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Lebanon’s Self-Defeating Survival Strategies
Lebanon’s Self-Defeating Survival Strategies
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Keep the Calm in Lebanon
Keep the Calm in Lebanon
A Lebanese flag, placed by anti-government protesters, is seen on barbed wire securing the area in front of the government palace in downtown Beirut, October 2012. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

Lebanon’s Self-Defeating Survival Strategies

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.

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Executive Summary

Lebanon survives against all odds in a troubled environment thanks to a remarkable immune system, but that resilience has become an excuse for a dysfunctionality and laissez-faire attitude by its political class that could ultimately prove the country’s undoing. Its Syrian neighbour, conjoined as if a Siamese twin, is drowning in blood, pushing waves of refugees across the border. Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiite political party and armed movement, has been drawn into an increasingly vicious, costly and desperate regional sectarian struggle. Internally, stakeholders, fearing collapse of a flimsy political equilibrium, have failed to elect a president or empower the prime minister, preferring paralysis to anything they believe might rock the boat. Syria’s conflict is bringing out all kinds of problems, old and new, which in the long term have every chance of proving destabilising. Despite the urgency, expecting bold measures is unrealistic, but politicians could and should take a small number of concrete steps that together would help reduce tensions while waiting the years it may take for the Syrian conflict to abate.

The country “functions” by containing a slowly unfolding crisis through increasingly polarising security measures and informal arrangements between political rivals. These must compensate for the absence of a president, an efficient executive, a parliament that actively upholds the constitution, an independent judiciary, an economic vision and a refugee policy. While still holding up to external threats and pressures, Lebanon is so absorbed by this strenuous challenge that it is allowing itself, slowly but surely, to decay.

A number of factors play to its advantage. It has ceased to be a primary arena where attempts to shift the regional balance of forces play out; Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya have replaced it (as well as Palestine) in that unhappy role. Massive military and organisational strength has discouraged or quelled any attempt to challenge Hizbollah. And the bitter memories of the 1975-1990 civil war continue to inoculate polity and society against a recurrence of serious domestic strife.

That said, today’s dynamics bear an uncanny similarity to those that preceded the civil war. The militia culture of old, which on the face of it dissipated as armed groups were partially absorbed into the state, is resurgent. Longstanding socio-economic disparities are deepening. A large Syrian refugee influx evokes the earlier wave of Palestinian refugees, whose rejection by wide segments of society and subsequent politicisation gradually turned what started as a concern into a major security threat. Hizbollah has added a highly divisive sectarian regional role to its original raison d’être as a resistance movement against Israel, for which it used to enjoy wide support. The army, a cross-sectarian institution considered the backbone of what remains of the state, is increasingly polarising.

A new concern is the unprecedented disarray among Sunnis, one of the country’s three dominant communities along with Shiites and Christians. Their presumptive leadership, the Future Current party, echoes the growing frustrations of its base while failing to address them effectively; aloof and disinvested, it has opened space for competing claims, some radical or even violent, to represent this disoriented, fragmented and angry community, bewildered by Hizbollah’s assertiveness, the evolving U.S. attitude toward Iran and the relentless violence used against Sunnis by the regimes in Syria and Iraq. In turn, its gradual radicalisation, by stirring existential fears of Sunni fundamentalism among other groups, is contributing to growing Shiite support for Hizbollah and its involvement in Syria, regardless of the cost of that escalating conflict. The army’s reluctance to challenge Shiite militancy while suppressing its more immediately threatening Sunni counterpart is deepening the divide.

The political class, which has emerged from and lived off conflict for several decades, is intent on limiting itself to containing crisis, preferring to avoid a bloody showdown it knows would be unwinnable and costly to all over attempting to address its underlying causes. While the informal domestic agreements it has struck are relatively effective stopgaps, they merely help preserve the status quo, while enabling its gradual erosion. Social and sectarian tensions are rising, as the quality of public services declines dramatically for ordinary Lebanese, and opportunities for jobs and personal fulfilment are available for a decreasing few. Instead of exhorting its politicians to represent their interests via established institutions, a weary population has lowered its expectations, circumventing the state apparatus and resorting to survival strategies. These further invigorate informal networks, relationships based on patronage and corruption and rules of the game that ensure the political class remains entrenched, unaccountable and detrimental to what is left of the state.

Poor governance, along with undemocratic, unconstitutional politics, is likely to make the problems fester to the point at which radical change will be the only means to tackle them. A cynical political class has a vested interest in putting off that moment, but, paradoxically, this is also a motivation that can be turned to the country’s advantage, as long as time and regional circumstances permit. While continuing to dither is a dead-end strategy for fixing the political system, any extensive alternative would be far worse in today’s dangerous environment.

The kinds of small but constructive steps that are feasible, however, include holding long-overdue parliamentary and presidential elections without waiting for an outside intervention to determine their outcomes, as has historically been the case and the excuse for postponement; adopting a policy toward Syrian refugees that both minimises security threats and ensures respect of their dignity and rights; implementing a fair judicial process for Islamist and other prisoners; and holding security personnel accountable for abuses against prisoners, refugees and other vulnerable groups. Moreover, Lebanon is a country where popular activism is still tolerated; its non-profit organisations involved in promoting common good and public reforms must do more to enhance governance and democratic values, to include fighting corruption and promoting rule of law.

