As far as failed states go––when all institutions, the bureaucracy, and the economy collapse––Lebanon appears to be holding the line, albeit barely. Its executive agencies––presidency, council of ministers, and bureaucracy––still churn out decisions and actions, although with the bare minimum of efficiency and effectiveness. Lebanon’s legislative branch, the Chamber of Deputies, recently finished its latest constitutionally mandated session, held in a theater instead of its traditional home in the center of Beirut to avoid protesters and amid widespread disagreements among its factions. Its bureaucratic edifice and security services still function but are under tremendous stress because of serious financial trouble, governmental inertia, and fears from the coronavirus threatening Lebanese society.
But what has become patently obvious is that Lebanon’s chances for emerging from its troubles and halting the slide toward failed state status have become inseparable from what becomes of Hezbollah, the Party of God, which is both a political force and an armed militia within the Lebanese polity. Now that the party has scaled back its large military deployment in Syria and assured the survival of the Bashar al-Assad regime, it has taken a more active role in publicly managing the minutiae of its control over Lebanon. But it is this very activism in inter-elite competition that has jeopardized whatever chances the country has to overcome decades of economic mismanagement and corruption that may only be addressed with the help of regional and international financial institutions.
Hezbollah in More Control, but…
Lebanon today is in the midst of its worst economic and political crisis that, if not immediately addressed, will drive the country over the proverbial edge. The widespread protests that broke out in October 2019 and quieted down (because of fears of COVID-19 infections) hesitantly returned for a short period toward the end of April; they are now reappearing more forcefully as a months-old lockdown is relaxed. The economy is still in a virtual free fall as the government of Hassan Diab dithers with a failed economic plan he proposed on April 30. Inter-elite compromises are almost nonexistent as confessional leaders work to preserve their privileges and the country’s parliament stifles necessary reforms. To be sure, as the de facto political actor with the most influence over Diab’s government, Hezbollah has become fully responsible for what happens both in and to Lebanon—and, it has the most to lose if things do not quickly turn out for the better in the country.
While giving verbal support to demonstrators’ demands, the party and its allies orchestrated a campaign to disrupt the protests. Hezbollah and AMAL thugs even attacked demonstrators.
The eruption of the October 2019 protests against government corruption, the country’s confessional political arrangement and patronage politics, and the factors behind Lebanon’s economic collapse created a new environment in which Hezbollah found itself in need of asserting control. While giving verbal support to demonstrators’ demands, the party and its allies––specifically President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri’s AMAL Movement––orchestrated a campaign to disrupt the protests. Hezbollah and AMAL thugs even attacked demonstrators. The party opposed the October 29, 2019 resignation of then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri because his departure would mean the collapse of the Hezbollah-sponsored deal allowing for Aoun’s ascension to the presidency in 2016 in exchange for Hariri’s appointment as premier. When he did resign, the deal collapsed. With Hariri’s resignation, the death of that deal, and the difficulty of finding another Sunni to head a new government, Hezbollah arrived at the decision that it needed to be more in control of daily political machinations to prevent total chaos or the full collapse of the political system on its watch.
Choosing Hassan Diab––a Sunni academic without a power base––as premier, with support mainly from Hezbollah’s allies in parliament, inaugurated a new era headlined by the party’s emergence as the pivotal actor in inter-elite politics. But this development came just as Lebanon’s economic calamity was overtaken by responses to the coronavirus crisis that necessitated restrictions on movement, public outlays to address the pandemic, and practically a shutdown of all economic activities. It did not help that Hezbollah was accused of helping the spread of COVID-19 in the country when it forced the government to keep admitting Lebanese returnees from Iran as the Islamic Republic was experiencing one of the worst cases of infections in the world. Coupled with the party’s position vis-à-vis public protests and severe economic conditions, this gave Hezbollah the unwelcome distinction of being not only a part of the country’s problems but the failed and ineffective leader incapable of addressing them.
Hezbollah’s worst governing failure has arguably been limiting Diab’s freedom of action, although many think the latter is not up to the job.
