The dour forecasts regarding Lebanon’s future are based on fundamental facts that cannot be amended: A corrupt and rotten government and the dominance of Hezbollah. Under these circumstances, a possible alternative to current Israeli policy may be to reinforce the role of Syrian patronage, which has been undermined since 2005.
The continued deterioration of Lebanon is obvious. The country’s government is rotting and corrupt. Young people and families of means are fleeing the country; sects clash with each other and within themselves over political dominance; and prominent clans prevent a fairer distribution of resources. Religious, ideological, and local identities dominate. The loyalty of the public to the state as an established framework never has been solidified. In a way, Lebanon never fully has become a unitary state, and it is not expected to become one in the foreseeable future.
It is difficult for those who favourably regarded the uprising against the Syrians following the Hariri assassination (February 2005) to digest that Lebanon, to maintain its formal framework as a state, must have a strong patron that can function as an effective arbitrator and as an authority to implement their vision and views.
Israel failed in its attempts to fill this role following its military involvement (Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982). Ever since the civil war in the 70’s and until 2005, Syria was the patron that made sure no Lebanese political player would ever accumulate too much power and would not dictate to the state on how to behave. (This is why Syria intervened on the side of the Christians and against the Palestinians and the left wing in 1976, even though ideologically it was not on the Christians’ side.) Syria’s retreat was the result of immense Western pressure during the height of American hegemony in the region. This reflected Western rage about the Hariri assassination, and illusions by internal elements who thought they could take advantage of the situation to establish a functioning country that would over time succeed in resolving the Hezbollah issue. That did not happen, as was illustrated by the war with Israel in 2006 and the internal conflict of 2008.
In the absence of strong political patronage, a role that has remained void for a long time, control of Lebanon is moving towards Hezbollah and its Iranian masters. Hezbollah and Iran are the only elements that at the moment have both the desire and the means to fill this role, including the ability to overcome all other political players.
This trend, despite being threatening and discouraging, can also generate positive results, if handled correctly, meaning that all interested parties in the arena begin to treat Lebanon and Syria as a political, military, and economical whole.
Lebanon’s financial collapse was not the result of Hezbollah existing like a country within a country. The roots of Lebanon’s collapse have been in place for several decades, and despite this Lebanon has also known periods of financial growth, including after the Second Lebanon War (2006). The current collapse in Lebanon – which seems to be gaining uncontrollable momentum – derives mainly from the corrupt conduct of the Lebanese governments and the Central Bank of Lebanon under the leadership of Riad Salameh. Together they have formed a fundamentally broken financial system which will result in the total collapse of the banks.
For years, Lebanese banks have withdrawn dollar deposits by ensuring high interest, and these deposits were transferred to the Central Bank to finance the import policy of the Lebanese governments. Instead of taking advantage of investors trust and making Lebanon a productive economy, all the elements in Lebanon, with emphasis on the “pro-West” camp, created a monetary bubble, and this has burst in the faces of investors and depositors.
According to some estimates, the Central Bank of Lebanon is responsible for the loss of over $160 billion that were wasted on the import of consumer products in the country, from subsidized fuels to tax-exempt luxury items. Moreover, while most taxes were imposed on the weaker elements in the society that did not input substantial amounts into the country coffers, the wealthy with political ties were exempted from paying any taxes at all.
At the same time, no functioning Lebanese government has been in place, for a long time. This prologued systemic failure sparked the resignation in 2019 of Saad Al-Hariri, continued with the establishment of Hassan Diab’s weak government, and lead to the current crisis where nobody seems able to establish a government. The conduct of external players is helping. Western countries, together with Arab Sunni countries, want to prevent the Hezbollah and their allies from having any significant role in the government; whereas Hezbollah (supported by Iran, Syria and Russia) continues to take advantage of its power and the power of its allies in parliament to thwart the establishment of any government that would threaten their internal interests and gnaw at their influence.
These disagreements are expected to continue, such that even if a government is established the aforesaid systemic failings are not expected to change.
Hezbollah’s military strength is unchallenged, particularly because the Lebanese army is unable to and not interested in operating against the organization. The remaining Lebanese factions are very much weaker than Hezbollah. (Recent local incidents, such as a local attack on Hezbollah activists or rioting in the Druze village of Shwaya where a Hezbollah Katyusha truck traversed, do not constitute any real threat to the organization.) Even in the unlikely scenario of all Lebanese factions uniting against Hezbollah, they do not have the critical mass required to threaten Hezbollah’s military dominance.
