62, a controversial former war commander.

Two pan-Lebanese groupings are aligned with these two men: behind Aoun stands what is known as the “March 8 alliance”, which is backed by Lebanon’s powerful Shiite Hizbollah party and the Syrian regime in Damascus. Geagea meanwhile is part of the “March 14 alliance”, which viscerally opposes the Syrian regime and Hizbollah; this grouping is allied to the Sunni Future Movement led by Saad Hariri – who accuses Syria of being behind the February 2005 assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. The two coalitions derive their names from huge rallies each camp organised after the assassination, the former on 8 March to support Syria and the latter on 14 March to protest Damascus’ role in Lebanon and call for the withdrawal of its troops then stationed in the country.

How is Lebanon dealing with the political impasse and what are the likely end scenarios?

There are three possible scenarios to end the impasse on the presidency, although all three seem unlikely to materialise in the immediate future. First, deep polarisation within the Christian community makes it hard to believe that the inter-Christian dialogue will yield an agreement. Second, it is unrealistic to expect sufficient outside pressure for compromise by Lebanon’s main two backers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, at a time where the two are intensifying their proxy wars regionwide. Finally, the situation in Lebanon is not ripe for the selection of a consensual president, one who would be equidistant from both the anti-Syrian 14 March alliance and the pro-Syrian 8 March alliance.

Who are the likely candidates and how are their backers influencing the election process?

While there are no official candidates, both Aoun and Geagea have presidential ambitions. However, both are very polarising figures among both Lebanese Christians and also Lebanon’s society in general. Aoun and Geagea’s main domestic backers, respectively Shiite Hizbollah and the Sunni Future Movement, are themselves too deeply divided to agree on a president, so to save face they have put the onus on the Christians to agree among themselves.

The Lebanese political class seems to believe that the wait-and-see approach is their best bet to fend off the war in Syria and other threats from a volatile region.But the result is that all sides are avoiding taking responsibility, or undermining democratic processes. This has also resulted in the current prolonged decision-making paralysis that is further undermining Lebanese state institutions.

Is the Syria war likely to spread to Lebanon?

Concerns that the Syria war can drag down neighbouring Lebanon remain real. Lebanon has always been to some extent the backyard of its bigger neighbour, and similar sectarian and geopolitical faultlines make it easy for conflict to jump the border. Hizbollah has taken on an ever-growing military role in Syria since the end of 2012. In 2013 and 2014, several suicide attacks by Lebanese Sunni jihadi extremists targeted Shiite neighbourhoods, Hizbollah targets and the Iranian embassy. There have also been sectarian armed clashes in the north Lebanese port city of Tripoli, the southern port city of Saida (Sidon), and elsewhere.

Yet Lebanon remains resilient, despite the large numbers of Syrian refugees, the regional turmoil, current tensions over the presidency, political paralysis, deep crises over the past decade, and the fact that its institutions are barely functioning.

This precarious calm can be attributed to three main factors. First, regional conflicts are being played out by violent means much less in Lebanon. Instead, proxy wars have shifted toward Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. Second, Hizbollah’s locally superior military force discourages its foes from challenging it. Finally, bitter memories of the 1975-1990 civil war still deter important segments of Lebanese society from going down this road again.

What is Lebanon doing about its huge number of Syrian refugees?

To date, there are nearly 1.2 million refugees in Lebanon – around 20 per cent of its estimated population of five to six million people, which would be a huge burden for any country, let alone one with Lebanon’s problems. The authorities and relevant institutions paid little heed to the flow of refugees from its onset, which allowed the situation to fester. And to a large extent, Lebanon is still in denial about the medium- to long-term nature of its Syrian refugee crisis.

Today, Syrian refugees are spread around more than 1,500 locations including informal refugee camps, towns and cities. Many have little or no access to basic necessities like food, water, shelter and clothing or medicine. The influx of refugees has also created tensions with host communities. A growing number are suffering human rights abuses.

The economic burden is another important issue. In the past, the vast majority of Syrians in Lebanon worked in unskilled jobs such as construction and agriculture. Today, with a broad range of Syrians having fled their homes, refugees are competing with wider segments of the Lebanese labour market and better skilled workers, which in turn is creating new tensions.

Since there is no end in sight to the refugee crisis, the Lebanese government, with the help of regional and international partners, would be wise to adopt a policy that both deflates pressures and ensures respect of refugees’ dignity and rights. As laid out in Crisis Group’s May 2013 report, Too Close for Comfort: Syrians in Lebanon, the presence of Syrian refugees is exacerbating existing political, social and communal tensions and exposing Lebanon’s own dysfunction.

How has life changed for ordinary Lebanese since the start of the Syria war?