If the political class and others who can influence Lebanon’s course fail to take such basic, self-evident steps, the country will succeed in little more than surviving present-day contingencies by mortgaging its future.

Beirut/Brussels, 20 July 2015

Keep the Calm in Lebanon

Originally published in The American Prospect

The Israel-Lebanon border has been relatively quiet for the past 13 years. The latest tit-for-tat threatens the balance.

The Middle East has yet another flashpoint: On Sunday, the Lebanese Hezbollah and Israel traded fire over what had been a mostly quiet border since the 2006 war between them. The clashes came exactly a week after a drone attack in Beirut, which was widely attributed to Israel. The two incidents have brought the two sides closer to the brink of an open conflict. While neither Hezbollah nor Israel appear to want war right now, they may be only one miscalculation or technical error away from an escalatory spiral spinning out of control.

Two things are needed to prevent the inadvertent breakout of all-out war: a return to the type of mutual deterrence that has kept the Israel-Lebanon border relatively calm for the past 13 years, and a lessening of tensions in the standoff between the U.S. and Iran.

The attack must also be seen in the context of recent attacks against Iran-aligned paramilitary groups in Iraq likewise attributed to Israel.

What exactly was attacked in the southern suburb of Beirut in the early hours of August 25 has yet to be officially established, but many reports identify the target as technical equipment related to Hezbollah's alleged precision-guided missile program, which Israel has vowed to abort. Yet the attack must also be seen in the context of recent attacks against Iran-aligned paramilitary groups in Iraq likewise attributed to Israel, the latest of which occurred on the same day as the Beirut blast, and Israel’s long-standing and increasingly open military campaign against the Iranian presence in Syria, where it attacked two days before. Immediately after the latest strike near Damascus, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that “Iran has no immunity anywhere,” and that “our forces operate in every sector against the Iranian aggression.”

Until the drone attack on August 25, Lebanon was a place where Tehran appeared to enjoy just such immunity, thanks to the deterrence created by the missile arsenal and military capabilities of its most potent regional ally, Hezbollah. For its part, the Shia movement had responded to the increasingly threatening Israeli rhetoric directed at its precision-guided missile program by vowing proportional retaliation to any Israeli attack. Indeed, hours after the drone attack, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared in a speech that the movement's response “may take place at any time on the border and beyond the border.”

Hezbollah was in a bind: Retaliation in kind carries the risk of provoking an even more substantial Israeli response, which in turn could set off an uncontrollable escalation leading to war. This would be devastating for Lebanon, even if the consequences for Israel may also be grave. But refraining from retaliation would reveal Hezbollah's deterrence posture to be a hollow threat, inviting further and more substantial Israeli attacks that may eventually force Hezbollah to choose between submission or war.

Hezbollah's attack on Sunday afternoon, which targeted Israeli military vehicles right across the border, may have been exactly the “calculated strike” that statements attributed to sources inside the movement predicted as the most likely response—one that stays below a threshold that would compel Israel to hit back, while still being substantial enough to reestablish deterrence.

This time round, it looks like the formula has worked. After initial reports of Israeli casualties, official statements asserted that there were none. Israeli media reported that what appeared as the evacuation of a wounded soldier in videos circulating on social media was indeed a staged rescue operation meant to trick Hezbollah into believing they had scored big, and pulling back their launching squad. Either way, neither Hezbollah nor Israel appeared keen on taking the skirmish any further.

Yet the problem with such calculations is that tit-for-tats with missiles and drones are not an exact science. They are far closer to a game of chicken in which he who blinks first loses face, and both find themselves in a war they claim not to seek if neither blinks. And even the best-calibrated operation may go awry through technical error. For instance, if a missile aimed at destroying a military installation were to veer off course and hit a school instead, all bets would be off, and a massive Israeli counterstrike almost certain.

A tacit understanding [...] whereby Hezbollah considers the case settled and Israel desists from further attacks, may allow both sides to return to the status quo, which has preserved the peace on the border for the past 13 years.

Ever since the 2006 war, Israel and Hezbollah have been watching each other closely and preparing for a next round they hope will never come, while carefully avoiding any move that could transform their limited altercations into outright armed conflict. That caution has now given way to brinkmanship, as both sides are engaging in dangerous acrobatics, framed as deterrence, which push them toward the precipice of war. Their respective external allies, the U.S. and Iran, need to step in to prevent a further escalation that would serve nobody. A tacit understanding, perhaps communicated by a third country with links to both sides (Russia comes to mind), whereby Hezbollah considers the case settled and Israel desists from further attacks, may allow both sides to return to the status quo, which has preserved the peace on the border for the past 13 years.

Yet while last weekend's skirmish may have been contained successfully, it is but the latest flare-up in the larger conflict between the U.S. and Iran. Rather than stoking fires in the Gulf, Yemen, Iraq and now Lebanon all at the same time, Washington and Tehran should return to the negotiating table to help calm an unstable region that is coming increasingly unstuck.