The new president will face many challenges among others the repatriation of Syrian refugees. The role played by Hezbollah, supported by Iran. Israel has accused Hezbollah of having obtained strategic weapons. Trump’s stance on Iran could aggravate Lebanon’s already precarious politics and society.
Michel Aoun, the former 81-year-old Christian general and protagonist of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) was elected President of Lebanon in October of 2016. Aoun is a close ally of the Shiite political and military movement Hezbollah (Party of God). His election filled a 29-month long institutional void, which needed a difficult agreement with his former adversary, the Sunni Saad Hariri, who has resumed his post as prime minister. Under the terms of the “national pact”, an unwritten agreement concluded in 1943, the presidency of Lebanon is reserved for a Maronite Christian, the post of prime minister goes to a Sunni Muslim and the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies to a Shiite. The election of the new President of the Republic certainly helps Lebanon, renewing confidence in the country’s layout.
During his investiture, Michel Aoun outlined some of the Lebanon ‘s main challenges. The most difficult of these became rather clear by what Aoun decided to omit from the speech. But, it was more what he didn’t say that represent the most difficult issues facing the country. The general spoke about fighting terrorism and preventing regional crises from spreading in Lebanon. He spoke of the need to repatriate the 1.5 million Syrian refugees, who live in Lebanon. But, Aoun made no mention of his Hezbollah allies’ arsenal and Beirut’s stance vis-à-vis the war in Syria. Officially, the Lebanese government has not taken sides, divided as it is between Iranian and Saudi spheres of influence. Indeed, Saad Hariri’s decision to support, or at least not oppose, Aoun’s presidency represents a crucial political concession. It reflects the rescinding influence of Saudi Arabia in Lebanon and the ever more important role played by Hezbollah, supported by Iran. The Saudis backed Hariri during the years of political struggle that pitted the Sunni camp against Hezbollah and its allies, particularly after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri (Saad’s father) in 2005.
Still, Aoun’s election has sent an important signal, whether the new President chooses to speak of it or not. Iran has welcomed Aoun’s presidency as a victory for Hezbollah. Presumably, when Hariri agreed to the arrangement, he was expecting Hillary Clinton to win the race to the White House. Clinton was hinting at a deeper American military engagement in Syria in favor of the (overwhelmingly anti-Shiite) rebels. Meanwhile, Hariri could have counted on Clinton upholding the Iranian nuclear agreement. Donald Trump, as erratic as his foreign policy has been, never minced words when it came to Iran. He wanted to scrap or significantly renegotiate the breakthrough deal of 2015, which partially lifted international sanctions on the Islamic Republic going back to 1979. As explained below, Trump’s stance on Iran could aggravate Lebanon’s already precarious politics and society.
The US State Department was concerned by Aoun’s Hezbollah ties.
Upon the new president’s election, the U.S called on the Lebanese parties to respect their international obligations, including UN Security Council resolutions, which stipulate that there can be no authority in Lebanon other than that of the government. The latter was a not so veiled allusion to Hezbollah. Nevertheless, by the end of 2016, Prime Minister Saad Hariri managed to form a new government, which reflected the complex mosaic of Lebanon’s ‘confessional’ political system. Except for the Falangist Christians, all major parties are represented. The new government also includes new portfolios, including one for Women’s affairs, one for Refugees and one specifically intended to fight corruption, a scourge that has long plagued Lebanese politics. Most interestingly, Hariri’s government also features two ministers representing Hezbollah Shiite party ministers.
The nod to Hezbollah, apart from addressing the National Pact arrangements, reflects the overwhelming concern of the government to hold back the Syrian crisis from spreading within its borders. The Syrian crisis, which began in March 2011, has deeply divided the country between supporters of the Bashar al-Assad regime and those who support the rebellion. The one problem all Lebanese politicians want to resolve is the refugee crisis. The situation is doubtless unsustainable. Lebanon has received 1.5 million Syrian refugees since the outbreak of the conflict. But, Lebanon’s population of about 4.5 million and it still has at least half a million Palestinian refugees. That means 40% of the people in Lebanon are refugees. These fuels problems of unemployment, inefficient infrastructure, such as power generation, and healthcare. Lebanese growth is only one percent. But, the refugee situation also prolongs instability, discouraging foreign investors and making it harder for the country to develop its principal resource of tourism.