Hezbollah’s worst governing failure has arguably been limiting Diab’s freedom of action, although many think the latter is not up to the job. While trumpeting nearly nonexistent achievements, Diab has been stymied by objections and demands not only from the opposition to his tenure but also from those who approved choosing him for the premiership. In fact, the government’s achievement record is dismal, largely because its members cannot agree on specific policy options. In the latest episode of flagrant corruption and manipulation politics, Diab was forced to reverse his rejection of a power plant to be built in the Salaata municipality on the northern coast. The project is a darling of the leader of the FPM and President Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, and his cronies, but it is opposed even by some Hezbollah allies as well as adversaries. This was no less than a public embarrassment for Diab, who wants to project a can-do attitude at this crucial juncture of Lebanon’s negotiations with international financial institutions. It appears that despite the fact that he is a rare Sunni politician who cooperates with Hezbollah, Diab is expendable in the party’s careful handling of its mercurial ally Bassil who, since 2006, has given it much needed domestic Christian cover as Hezbollah grew more influential.
Last April, and during a cabinet meeting, Diab shelved an agenda item about administrative appointments to the country’s central bank and other financial regulatory bodies, complaining about their politicization by his own cabinet ministers––belonging to the FPM and the north-based Marada Movement of Suleiman Franjieh. Also in April, Hezbollah attempted to stage an institutional coup when its partisans and some allies organized protests in front of the central bank to demand the replacement of Riad Salameh, the independent governor of the bank, Banque du Liban (BdL), allegedly because he caused the collapse of the national currency, the pound. Salameh has been in his post since 1993; he was last reappointed for a fifth, six-year term by none other than Hezbollah ally President Aoun in 2017, specifically because Salameh was the best candidate to handle the country’s finances since the end of the civil war in 1990. But over the last decade, Salameh has had a falling out with Hezbollah because of his role as the unlucky enforcer of American demands on Lebanese financial institutions that they not deal with Hezbollah, under threat of sanctions. In essence, the party’s gripe against Salameh is much older than the governor’s handling of today’s finances in Lebanon and is focused on his due diligence in protecting the interests of the country’s banks and, ultimately, those of the state.
The party’s gripe against Salameh is much older than the governor’s handling of today’s finances in Lebanon and is focused on his due diligence in protecting the interests of the country’s banks and, ultimately, those of the state.
After Hezbollah’s attack on Salameh, Diab himself addressed the nation after a cabinet meeting attended by President Aoun to denounce the governor’s so-called “suspicious ambiguity” in handling the country’s finances. That affair ended almost immediately as AMAL leader Nabih Berri and the Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai opposed firing Salameh—whose executive position, incidentally, is the last one that is outside of Hezbollah’s direct influence. (Salameh’s post is also the last of three reserved for the Christian Maronites; the other two are the presidency and the leadership of the army.) When all was said and done, Diab ended up souring a crucial relationship with Lebanon’s most internationally connected official, one who remains pivotal in any future deal to rescue the ailing Lebanese economy, which is the prime minister’s most urgent mission.
Hezbollah’s reputation as the most influential political and military force in the country is also Diab’s bane as he maneuvers to persuade international financial institutions to come to Lebanon’s rescue. The Lebanese government has asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue package of $10 billion. With discussions still ongoing, it is assumed that Lebanon will have to address endemic problems of corruption and to reform public outlays before receiving any assistance. The aid is also assumed to be contingent upon whether the Lebanese government appears free from the party’s dictates, a condition belied by the latter’s status as a state-within-the-state. In May, UN Secretary-General António Guterres demanded that the Lebanese army should prevent the party from acquiring weapons and criticized the latter for being entangled in Syria. France, the United States, and other countries are also skeptical about aiding Lebanon so long as Hezbollah appears to be in charge of its politics.
Tethering Lebanon’s Fate to That of Syria
Hezbollah’s dominant position in Lebanon and its insistence on remaining engaged in regional affairs make decoupling Lebanon’s fate from that of Syria, and by extension Iran, almost impossible. Recently, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah called for closer Lebanese-Syrian relations, which Lebanon had scaled back since 2012. During the last years of former President Michel Suleiman’s tenure (2008-2014), Lebanon officially practiced a policy of dissociation from Syrian affairs pursuant to a national dialogue led by Suleiman and culminating in the Baabda Declaration of 2012. The declaration, however, did not dissuade Hezbollah from throwing its military might behind the regime of Bashar al-Assad and practically rescuing it from collapse, along with other Iran-supported militias and, later, Russia. Indeed, Hezbollah’s role in Syria was and remains one of the defining issues separating it from several other political forces in Lebanon.
