“Lebanon: Navigating crises, conferences and elections”
International Institute for Strategic Studies
London, April 4th 2018
In a meeting chaired by Virginia Comolli, the International Institute For Strategy Studies (IISS) Senior Fellow for Security and Development, prospects for Lebanese socio-economic and political stability; the effects of Saudi-Iranian rivalry on Lebanese politics; the risks of another deadly war between Israel and Hezbollah along with the likelihood of continued political and economic support provided by key powers following the upcoming legislative elections, were discussed. Comolli was joined by two Lebanese experts: Emile Hokayem, IISS Senior Fellow for Middle East Security and Alia Moubayed, IISS Director of the Geo-economics and Strategy Programme.
While Lebanon has attracted less attention than its neighbours in recent years because of the on-going civil war in Syria, its social cohesion and economy have suffered. At the same time, Lebanese politics continues to remain complex and contentious: the resignation in November (later rescinded) of Prime Minister Saad Hariri under Saudi pressure, and tensions within the various coalitions, have revealed deep cracks.
Although it is possible that the upcoming legislative elections scheduled for May 6th, could bring more clarity about the country’s internal balance, it might also raise domestic and external risks. For these reasons, Lebanon is expected to be at the centre of upcoming conferences in Europe designed to demonstrate political, security and economic support from the international community. The Lebanese government is expected to propose and commit to economic and governance reforms, regional neutrality and assistance to Syrian refugees.
Emile Hokayem began his presentation by saying that an interesting aspect of Lebanese politics had been the fact that the country managed to remain stable despite the raging war that had been going on next door in Syria. He attributed this in part to Lebanese resilience as well as a number of issues, such as:
- The fact that most regional actors had seen Lebanon as a gateway to Syria and not as an arena for war itself.
- The fact that in the eyes of international actors Lebanon was a secondary concern, given that they wanted to contain the Syrian civil war, ISIS as well as the refugee crisis.
- The fact that ‘local actors’ – i.e. local political competitors, were also keenly interested in preserving stability given that they could envision no real advantage or ‘political victory’ being attained for their various factions at the end of any conflict scenario. They were especially cognizant of the fact that only marginal gains had been attained at the conclusion of the Lebanese civil war. As a result, there was no desire on the part of all factions to engage in behaviour that did not offer substantial rewards. Due to the present internal balance that favoured Hezbollah and the fact that since 2016, the position of Hezbollah’s side in the Syrian civil war (i.e. the Assad regime) had become enhanced, there was no incentive for internal actors to upset the current situation.
According to Emile Hokayem, a process of disengagement from Lebanon had also been started by Saudi Arabia and some of its Persian Gulf partners because their investments in Lebanon had failed to pay any real dividends. This was because of the increasing strength and stature of Hezbollah, not just in Lebanon but in other arenas such as Syria and Yemen. He said, “A question asked by the Saudis after 25 years of investment in the Hariri family, was what did we get out of it?”. He noted that while in the past there had been some kind of “emotional connection on the part of Saudi leaders, such as King Fahd and King Abdullah with Lebanon, this attachment was no longer relevant for the likes of ‘MBS’ (Mohammad Bin Salman)”.
Emile Hokayem then turned to what he called, the Russian factor. He said it had been instrumental in 2016 when a deal had been finally struck to pave the way for the presidency of Michelle Aoun with Saad Hariri as Lebanon’s prime minister. He said that at the time, Hariri had become aware of his weaknesses as Hezbollah started consolidating its successes, by behaving at the same time with a large measure of magnanimity. As things turned out, Hariri had come to establish quite a close connection with President Aoun, which was the basis of the ‘November debacle’ when Hariri – under Saudi pressure – was forced to resign. It was at that moment when international actors (led by France) moved in to avoid a situation that would lead to instability in Lebanon.
Based on these factors, according to Emile Hokayem, the upcoming legislative election is likely to reflect the following:
- Hariri’s weaknesses
- Relative strength (and magnanimity) of Hezbollah.
- Rampant confusion in other camps (e.g. lack of clarity amongst the Christian camp as portrayed by the type of alliances that have come about). He said that the ‘Free Patriotic Movement’ of the Lebanese Foreign Minister, Gebran Bassil was at the same time allied with Christians, Hezbollah and others in different constituencies. This was a reflection of the reality on the ground where different parties needed to make their own deals.
All in all, it was Hokayem’s view that the Hezbollah camp was likely to achieve a majority, while predicting incoherency in the anti-Hezbollah camps. Nonetheless, he felt that whatever the outcome, on the day after the elections, Hariri and the present set up would in all likelihood continue to remain in their positions. Such an outcome would impact the kind of assistance (economic, security, countering ISIS and building up the nation’s military and humanitarian assistance) that would be provided to Lebanon by international actors.
Emile Hokayem concluded his remarks by saying that securing the kind of assistance he had mentioned was a huge priority for Lebanon. He said that election results could affect how Lebanon approached these topics, and how key international actors behaved once the results had been declared. For example:
- The question for the Persian Gulf states would be, “would our help, help us”?
- For the Israelis, the message to convey was that in case of further confrontation, unlike 2006, there would be no barriers to any Israeli reaction.
- For the US and Trump, the question was, “what good has our help achieved in the course of the past 10 years”?
Emile Hokayem concluded his comments by saying the upcoming legislative elections were likely to highlight some of these contradictions.
Alia Moubayed began her talk by noting that the global international setting had changed for Lebanon, given that global liquidity had become more expensive and development aid was getting tighter. Moreover, it was her view that the region had changed a lot due to lower oil prices having also affected the remittances that were being sent back to the country.
According to Alia Moubayed, Lebanon’s situation was further aggravated by being entangled in the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Lebanon was suffering as a result of this because funding from Persian Gulf countries had become extremely eroded at a time when the country was increasingly burdened by additional expenditures, due to mounting costs associated with refugees fleeing Syria. She said that economic growth had been projected to be around 1-1.5% with 20-30% unemployment, as well as a huge deficit
Nonetheless, the government was pressing ahead with its ambitious economic plans and was hoping that the ‘donors conference’ (also referred to as the ‘Cedre Conference’), scheduled for 6 April in Paris – or one of three such conferences to be held in 2018 – would come to the country’s assistance and provide support for its economy and army, and help it to deal with the approximately one million Syrian refugees it is hosting.
‘Q & A’ Session: Key Points
- On the subject of rivalry between Hezbollah forces and the Lebanese army, Hokayem said that this had been a complex relationship though at present there existed a closer relationship between Hezbollah, President Aoun and his Defense Minister. He noted that there were many contradictions in this relationship and many factors were also contingent on the way Israel would react in any emergency situation. He felt that in case of another conflict, unlike 2006 when the Lebanese army did not participate in hostilities, an Israeli reaction would most likely focus on them as well.
- On the subject of rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Hokayem said that at one time Lebanon was where everything in this regard was happening. But since the explosive situation in Syria, that scenario had changed dramatically. He felt that Iran’s position had become more enhanced with far less expenditure in comparison to Saudi Arabia, amplifying the fact that while Iran only supported Hezbollah, the Saudis had to try and shoulder the cost of running the Lebanese state.
- On the future prospects of Saad Hariri, Hokayem felt that in the past several months, the structural weaknesses associated with Hariri had manifested themselves quite openly, for example, his weakened position with the Saudis and his failed bet on Assad’s demise in Syria. Nonetheless, it was his view that he had made some sort of a comeback by having enhanced his relationship with President Aoun and also by having revisited Saudi Arabia again after the ‘November debacle’. In all, Hariri had made a net gain in that he had been able to use his relationship with Hezbollah, who continue to need him as a cover.