The Syrian war has affected virtually all aspects of daily life in Lebanon. It is the major topic of conversation. Coffee shops buzz with a mix of Syrian and Lebanese dialects. TV talk-show discussions over Syria sometimes have come to physical blows on air. Even more cars now clog the streets of Lebanon’s cities, and Syrians, mostly women and children, have joined the ranks of beggars on pavements and at traffic lights.

Since the war closed Lebanon’s borders with Syria, farmers have lost their primary export market and merchants have seen their only overland trade route cut. As a result, the price of many goods imported or smuggled from Syria has increased. The greater demand sparked by refugees has added to inflationary pressures. The enormous influx puts additional strain on a state that was already struggling to fulfil its basic duties. Hospitals and other health facilities are overstretched, power blackouts have increased in some areas, and water supplies have decreased.

Several commercial air carriers changed their routes, flying over Egypt instead of directly towards Lebanon over Syria, extending usual flight times by one hour.

However, the Lebanese themselves remain inventive. Hardened by endless crises over four decades, they have lowered their expectations of the state. For power, they often resort to alternatives such as privately-owned generators that distribute power to households and businesses, or privately-owned cisterns that sell tap water. The Lebanese diaspora numbers more than the resident population, and its generosity has made Lebanon one of the largest remittance-receiving countries in the world. This support helps many families survive, and by extension is critical for the country as a whole.

What is the impact in Lebanon of Hizbollah’s role as an armed force fighting in Syria?

As Crisis Group argued in its May 2014 report, Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria, Lebanese society is deeply polarised over Hizbollah’s military involvement there. Many segments of the Sunni community, previously supportive of Hizbollah’s struggle against Israel, have grown antagonistic toward the Shiite group. There is scepticism among some Shiites about Hizbollah’s external engagement, but it is rarely heard outside the community.

At the same time, Syria, Iran and Hizbollah have succeeded in portraying Sunni extremism, and the Islamic State in particular, as an existential threat for Lebanese beyond the Shiite community. There are some Lebanese Sunni voices who now believe that Hizbollah’s fight inside Syria prevents the “black threat”, named for the colour of the Islamic State’s flag, from penetrating into Lebanon. Shiites are closing ranks behind the party despite the heavy death toll the community is suffering in Syria. Tellingly, fighters killed there are now publicly celebrated in ceremonies and posters in Shiite villages, enjoying the same treatment that was once afforded to fighters against Israel. Of course, news and videos of the Islamic State’s brutality only reinforce support for Hizbollah.

For now, the Shiite party remains hegemonic, particularly in cities in the northeast bordering Syria. The fighting on both sides of the border in that area – in the Qalamoun and rugged Arsal mountains – has spilled over only to adjacent areas in the Bekaa Valley, where military deployments are widespread and sectarian tensions palpable. However, in other parts of the country, battles across the borders remain largely invisible, and the population is rarely exposed to any direct consequences.

Has Lebanon’s role as stage for the region’s proxy wars really ended? How is Saudi-Iranian rivalry manifesting itself?

Saudi-Iranian rivalry peaked in Lebanon between 2005 and 2011, when Riyadh and Tehran invested heavily in building up their Lebanese allies, the Future Movement and Hizbollah respectively. In May 2008, Hizbollah took control of parts of Beirut considered strongholds of the Future Movement, even forcing the Saudi ambassador to flee by boat. The Shiite party more recently took this to the regional level too, with its leader openly criticising the Saudi royal family and its military operations in Yemen.

Despite the heightened regional rivalry, Saudi Arabia seems to have calculated that it would need too much training, time and money to challenge Hizbollah militarily in Lebanon, making this an unrealistic scenario.

At the same time, at the local level and motivated by their common fear of Sunni extremists and the possibility that intra-Lebanese conflicts might spin out of control,Hizbollah and the Future Movement have increased their cooperation. Despite their deep political differences, have even agreed on a security plan to contain the worsening security situation.

For now, at least, there appears to be an indirect convergence of interest between Riyadh and Teheran and their respective Lebanese allies to preserve the country’s status quo. Neither Lebanon nor its backers can afford a new open confrontation in a region already deep in bloody conflict.

Demonstrators carry a banner and flags during a protest against Israeli gas extraction that Lebanon says falls in disputed waters near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon, June 11, 2022. The banner reads " The Line 29 is a red line". REUTERS/Aziz Taher

Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute

Domestic politics in Israel and Lebanon could scuttle talks about their claims in the Mediterranean – and to the gas riches underneath. With the U.S. mediator’s help, the two countries should refocus on achieving an accord that serves their mutual interest and spares them a confrontation.