An external military initiative against Hezbollah will not necessarily lead to the desired results either. The chances are slim that such an effort could truly establish an effective international regime to halt all weapon smuggling into Lebanon. Moreover, it is highly likely that a war initiated against Hezbollah would lead to the closing of ranks by large segments of the Lebanese public in support of the organization. Such an attack would be viewed by substantial portions of the Lebanese public as a threat to what remains of their lives and to the only force that sustains a semblance of basic living conditions in Lebanon.
Alongside the Hezbollah’s military dominance, its status as a financial patron of Lebanon continues to strengthen. Hezbollah is not only taking care of poor segments of society (especially the Shiites), but also is bringing in energy resources from Iran. It emphasizes that attacks on Iranian tankers intended for Lebanon constitute an attack on Lebanese sovereignty.
With the support of Iran, Hezbollah is in effect filling a void created by the financial collapse of the Lebanese government. Hezbollah and Iran also have become the exclusive source of fuel supplies to Syria.
The recent declaration by the American ambassador to Lebanon that the US will act to connect Lebanon to the Egyptian-Jordanian gas network via Syria, is far from being a near-term solution. This will require the formation of a government in Lebanon and amendment of the American “Caesar Law” which currently prohibits financial cooperation with the Assad regime.
It is true that the increasing dominance of Hezbollah in all aspects of Lebanese life will oblige the organization to invest significant resources to maintain relative security stability in Lebanon. From experience, the more the organization grows, the more will its quality as a fighting force be eroded. (This is the reason why it has tried to avoid, until recent years, being sucked into any direct governing position.) Moreover, despite the organization being the most dominant representative of the Shiite community, the local identification of those joining its ranks will not dissolve and may increase internal tensions that already exist both within the Shiite community and the organization.
Militarily speaking, Israel’s policy of thwarting the delivery of quality weapons to Hezbollah will continue and focus on the Syrian arena. In this way, Israel avoids international criticism of action against communities in Lebanon. Moreover, there is significant added value in seeking to eliminate Iran and Hezbollah’s Syrian allies within Assad’s governing environment, as well as in the Syrian military and its intelligence branches. The Syrians are paying a price for cooperating in transferring weapons to Hezbollah. An increase in the price that Syrian officers and officials have to pay may force the government in Damascus into more restrained conduct towards Israel.
Developments in Syria also will have deeply significant implications for Lebanon. President Assad recently announced that the form of central government “is dead.” He talked about a non-central model of government (la markazia), allowing districts to run themselves with only minimal dependence on a central government.
The international community should support this model and act to promote a political solution, even if only partial, to the Syrian issue by formulating a new constitution that will adopt a non-centralized model as a major component of future Syria. If this happens, this could help advance a similar political arrangement in Lebanon too.
A successful model of non-centralized governance already exists in the Arab world, in the United Arab Emirates, where seven emirates run their internal affairs by themselves with relatively high independence, whereas Abu Dhabi dictates unified foreign and defence policies.
In Iraq, for example, tribal divisions, ethnic groups, and sects do not make for stable government, and this leads to the involvement of foreign elements, especially Iran and to a certain extent Turkey. A decentralized form of government in Syria and Lebanon will not prevent interference from these countries, but such interference may be limited if semi-autonomous districts are capable of standing on their own and forging their own external relationships.
Reinforcing local identities, as opposed to maintaining the ongoing farcical and hypocritical rhetoric of a deeply rooted nationalist collective in all parts of Israel’s northern front – in Lebanon and Syria, may increase the focus of various populations on developing their local economy and competing over resources in a manner that increases restraining warring initiatives against Israel.
The dream of Western powers for an independent and unitary Lebanese state that is not under Syrian hegemony (and where Hezbollah no longer has a paralyzing hold on Lebanese state institutions) is unrealistic. Under such false dreams, Hezbollah has only increased its dominance of Lebanon. The alternative vision proposed here, that seeks long-term Syrian and Lebanese stability based on decentralized constitutional arrangements, leaving Syria as the main arbiter, has a better chance of succeeding. This should be the basis for practical discussions on the future of Lebanon between Israel and its allies.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.