A Precarious Balancing Act: Lebanon and the Syrian Conflict
A Precarious Balancing Act: Lebanon and the Syrian Conflict
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute
Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute
Report 132 / Middle East & North Africa

A Precarious Balancing Act: Lebanon and the Syrian Conflict

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.

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Executive Summary

Syria’s conflict is leaking out of its borders, but in few places are risks higher than in Lebanon. This is not just a matter of history, although history bodes ill: the country seldom has been immune to the travails of its neighbour. It also is a function of recent events, of which the most dramatic was the 19 October assassination of top security official Wissam Hassan, an illustration of the country’s fragility and the short-sightedness of politicians unwilling to address it. Lebanon’s two principal coalitions see events in Syria in a starkly different light – as a dream come true for one; as a potentially apocalyptical nightmare for the other. It would be unrealistic to expect Lebanese actors to be passive in the face of what is unfolding next door. But it is imperative to shield the country as much as possible and resist efforts by third parties – whether allies or foes of Damascus – to drag the nation in a perilous direction. In the wake of Hassan’s assassination, this almost certainly requires a new, more balanced government and commitments by local and regional actors not to use Lebanese soil as an arena in which to wage the Syrian struggle.

From the Syrian crisis’s early days, there was every reason to expect that Lebanon, traditionally under its neighbour’s strong influence, would not long remain untouched. The two countries share a 365-kilometre, un-demarcated and largely porous border as well as extremely close communal ties. Syria’s regime has a history of lashing out when it feels under siege, coupled with a tradition of oftentimes violent interference in Lebanese affairs. Many were concerned from the start that Damascus would seek to destabilise its neighbour if only to weaken its foes across the border and warn the world of potential consequences of a protracted fight. Important Lebanese communities harbour deep resentment towards the regime’s conduct over the past decades; this is the case in particular of Sunnis in the north who feel solidarity with their Syrian brethren. Finally, sectarian tensions within Syria have their counterpart in Lebanon; as they rise in the former, so too do they mount in the latter.

Lebanon’s factions clearly are aware of the stakes. Each wagers on success by one Syrian side or the other, waiting to translate the ensuing regional balance of power into a domestic one. Hizbollah hardly can contemplate a future with a fundamentally different Syrian regime, has tied its fate ever more tightly to its ally’s, and will not remain idle should Assad be in real jeopardy. Conversely, the Sunni-dominated Future Current and its partners see no alternative to the regime’s demise, however long it will take and no matter the costs. They view the uprising as doubly strategic: a golden opportunity to seek revenge against an antagonistic regime as well as a chance to challenge Hizbollah’s domestic hegemony. It is hard to see Lebanon’s fragile equilibrium surviving such a winner-take-all mentality.

Already, signs of Syria’s spillover effects have been unmistakable. Border areas have been caught in the conflict, with weapons smuggling, refugee flows and attacks against Lebanese villages along the frontier coming from one side or the other, depending on the villagers’ political allegiances.

The stream of refugees has had humanitarian but also political and security consequences as Lebanese Sunnis, bearing witness to the increasing brutality and scorched earth policy of Assad’s regime, step up their involvement. Solidarity with their embattled brethren has led them to turn several regions into sanctuaries and transit points for the supply of weapons to, and staging ground for attacks by, Syrian rebel forces. This has been the case in the predominantly Sunni north, notably the border regions of Tripoli and Akkar, but also – to a lesser degree – in the eastern Bekaa Valley. Arms smuggling into Syria began as an improvised, chiefly commercial affair, but has greatly expanded, with the Future Current appearing to use Turkey as the hub for supporting armed opposition groups. More broadly, the Syrian uprising helped Islamist groups in both countries bolster their standing and mutual ties that had been debilitated if not severed in the 1980s.

