Regional instability fuels stalemate in Beirut

30 June 2015

Lebanon’s two major political factions are closely linked to regional and international players, leaving the government struggling to revive the economy in the face of unrest across the region

  • It seems any political resolution requires the neutralisation of external influences in Lebanon
  • War in Syria is by far the most polarising issue in the country and at the forefront of this is Hezbollah
  • Experts have warned of refugee conditions becoming breeding grounds for extremism in the country

The state of political paralysis that has prevented Beirut from electing a president since May 2014 is reflective of the country’s current political landscape.

With Lebanon’s two major factions – 8 March, which is led by Shia Islamist militant group and political party Hezbollah and linked to Iran and Syria; and the Western-backed, Saudi-linked 14 March – closely tied to regional and international players, it seems any political resolution requires the neutralisation of external influences.

Key fact

Shia militant group Hezbollah is a strong ally of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria

Source: MEED

Nevertheless, as Hezbollah continues to be dragged into the war in Syria, and the 14 March camp watches closely as Saudi Arabia continues its proxy conflict with Iran, a political solution in Lebanon also continues to be dependent on regional developments.

Lebanon sidelined

But as foreign powers find themselves preoccupied with the threat of the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), the escalating Yemen conflict and nuclear talks between Tehran and Washington, Lebanon is unlikely to be one of their top priorities over the coming months, despite the country’s pressing need to change its political economy.

The government has allowed foreign and regional powers and events to have a role in controlling Lebanon

Sami Atallah, Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies

“We talk about the curse of Lebanon’s geography, but in fact the government has allowed all these foreign and regional powers and events to have a role in controlling Lebanon. This is where Lebanon’s political elite have failed,” says Sami Atallah, director of the Beirut-based Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies.

“No political leader can propose anything and go ahead with it,” he says. “Each group and political leader has carved its own sort of policy and territory, but on major issues we have paralysis. Oil and gas is a perfect example. We have essentially paralysed our ability to follow through on any form of policy.”

Discoveries in the Mediterranean sea a few years ago had raised hopes for Lebanon’s oil and gas ambitions, and in 2011 the government announced that contracts were to be awarded by the end of 2012. However, following the cabinet’s resignation in 2013, there has been little progress and no streamlined approach regarding the procurement process. Atallah points to this as an illustration of the government’s inability to move forward with public policy. 

Fiscal growth

Despite this, the government has proved able to mitigate the economic fallout of the war in neighbouring Syria. Fiscal growth in 2014 was well-received across the country despite its reliance on a reduction in much-needed government spending. Analysts have highlighted this as an example of Beirut’s political resilience and ability to function despite the ideological fragmentation within government.

Lebanese politics has historically been inclusive as a result of the country’s mixed demography. The president is required to be Maronite Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament Shia Muslim. But Lebanon’s two rival alliances have blurred these lines since the civil war, with external allegiances playing a bigger role in the country’s political make-up. It is also this diversity that might cause problems as the region’s landscape seems to be shifting.

Syrian war

The war in Syria is by far the most polarising issue in the country. At the forefront of this is Hezbollah, a strong ally of the Syrian regime. The group’s leadership has encouraged military operations in the Qalamoun mountain range that makes up much of the northern border.

“Our fight in Syria will continue. And I urge all those who have issues with our operation to come and fight us in Syria,” said the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah in a public address on 26 May, celebrating 20 years since the withdrawal of  Israel from the south of Lebanon.

Tehran-backed Hezbollah has criticised Saudi Arabia for its role in the Yemen conflict, which has resulted in other voices in Lebanon warning against ‘Hezbollah’s verbal campaign against Saudi Arabia’.

On the other hand, there has also been regional criticism of Hezbollah’s relationship with Tehran and its continued involvement in the Syrian war, although this is unlikely to stop as Hezbollah becomes increasingly worried about the fall of Bashar al-Assad and the uncertain consequences if Iran and the US reach a deal.

