Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Has Lebanon Reached the Abyss?

Filed under: Hizbullah, Lebanon

Has Lebanon Reached the Abyss?
Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah in discussion with Lebanese President Michel Aoun (Arab press)

Since October 2019, the world has witnessed the dismemberment of the state of Lebanon. The confessional order for Lebanon was established in 1943 when a national covenant distributed the top positions of the state among the three main communities that constituted modern and post-colonial Lebanon. It is now being dismantled. Although this covenant was amended in 1990 at the end of a civil war that lasted 25 years, it became obvious that the balancing arrangements reached then were no longer valid after the demographic changes that had occurred in Lebanon. The imbalance placed great strains on the state and attracted foreign actors who attempted to take control one after the other since the end of the fifties: Egypt, the PLO, Syria, Israel, and finally Iran. However, unlike the past, when the foreign presence grafted itself artificially with the collaboration of a local actor, Lebanon today is under direct Iranian influence through its local proxy/client/ally, the Shiite community led by Hizbullah and Amal, who represent more than one-third of the Lebanese population. Gone are the days when a U.S. Marines battalion could change the political map in Lebanon and forgotten are the days when the colonial power, France, could dictate the political agenda. It took almost 40 years since Hizbullah’s inception (with close Iranian guidance) to change the balance of power in Lebanon and through a quisling Maronite president, who owes his job to Hizbullah, the holder of the reins of power in Lebanon, now free of Syrian and Israeli military presence.

Syrian troops withdrawing from Beirut, August 1982
Syrian troops withdrawing from Beirut, August 1982 (Lenny Ben-David)

Knowing the Lebanese system’s intricacies, Hizbullah took profit from the corrupted politicians and system to deepen its hold on the Lebanese state by creating alternatives to the failing state. Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon under Hizbullah’s military pressure in May 2000 and the so-called “divine victory” of Hizbullah in 2006 against Israel transformed Hizbullah from a local petty militia into a national and Arab hero, a fact that allowed Hizbullah to deepen its influence on the political system in Lebanon. Under Iranian sponsorship, Hizbullah achieved a position never before reached by any political faction in Lebanon which enabled it to dictate the political agenda as it pleases Tehran.

As a matter of fact, Hizbullah was the only Lebanese militia that retained its weapons and military formations – in open defiance of all UN resolutions following the second Lebanon war in 2006. Furthermore, as a lesson from this war, Hizbullah enacted an Iranian-inspired program and built a missile force that includes more than 150,000 missiles of all sizes and ranges with a special emphasis on long-range precision weapons that could hit targets deep inside Israeli territory. Hizbullah went as far as planning operations designated to conquer Israeli settlements in the upper Galilee facing the Lebanese border. They dug tunnels (now believed to be neutralized by Israel), which were intended to allow its elite forces to cross into Israeli territory in their premeditated surprise attack to conquer parts of the Galilee.

An Israeli officer explores a Hizbullah tunnel into Israeli territory
An Israeli officer explores a Hizbullah tunnel into Israeli territory. (IDF)

However, beginning in 2012, Hizbullah’s military intervention in Syria at Tehran’s instruction generated serious cracks in the Lebanese system: Hundreds of Hizbullah fighters from Lebanon were killed or wounded, and their funerals were featured on restive social media.

Mass Hizbullah funeral in Lebanon, June 19, 2016
Mass Hizbullah funeral in Lebanon, June 19, 2016

Meanwhile, Gulf and Saudi money, which fed the Lebanese Ponzi economic system, were no longer injected into the Lebanese banks when the extravagant Gulf tourists canceled Lebanon from their travel agendas.

The economic crisis burst in all of its intensity at the end of 2019. The spiraling effect hit almost every sector and spared only the alternative state established by Hizbullah.