Hezbollah is trying both to assert its primacy over domestic affairs in Lebanon and to assist the Syrian regime in any way possible in imposing its authority over Syria, following long years of war and instability.
Now free of pressures from former President Suleiman and former Prime Minister Hariri, Hezbollah is trying both to assert its primacy over domestic affairs in Lebanon and to assist the Syrian regime in any way possible in imposing its authority over Syria, following long years of war and instability. Today, the party is acquiescing in a massive smuggling operation of food and fuel into Syria, one that is using a large number of illegal entry points in its areas of control across the Lebanese-Syrian border. It is reported that the smuggled goods are actually imported by the Lebanese government and subsidized for domestic use. The party is also reportedly involved in the manufacturing and distribution of drugs and may not escape being impacted by the ongoing dispute between President Assad and his cousin Rami Makhlouf. Additionally, Hezbollah is still an active participant in military operations around Syria’s northwestern Idlib province and recently lost fighters there. The party’s positions in Syria remain frequent targets of Israeli raids, especially in areas of southern Syria close to the occupied Golan Heights.
As renewal of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) approaches, Hezbollah is once again rejecting the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended its war with Israel in 2006. That resolution reaffirmed Resolution 1559 of 2004, stipulating that the Lebanese government extend its writ over all its territory, including the Lebanese-Syrian border (through which Hezbollah dispatches fighters to help the Assad regime and receives weapons). Hezbollah’s rejection of such implementation and Israeli demands that UNIFIL’s mission be broadened even further—to allow it to search for weapons caches in south Lebanon—may very well lead to a new war between the party and Israel. Such a situation is least conducive to correcting Lebanon’s dismal economic conditions.
Finally, one very important complication in Hezbollah’s role in Syria is related to the implementation of the American Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act signed by US President Donald Trump in December 2019. While focused on dealing with the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime, the act also contains sanctions against institutions and individuals materially assisting it. Hezbollah is obviously such an entity and the question always remains as to whether Lebanon, the country and state, can escape being lumped in with the Party of God as aiding and abetting Assad’s atrocities. So far, Lebanon’s banks have generally been in the clear on this, thanks in large part to the efforts of central bank governor Salameh, whom, ironically, Hezbollah and its associates have been trying to dislodge from his position.
While focused on dealing with the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime, the [Caesar] act also contains sanctions against institutions and individuals materially assisting it. Hezbollah is obviously such an entity.
By tethering Beirut’s fortunes to those of Damascus and Tehran, however, the party is making Lebanon an unwitting, silent, and hapless partner in the machinations surrounding Syria and involving Syrian domestic actors, Russia, Iran, Israel, and the United States. Of specific importance is the dynamic involving the Russian-Iranian competition over control of Syria. Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin minced no words when he directed his foreign and defense ministries to make arrangements with the Syrian government for additional Russian facilities in Syria—as if Assad or the Syrian state are capable of resisting such a request. This comes as Iran continues to be heavily invested in the country and is interested in it as an important base in its project of extending control to the Mediterranean. For now, the Russian-Iranian relationship is still amicable; but it is not hard to view it as becoming more competitive in the future, putting Hezbollah, and Lebanon, right in the middle of very unpleasant circumstances.
Hezbollah Cannot Save Lebanon
As Lebanon commemorates its 100th year of existence as a separate geographical entity and an independent country, it needs to reform both its economic system and its confessional political arrangement that have been causes of successive crises in the country’s history. As a powerful domestic actor, Hezbollah continues to be a real impediment to both of these pivotal factors and, now, to addressing an approaching socioeconomic calamity. As a regional force, Hezbollah exposes Lebanon to unwarranted factors over which Lebanese authorities have no control and which may very well rob the country of all vestiges of independent decision-making. This situation can no longer continue since it has become abundantly clear that Lebanon is steadily marching toward that failed state status—from which it may never be able to fully recover.