Editor's Note: What happened in Syria has not stayed in Syria. In 2014, Islamic State forces swept back into Iraq, and terrorism, sectarian tension, and fear have spread throughout much of the Middle East. One bit of good news is to be found in an unexpected place: Lebanon. The Middle East Institute's Paul Salem explains why, so far at least, Lebanon has survived the chaos emanating from Syria.
The small, divided, and weak state of Lebanon has survived the political, security, and refugee challenges of the Syrian maelstrom next door – at least so far. The political system has stalled, the economy has slowed, security has deteriorated, and sectarian tensions have increased, but state, society and economy have all persevered, and there has been no major implosion or explosion. I am frequently asked what some of the reasons for this surprising resilience are and from where might the major risks for Lebanon still come in the months and years ahead.
The first source of Lebanon’s resilience is the Taif Agreement of 1989. Taif established a way of sharing power through the political system and—although famously inefficient at decision-making—all the major factions have a share and stake in the political system. No major faction seeks to violently overthrow it. Lebanon’s civil wars in 1958 and 1975 were in large measure rebellions against the domination of one community—the Maronites—over the state. The civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, are all also the result of basic and major denials of representation and inclusion in the state. To paraphrase and alter a famous political catchphrase, when it comes to major rebellions or civil wars, “It’s the politics, stupid.” In addition, the Lebanese state, while oligarchic, sectarian, and corrupt, presides over a fairly free, open, and pluralistic society with only limited levels of state repression. And while elections for parliament and president have been delayed for two years, all major positions in the state have been—and will be—ultimately decided by elections. There is a vibrant civil society movement that has protested to profoundly reform the system, but is a healthy force that maintains some pressure on the oligarchs and definitely does not threaten system collapse or civil war. The Lebanese political system is definitely in need of a raft of political reforms, but the basic inclusiveness of the system remains a key bulwark at least against serious civil conflict of the kind we see in several neighboring Arab countries. Indeed, until Syria and Iraq arrive at some agreed arrangement for representation and sharing of power in the state, with some measure of democratic accountability, they are not likely to see an end to civil conflict.
Second, most Lebanese still have a vivid memory of the civil war of 1975-90 and are loathe to go down that path again. The 15-year civil war was a national nightmare that left over 150,000 dead, many more injured and displaced, and devastated what was once the most prosperous country in the region. The eruption of civil war next door in Syria, has only reminded Lebanese of their own national trauma and the necessity to avoid replaying it.
The small, divided, and weak state of Lebanon has survived the political, security, and refugee challenges of the Syrian maelstrom next door – at least so far.
Third, Hezbollah has such an armed advantage over other political factions in the country that it has dissuaded political opponents from trying to resolve their political differences by use of arms. Skirmishes in Beirut in May 2008 between Hezbollah and armed supporters of the mainly Sunni Future Movement ended decisively in Hezbollah’s favor. While Hezbollah’s armed presence in Lebanon, as well as its heavy involvement in Syria, continue to be the main bone of contention between Lebanon’s main factions, that contention has steered away from armed confrontation and back into the political arena.
Fourth, while Iran and Saudi Arabia, the main patrons of Lebanon’s political factions, have waged proxy war in Syria and Yemen, they have generally urged their clients in Lebanon to avoid civil war, share power in government, and maintain the precarious status quo. For Iran, Hezbollah’s main priorities in this period are fighting for the survival of the Assad regime in Syria and maintaining deterrence against Israel; getting mired in internal conflict in Lebanon would only be a draining and dangerous distraction. For Saudi Arabia (and other gulf patrons), the Sunnis since the Taif Agreement have had a favorable position in the Lebanese state through the position of the Prime Minister; they don’t want to jeopardize that status quo through a major confrontation in Lebanon that Hezbollah is likely to win and which might lead to an unraveling of the Taif Agreement and the reversal of Sunni gains.
Fifth, Lebanon’s communal geography has helped stabilize the country. The Hezbollah and Shi’a strongholds are in Beirut, the Bekaa and the South. And while the Sunnis have a strong demographic and political presence in Beirut, their major population stronghold is in the north—Tripoli, Dinnyeh and Akkar. In between the north and Beirut are the majority Christian districts of Batroun, Kisirwan and Metn. In other words, were the communal geography of Lebanon different and the Shiite and Sunni heartlands fully abutting—as they largely are in Iraq, for example—and not separated by a third party, the likelihood of major Sunni-Shi’a civil conflict in Lebanon would be much higher.