The Mediterranean “Playground” Is Now a Wreck

Now, one year later, Lebanon is a failed state with half of its population under the poverty line, while “extreme poverty” (measured according to people living on less than $14 per day) has increased threefold from 8% in 2019 to 23% in 2020. That means that out of a national population of six million, the total number of poor is currently 2.7 million.1 Moreover, since the beginning of the protests, a new wave of migration has struck Lebanon, and hundreds of its physicians, scientists, academicians, – and whoever can afford to cross the Mediterranean – are fleeing to Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

The destruction of Beirut
The Beirut port after the devastating August 4, 2020 bomb blast. (YouTube screenshot). The explosion resulted in over 200 dead, 6,000 injured, and more than 300,000 internally displaced persons. The damage is estimated at more than $15 billion.2

The political quagmire has not changed. Since the resignation of the Diab government in August 2020 following the devastating explosion in the Beirut port, Lebanon is still without a government. Potential international donors have not intervened to help the dying economy because of the political impasse, Hizbullah’s political involvement, and the government’s inability to initiate and adopt the reforms required by the donor countries. By the end of January 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic and the severe economic crisis have pushed the Lebanese to the streets where the security forces are firing live bullets to quell the protests, and mobs are hurling hand grenades and Molotov cocktails against the police, army, and security forces.

Lebanon Anti-Corona Lockdown Protesters Torch Government Building
Lebanon Anti-Corona Lockdown Protesters Torch Government Building, January 29, 2021, (Screenshot)3

In this dire situation, there is only one winner so far – Hizbullah, which has tightened its grip of the Shiite community and the poor in the Lebanese population. Through its parallel system, Hizbullah maintains, feeds, finances, educates, and provides healthcare, a banking system, and specialized supermarkets for its members. It even extends loans despite the U.S. sanctions that targeted its financial system. Hizbullah holds the key to the formation of the government as it is perceived as the real arbitrator in the Lebanese body politic and the practical “kingmaker” in Lebanon.

However, Hizbullah’s special position has triggered resentment, and large parts of the Lebanese society are angry that Hizbullah has used its militia to attack protesters and quell rioting against the economic situation. Hizbullah is no longer a national consensus issue in Lebanon, and its activities and positions are scrutinized by harsh critics who blame Hizbullah as the ultimate source of the constitutional crisis in Lebanon.

What Options Are Open for Lebanon and the Lebanese?

Lebanon expects a miracle, which is not going to take place. As a result, there are three potential options:

  1. Drifting into a civil war. The different militias are preparing themselves for such a situation. This could be the extension of the previous civil war, which came to an end in 1990 and redistributed power between the different sectarian parties. Such a war could create a situation in which foreign powers will come to the rescue of their clients. Lebanon will be the theater where the conflict between Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Israel, the United States, and other parties will be waged. The end of this scenario is not foreseeable.

  2. Cantonization: with Lebanon torn apart in a civil war, it is likely that the central government will fail to impose an end to the hostilities. As a result, the territorial partition of Lebanon will surface again with Mount Lebanon being the Christian canton, the western part of Beirut, which includes the Hizbullah Dahiya neighborhood, South Lebanon, and the Bekaa Valley until the northern border with Syria would be a Shiite-dominated canton, and the Chouf (south of Mount Lebanon) would be a Druze stronghold, and the Sunnis will have parts of Beirut, Sidon, and Tripoli – the capital of the north. This partition, which reflects the present situation in Lebanon, does not mean that the central government will disappear. It will survive without any prerogatives or influence. It will remain as a symbol and will refrain from engaging troops on behalf of one or the other parties. The fear of Lebanon’s government disappearing could ignite a confrontation between the different communities over Lebanon’s political identity.

  3. Open conflict over Lebanon’s identity: In such an eventuality, one could easily envision an attempt by Hizbullah to take over Beirut and impose itself on the Lebanese by means of its military power. The Lebanese army does not stand a chance in a confrontation with Hizbullah as it is itself split along sectarian military formations. In such an event, one can imagine that the Iranian patrons would bless such a venture and rush to consolidate Hizbullah’s grip on Lebanon. Such a scenario is deeply conditioned only by Israel’s reaction since at present, there is no Syrian army that can intervene as it did in 1976 when rescue was requested by then-Maronite President Suleiman Franjieh.

Lebanon is in transition. The Lebanese body politic is already looking at the next presidential and legislative elections due in 2022. Will Lebanon’s changing identity be decided by then?

* * *