Hizbollah too has entered the fray. It has had to balance competing considerations, defending the Syrian regime while safeguarding its posture in Lebanon not only at present, but also, possibly, in anticipation of eventual changes in Damascus. That is why it has, on the one hand, acquiesced in Prime Minister Najib Miqati’s policies even when they went against the interests of the Syrian regime and, on the other, provided that regime with practical support. There is much speculation and little hard evidence as to the scope of this assistance. Lebanon’s opposition and Syrian rebels long claimed that Hizbollah snipers were lending a hand to regime forces and killing protesters; U.S. officials likewise assert that Damascus, Hizbollah and Iran are in close military cooperation, even forming an elite militia. What seems clear is that the Shiite movement has intensified its involvement on the ground. How far it would go to salvage the regime is uncertain but, at a minimum, the message it wishes to send to outsiders is: far enough.

For now, notwithstanding these developments, prospects of a renewed civil war appear relatively remote. Though motivated by different interests, various parties have acted in ways that, by and large, limit the damage. Hizbollah continues to enjoy a lopsided military advantage, forcing its enemies to think twice before challenging it. Confrontation would not serve the Shiite organisation either, for it would attract further domestic and regional condemnation and isolation; for now, it has been intent on preserving the domestic status quo. Most significantly, none of Lebanon’s principal political camps want to test a disaster scenario, and all fear the unpredictable and unmanageable consequences of an escalating crisis. And so, even as they have found ways to intervene in the conflict next door, Lebanese politicians for the most part have displayed noticeable restraint.

But fear of the consequences of escalation is a thin reed on which to place one’s hopes. Lebanese dynamics all point in the wrong direction. Even before the 19 October killing of Wissam Hassan, Sunnis were feeling gradually more emboldened, eager for revenge; Shiites more and more exposed, fearful of their growing regional isolation. Sectarian clashes have been on the rise, with the ever-present risk of cascading intercommunal violence. Among the most immediate dangers is the dominant political forces’ eroding ability to control their respective and increasingly polarised constituencies. Heightened insecurity and state impotence are leading many to take matters into their own hands, with tit-for-tat kidnappings and the erection of roadblocks that impede critical transportation routes.

It would be wrong to conclude that Lebanon has dodged the bullet. The country remains profoundly fragile and unstable. Without a strong central government capable of mastering events, violent strife could erupt in localised areas and spread. Both major coalitions have shown the limits of their ability to control their oftentimes more restive, angry and violent rank-and-file. Lebanon still is at the mercy of external interference.

In the longer term, Lebanon will have to cope with the outcome of a conflict that inevitably will have huge consequences, profoundly affecting virtually every major issue that has bedevilled the nation: relations with Israel; the status of minorities (notably Christians and Alawites); the Sunni-Shiite divide; Saudi-Iranian rivalry; as well as the rise and empowerment of Sunni Islamists. Added to this are the material consequences of the Syrian uprising, which has caused major strains on an already over-stretched economy.

Lebanese political actors typically have turned a blind eye to deep-rooted causes of the nation’s enduring instability: the nature of the power structure (a communal-based apportionment of power and privileges invariably leading to paralysis at best, conflict at worse); the contradictions of its external alliances (as some turned to the “axis of resistance” and others aligned themselves with the West); and the nature of the economic system (in theory geared toward a modern, globalised service industry, in practice built around antiquated forms of patronage, corruption and nepotism). Always costly, such an approach will prove costlier still in the wake of the strategic earthquake that resolution of the Syrian conflagration – one way or another – will produce. For it will bring to the surface this host of unresolved issues at a time when Lebanese local actors will be in no position to compromise, consider sensible solutions or do anything much other than hunker down.

How much precisely Syria’s evolution will affect Lebanon is not certain, but the short answer is: a lot. Apathy in the face of an incoming storm is understandable but short-sighted. For the ripple effects of Syria’s conflict, once the ensuing transformations will have had time to sink in, will be dramatic, brutal and, most likely, highly destabilising.

Beirut/Brussels, 22 November 2012

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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