Sixth, while the political system has become increasingly paralyzed, the Lebanese army and internal security forces have grown more effective. The army defeated a significant challenge from the Fateh al Islam terrorist group in 2007 and has built a strong defensive line against terrorist incursions along the northern and eastern border with Syria. The internal security forces have also become more effective, particularly in intelligence and surveillance capacities. This increased capacity of the security branches of the state has come about with significant support from the United States and other European countries. For the first time in many decades, Lebanon has security forces with real impact in national defense and security and are taken seriously both internally and internationally. The army, in particular, also plays a national political role in that it is widely inclusive and, despite some tensions with the Sunni community, generally remains a shared point of national identification.
[W]hile Iran and Saudi Arabia, the main patrons of Lebanon’s political factions, have waged proxy war in Syria and Yemen, they have generally urged their clients in Lebanon to avoid civil war.
Seventh, while the economy has been shaken by disruptions to investment and trade and a heavy refugee influx (over 1 million registered Syrian refugees in a country of 4 million), the economy has avoided collapse and stayed afloat with positive, although very slow, GDP growth. This is due in part to a strong banking sector, a large diaspora sending remittances from abroad, and an economy that is accustomed to crisis.
But the strains on the system are significant. The country has been without a president for two years, and parliament’s legitimate mandate ended three years ago. Government paralysis and ineptitude—its garbage collection efforts collapsed in the summer of 2015—led to a youth and civil-society protest movement aptly dubbed the “YouStink Movement.” Terrorist cells have struck with bombs in Beirut and other parts of the country, and Syrian-based jihadists have maintained a foothold in the border town of Arsal in the eastern Bekaa. The large refugee presence is particularly impacting rural and low income host communities, and slow growth in the economy is leading to high levels of youth unemployment and emigration.
Indeed the problems and challenges that Lebanon faces are numerous and serious and need to be urgently addressed through better governance and continued international support. But most do not directly threaten the survival of the state or the precarious overall order. The risks that might indeed bring down the precarious order could be one of the following:
First, Iran and the several Sunni states in the region have been fighting in Syria and Yemen but urging calm in Lebanon. If Iran or any of the main Sunni states decide to extend the proxy war to Lebanon, the precarious order could come crashing down.
Indeed the problems and challenges that Lebanon faces are numerous and serious and need to be urgently addressed through better governance and continued international support.
Second, radical jihadist and terrorist groups have found fertile ground in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, but have so far found little purchase in Lebanon’s Sunni community or the Syrian refugee community in Lebanon. If this were to change in a major way, it could grow beyond the state’s capacity to control and might lead to state collapse and civil war.
Third, the tense calm between Israel and Hezbollah that has prevailed since the war of 2006 remains poised on a hair trigger. On the one hand, Hezbollah has pivoted to Syria and is mired in an open-ended conflict there; on the other, Hezbollah now controls territory both in Lebanon and Syria, has maintained all of its missile capacities that would impact Israel, and has acquired more experience in taking and holding territory. Iran also now has a direct presence in Syria; and while Israel generally ‘trusted’ the Assad regime—father and son—not to engage in direct war with Israel, even when backing proxies like Hezbollah, there is no such expectation in relation to Iran. And while both Hezbollah and Iran are heavily focused on the war in Syria and have no interest in starting a war with Israel, they also don’t want to appear weak, but rather want to maintain the appearance of defiance and the reality of deterrence.
Israel has followed developments to its north with a mix of confusion and concern, has interdicted what it perceives are major weapons transfers from Syria to Lebanon, and has worked to prevent Hezbollah and Iran from gaining a foothold on the Golan Heights. But the situation is fluid and unpredictable, and the risks of another Israel-Hezbollah war are real. Any number of border incidents might spiral into all-out escalation, as happened in July of 2006. This time the war would be even more devastating.
The risks to Lebanon’s continued survival alongside the maelstrom in Syria and Iraq are real. But barring major developments such as one of the three outlined above, Lebanon’s political and socio-economic systems, with all their warts and dysfunctions, are likely to persevere. What the United States and other friends of Lebanon can do is continue to provide support for refugees, press politicians to finally go ahead with presidential and parliamentary elections, and maintain support for the national army.