U.S.-mediated maritime border talks between Lebanon and Israel have entered a perilous new phase. The parties have been engaged for over a decade in indirect negotiations over the ownership of natural gas fields discovered, or presumed to exist, in disputed offshore territory. Israel is reportedly on schedule to start extracting gas from the area as early as September. These plans have prompted Hizbollah – the powerful Lebanese Shiite militia and party – to threaten attacks if Israel proceeds without first resolving the territorial dispute. While the two neighbours are reportedly closer than ever to an accord, political crises in both may delay the agreement or make reaching it impossible. Washington has invested significant political capital in fostering a compromise, and it should intensify its efforts to help the two negotiating teams clear the remaining hurdles. Israeli and Lebanese leaders, for their part, should keep their sights trained on concluding an agreement that carries clear mutual benefit, while avoiding a conflict with dangerous consequences for both countries.

Lebanon and Israel have conducted indirect negotiations over demarcating their maritime border since the two sides became aware more than a decade ago that lucrative gas deposits may lie off their shores. Originally in dispute were 860 sq km of waters between the southern boundary of the Lebanese claim (known as “line 23”), which it formally asserted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the boundary Israel sought to draw to the north (known as “line 1”). In 2012, U.S. mediator Frederic Hof proposed a compromise that would have split up the area at a ratio of 55 per cent for Lebanon and 45 per cent for Israel. But – without offering clear reasons – the Lebanese government failed to approve the proposal and the negotiations lapsed. When indirect talks resumed in late 2020, the Lebanese delegation presented new legal and hydrographical studies to support an expanded claim (bounded by what is known as “line 29”) encompassing an additional 1,430 sq km south of line 23; it did not, however, formalise the expanded claim by amending its prior UNCLOS filing, which remains pegged to line 23.

Lebanon’s subsequent insistence on staking its claim based on line 29 has brought previously undisputed gas reserves into play, setting the stage for the recent escalation of tensions. Under Lebanon’s original line 23 claim, the Karish field – the one from which Israel is preparing to extract gas as soon as September – lay far to the south in Israeli waters. By contrast, the new Lebanese claim would put the northern half of Karish in Lebanese maritime territory, turning the field into a source of contention. Predictably, Israel has rejected the new Lebanese position, and the parties have struggled unsuccessfully to narrow the gap between them – engaging first through five rounds of indirect talks at the UN base in Naqoura, a small city in southern Lebanon, and then via shuttle diplomacy conducted by U.S. mediator Amos Hochstein. Meanwhile, on the Israeli side, preparations have continued for Karish’s development, which is expected to add around 1.41 trillion cubic feet of gas to Israel’s proven reserves. The expected quantity of gas available at Karish falls well below the estimated size of the Leviathan and Tamar fields, which Israel is already exploiting, suggesting that Karish is not integral to Israeli energy security at present.

In June, Israel signalled that it could begin extraction at Karish in a matter of months. On 5 June, the London-listed company Energean – which Israel has enlisted to develop Karish on its behalf – deployed a floating production, storage and offloading facility to the field. Israeli officials point out that the company began its work at a spot clearly south of line 29, and also note that Lebanon has never amended its UNCLOS filing to bring its claim to that line. Thus, Israel argues, Lebanon has not formally claimed the area where Energean is working.

Hizbollah ... has vowed to defend the country’s maritime claims.

These arguments have triggered a harsh response in Lebanon – particularly on the part of Hizbollah, which has vowed to defend the country’s maritime claims. In several speeches, the party’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, maintained that the Karish field is disputed. He threatened to attack the offshore gas infrastructure if Israel began extracting gas before the two countries agreed on a border. On 2 July, Hizbollah’s military wing, the Islamic Resistance, deployed unarmed reconnaissance drones toward Karish, which the Israeli air force intercepted. Two days later, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati publicly denounced interference in the negotiations by non-state actors, saying it exposed Lebanon to “unnecessary risks”. Undeterred, Nasrallah spoke of military action if the dispute was not settled by September. On 31 July, Hizbollah released a video displaying its capacity to attack gas infrastructure. The same day, the group published footage of black-clad fighters patrolling unarmed near the Israeli-Lebanese border.

With Hizbollah putting its credibility on the line, and Israel doubtless reluctant to back down in the face of threats from a group that it characterises as a terrorist organisation, the risk of some form of escalation is significant. While Nasrallah expressed hope that the dispute can be resolved without a fight, Hizbollah’s brinkmanship – in marked contrast to the more cautious approach to Israel the group has taken in recent years – suggests that the organisation is prepared to take greater risks this time. Even a limited military confrontation could spin out of control, due either to miscalculation about the other side’s red lines or to operational error – such as a missile or drone attack aiming to inflict only material damage but causing casualties instead.