Hezbollah ties

“Right now, Hezbollah is very much part of the government and even more so moving forward – if the Syrian regime falls or the instability in Syria continues, Hezbollah will want to take a stronger role in Lebanon to protect themselves,” says Atallah.

The Sunni blocs have also been accused of funding some rebel groups in Syria, with Lebanon’s stance on the conflict becoming increasingly unclear.

Aside from the geo-political implications of the Syrian war, Lebanon is now faced with a refugee crisis. UN estimates have put the figure at 1.5 million, although local estimates suggest this number is closer to 1.8 million, with many more displaced Syrians unaccounted for.

Atallah tells MEED the current policy on the refugee crisis is: “to have no policy. The current policy is a policy of doing nothing – the only thing that came out was closing the borders and, although that has halted, that’s not a policy.”

Racist policies

“The refugee [crisis] is a perfect example where racist policies are being created by each political group. It could be an opportunity for the government to think about moving forward,” he says. Instead, the refugee issue has ended up as another example of “partisan politics, with no leadership dictating a lack of public policy on the issue”.

The government recently released a four-page policy briefing on the refugee situation, but critics of the document have said it is too vague in its directive and does not create enough of a partnership between Beirut-based UN agencies and local faith groups, which have been at the forefront of funding displaced Syrians.

Experts have also warned of refugee conditions becoming breeding grounds for extremism in the country.

Another major external event that is likely to affect the current political landscape in Beirut is the outcome of nuclear talks between the US and Iran. It is widely understood that Hezbollah receives financial support from Tehran and it is unclear if there will be any conditions regarding the funding of military groups in the region if talks are indeed successful.

Coupled with the deterioration of the Syrian regime, another financier of the Hezbollah, the future of the Shia group remains unclear considering their military campaigns in both the north and south of the country.

If Hezbollah’s funding dries up as a result of regional events, this could pave a way for the 14 March camp to attract more foreign investment from the GCC as the group’s influence faces uncertainty. But for now, Hezbollah continues to enjoy on-the-ground community support although some of that is being lost due to the group’s continued activity in the Syrian war.

Disgruntled population

Despite this, Lebanon’s political class may find that a disgruntled population, frustrated with rising living costs and unemployment, forces a change from the historic stance of reactionary politics as regional events start working against all factions of the country’s power structure.

The status quo is unlikely to change but, as regional events continue to shift the political make-up of the region, Lebanon may find itself needing to respond.

Iran’s role following the signing of any nuclear agreement will affect the support Hezbollah receives from Tehran; the war in Yemen will determine Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy priorities; and, of course, falling oil prices will also have an impact.

Lebanon political alliances

Lebanon’s two major camps - 8 March and 14 March - were named after demonstrations for and against Syria’s military presence in the country in 2005, a month after former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was killed by a car bomb.

8 March

Hassan Nasralah

Hassan Nasralah

The main players of the 8 March alliance are Hezbollah (a Shia group led by Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah); the Free Patriotic Movement (Maronite Christians led by Michel Aoun); and Lebanon’s second-largest Shia group, the Amal Movement. The coalition has close ties with Iran and Syria.
Regional events:
The 8 March camp will be concerned by Iranian nuclear talks and whether groups such as Hezbollah will lose financial and political support from Tehran as a result of improved relations with the US. The state of the Syrian regime will be another big concern for 8 March and Hezbollah in particular, who are helping the regime fight near the northern borders.

14 March

Saad Hariri

Saad Hariri

The main players of the 14 March alliance are the Future Movement (headed by Saad Hariri and predominantly consisting of Sunnis); the Progressive Socialist Party (headed by Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon’s Druze community); and the Lebanese Forces (led by Samir Geagea and mainly consisting of Maronite Christians). The coalition has close ties with Western countries as well as Saudi Arabia.
Regional events:
The 14 March camp will be closely following the fall in oil prices and the impact it will have on Riyadh’s influence in the area, as Lebanon looks to attract Saudi-backed investments. How Saudi Arabia comes out of the war in Yemen and the direction of its foreign policy will be another concern.
The alliance will also be looking west as the US and Europe fail to make progress on their response in Syria and the rising threat of the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

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