The ongoing 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 for political dominance and prominent clans prevent a fairer distribution of resources. Religious, ideological and local identities dominate.
Indeed, the loyalty of the Lebanese public to the state as an established framework never really solidified. In a way, Lebanon never fully became a unitary state—and it isn’t expected to become one in the foreseeable future.
It is difficult for those who favorably regarded the uprising against the Syrians following the Hariri assassination (February 2005) to digest the fact 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 in Lebanon (“Operation Peace for Galilee” in 1982). Ever since the civil war in the ’70s and up until 2005, Syria was the patron that made sure no Lebanese political player ever accumulated sufficient power to dictate state policy. (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 from Lebanon was the result of immense Western pressure during the height of American hegemony in the region. This reflected Western rage over the Hariri assassination and the illusions of 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 2006 war with Israel and the internal Lebanese conflict of 2008.
During the long absence of strong political patronage, control of Lebanon shifted toward Hezbollah and its Iranian masters. Hezbollah and Iran are the only elements at the moment with 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 economic whole.
Lebanon’s financial collapse was not the result of Hezbollah’s state within a state. Its roots 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 collapse—which now 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 Lebanon’s banks.
According to some estimates, the Central Bank of Lebanon is responsible for the loss of more than $160 billion that was 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 society, that did not input substantial amounts to the country’s coffers, the wealthy and politically connected were exempted from paying any taxes at all.
At the same time, there has been no functioning Lebanese government for a long time. This prolonged, systemic failure sparked the resignation in 2019 of Sa’ad al-Hariri, continued with the establishment of Hassan Diab’s weak government and led to the current crisis where nobody seems able to establish a government.
The conduct of external players isn’t helping, either. Western countries, together with Arab Sunni countries, want to prevent 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 country’s systemic failings are not expected to change.
Hezbollah’s military strength is unchallenged. The Lebanese army is neither able to act nor interested in acting against the organization. The remaining Lebanese factions are very much weaker than Hezbollah. Even in the unlikely scenario of all Lebanese factions uniting against Hezbollah, they would not have the critical mass required to threaten Hezbollah’s military dominance.
Nor will an external military initiative against Hezbollah necessarily lead to the desired result. 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 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 Shi’ites), but is also bringing in energy resources from Iran. It has even declared that it will consider any attack on Iranian tankers bringing fuel to Lebanon as 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 have also become the exclusive source of fuel to Syria.
The recent declaration by the American ambassador to Lebanon that the United States will act to connect Lebanon to the Egyptian-Jordanian gas network via Syria is far from being a near-term solution to the country’s severe fuel shortage. Implementing this plan will require the formation of a government in Lebanon and an amendment of the U.S. “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 its quality as a fighting force will be eroded. (This is 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 Shi’ite community, the local identification of those joining its ranks will not dissolve and may increase internal tensions that already exist both within the Shi’ite community and the organization itself.
Militarily speaking, Israel’s policy of thwarting the delivery of quality weapons to Hezbollah will continue and will focus on the Syrian arena. In this way, Israel avoids the potential international criticism it might draw if it acted in Lebanon. Moreover, there is significant added value in seeking to eliminate Iran’s and Hezbollah’s Syrian allies within Assad’s government, as well as in the Syrian military and its intelligence branches. The Syrians are paying a price for cooperating in the transfer of 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 toward Israel.
Developments in Syria will also have deeply significant implications for Lebanon. President Assad recently announced that the central government approach “is dead.” He talked about a non-central model (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 partially, to the Syrian issue by formulating a new constitution that will adopt a non-centralized model as a major component of the country’s future. If this happens, it could help advance a similar political arrangement in Lebanon.
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 a relatively high degree of independence, whereas Abu Dhabi dictates unified foreign and defense policies.
In Iraq, for example, tribal divisions, ethnic groups and sects do not make for a stable government, and this leads to the involvement of foreign elements, especially Iran and to a certain extent Turkey. A decentralized government in Syria and Lebanon will not prevent such external interference, and may, in fact, limit it 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 Lebanon and Syria, may increase the focus of various populations on developing their local economy and competing over resources in a manner that restrains attacks against Israel.
The Western dream of an independent and unitary Lebanese state that is not under Syrian hegemony (and where Hezbollah no longer has a paralyzing hold on state institutions) is just that—a dream. In reality, Hezbollah has only increased its dominance of Lebanon. The alternative vision proposed here, which 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.
Aiman Mansour is an expert on inter-Arab politics, Israel’s northern front and regional strategy. He served for 13 years in Israel’s National Security Council/Prime Minister’s Office in various posts, the most recent being head of the Middle East and Africa Division (2015-2019). He has a doctorate in political science from Haifa University.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.