That said, there are grounds for hope that a confrontation can be averted. Despite the threat of conflict, or perhaps because of it, the two sides now appear closer to a deal than ever. During U.S. mediator Hochstein’s last visit to Beirut on 31 July, Lebanon reportedly proposed a compromise that moves its claim back from line 29 to line 23, on the condition that Israel cedes an additional 80 sq km south of line 23. This extra pocket of maritime territory would put the Qana prospect – a gas deposit of unproven potential to the north east of Karish – entirely within Lebanese waters. In practical terms, the suggested compromise treats Lebanon’s claim to line 29 as a bargaining gambit to secure its claim up to line 23, along with the entire Qana prospect.

Israel is reportedly ready to accommodate this proposal, which would entail giving up on the nearly 400 sq km north of line 23 it was supposed to receive under the 2012 Hof proposal, as well as Qana. It is possible that Israel may ask for a share of future proceeds from Qana should gas exploitation prove viable, or for territorial compensation north of line 23, which would mean an S-shaped rather than a straight demarcation line. While Israel’s official response to the Lebanese proposal remains unknown at this stage, a territorial swap would appear to be a more straightforward solution than a profit-sharing arrangement, given the antagonism between the two countries.

Israeli officials also told Crisis Group that they would welcome ... resolving disputes through negotiation, rather than violence.

Israel has good reason to make such substantial concessions. The energy crisis in Europe, triggered by the war in Ukraine, provides a window of opportunity to expand gas exports. But if that is the goal, securing stable access to the offshore reserves is imperative – and that will require an accommodation with Hizbollah and Beirut. While Israel may be confident that it can defeat Hizbollah in a military confrontation, private corporations are unlikely to undertake investments and expose staff and multi-million-dollar equipment if they risk being caught in the crossfire. Israeli officials also told Crisis Group that they would welcome the precedent a deal would set for the two countries resolving disputes through negotiation, rather than violence.

For Lebanon, wrapping up the negotiations swiftly would also be a win, not least because it would receive a far larger share of the disputed maritime area than appeared possible even a few months ago. A comprehensive solution to the demarcation issue would also clear the way for exploration in Lebanon’s promising southern waters. Until now, the international consortium commissioned to explore the area, led by French energy giant Total, has made clear that operations cannot proceed before the parties resolve their dispute. As for Hizbollah, despite its bellicose posture, it has never committed to defending any specific line, and has repeatedly stressed that the Lebanese government alone is responsible for reaching a settlement; that said, Hizbollah would likely take credit for helping Lebanon achieve a favourable outcome if a deal is struck.

Yet despite an accord being within reach and to clear mutual benefit, the process may still falter in the final stages because of dysfunctional domestic politics on both sides. Lebanon’s politicians have been unable to form a new government since the country’s elections on 15 May. Leaders are increasingly preoccupied with the debate over the succession of President Michel Aoun, whose term expires on 31 October, and the spectre of an open-ended constitutional crisis if no compromise on his replacement can be found. This matter has reduced Beirut’s bandwidth for the border negotiations, and indeed for major political decisions of any kind. There is also a risk of last-minute sabotage by leading Lebanese politicians, who have long competed with one another to claim personal credit for a successful outcome in the maritime talks. In Israel, the ruling coalition’s collapse has left a caretaker cabinet in charge that likewise finds it difficult to make big decisions. With elections approaching in November, hardliners may exploit any border compromise for political attacks.

It would be a missed opportunity for both sides, and a blow to regional stability, if an otherwise achievable agreement were to fall through for any of these reasons. After more than a decade and many false starts, the maritime border negotiations are tantalisingly close to a viable solution. As the parties move toward a deal, outside actors that have influence with key players in each system should urge them forward over the finish line. The U.S., whose shuttle diplomacy has contributed significantly to the process, should in particular redouble its efforts to get the deal done. It may need to hold more regular meetings with, and lean on, the two countries’ negotiators to get them to recognise the matter’s urgency. Washington should also encourage Lebanese interlocutors to dissuade Hizbollah from hardening its confrontational stance and Israel to hold off on gas extraction while the deal is hammered out – even as it works to maintain the talks’ momentum and keep them from being held hostage to political developments in either country.

Ultimately, it will fall to Israeli and Lebanese political leaders to make the deal happen. Their task may be difficult amid jockeying for electoral and partisan advantage. The prize, however, is well worth the trouble. The parties have the chance to make an agreement that is good for both countries, sets an important precedent for greater bilateral comity and averts the prospect of dangerous escalation. They should seize it.

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