Both Hariri and Aoun agree that Europe and the United States should offer Beirut more direct financial aid, $10-12 billion over seven years, to confront the crisis. Ideally, the refugees should return to Syria, but the war persists and it’s unclear how Donald Trump will act. The U.S. president ordered a Tomahawk missile strike against a Syrian air force base, following an alleged chemical weapon attack in the province of Idlib last April. Trump and his administration immediately accused the government of Bashar al-Asad, despite the absence of an independent investigation. The episode has soured relations between the United States and Russia, rising many questions about what actions Trump might take in Syria. Before, U.S. cruise missile strike, Trump seemed more than willing to let Russia and Syria take over the rebellion to at least achieve some form of stability.
That would have enabled Lebanese authorities to be more ‘enthusiastic’ about sending Syrian refugees back. But, now they might be preparing to take more in. Moreover, Hariri and Aoun – and certainly Hezbollah – do not agree on what might constitute the most desirable outcome in the Syrian war. Hariri, does not consider a continuation of the al-Asad presidency as desirable or even possible. He wants to see both the Asad and Islamic State pushed out. That is an outcome unsurprisingly like what Saudi Arabia and Obama’s United States had wanted; it’s also the opposite of what Hezbollah wants. Still, even Hariri, as prime minister, has not lost sight of the fact that Hezbollah would be essential in resisting an Israeli invasion. Moreover, there is a considerable risk that Trump might repeal the nuclear agreement with Iran. Without a deal preventing Iran from pursuing research to develop a nuclear weapon, Israel or the U.S. might feel compelled to attack Iran.
A Volatile Cocktail: Iran, Hezbollah, Israel and Trump
Hezbollah, would suffer damages from such an escalation. Iran would react to such an attack by unleashing Hezbollah, which as occurred in the summer of 2006, would prod an Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon with the White House’s blessing. Hezbollah has acquired significant battle field experience, battling Islamic State and other well-armed militias in Syria, which is another concern for Israel, beyond any Iran nuclear deal ‘incident’. Namely, Israel has become sufficiently concerned by Hezbollah’s growing influence and international strength, that it could act against it anytime. Israel has also accused Hezbollah of having obtained strategic weapons capable of threatening its naval forces in the event of a conflict. Tel Aviv says Hezbollah has eight P-800 Onyx anti-ship missiles, also known as Yakhont, which can sink ships. Thus, they threaten the Israeli navy and any other military or civilian ships sailing in the Mediterranean.
Any attack against Hezbollah risks compromising the delicate political Lebanese balance in a domino effect, given Hezbollah is allied with the Maronite Christian president Michel Aoun but not with PM Hariri.
Indeed, the last months of 2016 in Lebanon produced an important political turnaround, terminating a long period of institutional instability, which has also opened a path out of the economic crisis. Even the deep differences that persist between the President and the Prime Minister, this time, will not stop a concerted effort to target corruption and eliminating, as much as possible, sectarian interests from the economy to encourage economic growth and even entice investments to help improve infrastructure and wealth re-distribution for more social stability. Lebanon is characterized by the essence of social mobility and deep inequality. The Lebanese government has always failed to impose more equitable taxation, in controlling rampant public debt, in spending intelligently on the infrastructure needed for citizenship. In short, the executive should perceive the deep gap in our social system. That very weakness is what allowed Hezbollah – thanks to Iranian funds – to fill in the gaps left by the State, providing services for those members of society left behind. It so happens, historically, the Shiites made up Lebanon’s poorest.
The new government has little chance of doing all this. All the traditional obstacles remain, but it must also deal with the Syrian refugee crisis, which adds to the list of burdens. But, Lebanon’s fate hangs on the whims of President Trump and his overly cozy ties to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Lebanon would suffer more than anyone else’s consequences of an escalation between the US and Iran. The Lebanese banking system is highly exposed to US Treasury decisions. The U.S. forced Lebanon to adopt measures to control banking operations, ensuring Hezbollah be ostracized from the system, where some two thirds of all deposits are in dollars. Until last November, technically, the Lebanese government could keep Hezbollah out of the banking system.
As of that time, Hezbollah has become an important government component. Therefore, the government can hardly shut out one of its key parties. Still, the biggest threat to Lebanon’s stability now is the Trump-Netanyahu duo. The Israeli PM, contrary to the relationship with Obama, can rely above all on Donald Trump’s support, which has always put an emphasis on hostility towards Tehran since the beginning of his term. His latest moves have more than confirmed this, as he has taken on Syria and Russia itself. In the Middle East, Trump’s goal is to hit Iran. Whether he does it in response to a provocation (unlikely) or pre-emptively (more likely), Hezbollah and Lebanon will not remain immune.