Five years into the Syrian crisis and with an all-out war on its doorstep, Lebanon is experiencing ever-worsening repercussions of its neighbour’s collapse. Yet the small country remains resilient, despite the influx of a million Syrian refugees, the regional turmoil, current tensions over a vacant presidency, and the fact that its institutions are barely functioning. It is therefore a small miracle that Lebanon’s relative peace in a turbulent Middle East has so far been maintained amid its near-total dysfunction, or that large-scale protests did not erupt sooner to lament the country’s many farces and absurdities. This article assesses how Lebanon has been able to contain and deter some of the deep-rooted problems that the Syrian war has made worse.
Lebanon’s existence is based on a sensitive balance of ethno-sectarian ambitions, which have clashed on several occasions, most famously during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war (1975-1990). Decades of conflicts and political paralysis have created a ripe environment for violence to spread. Existing security apparatuses – namely the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) – were stretched to the limit prior to the conflict and are still outmatched against the Hezbollah movement. 
Sides and factions changed numerous times; intra-sectarian violence was as common as inter-sectarian violence, as sectarian leaders attempted to consolidate power over their communities. Sectarian groups also changed allegiances due to foreign interventions, by the Syrians, Israelis and the US at points.
The 1989 Taef Agreement, brokered by Saudi Arabia and Syria, addressed some of these deep-seated sectarian challenges and brought an end to the fighting. Violence abated after 1990, but never disappeared and for years has been on a steady increase. Syria, whose troops first entered Lebanon in 1976 to control Palestinian forces and remained there until their withdrawal in 2005, remained in the country and de facto controlled Beirut in the post-war period. During this time, the conflict between Lebanon and Israel continued until the withdrawal of the latter in 2000, which was largely credited to the resistance military activities of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. This transformed Hezbollah into the primary political party for Lebanon’s Shia community.
Meanwhile, the businessman who had helped broker the Taef Agreement, Rafik Hariri, rose to become Lebanon’s Prime Minister and led a process of reconstruction in the country as well as creating the first major Sunni political party in Lebanon, the Future Movement. Hariri’s vision for Lebanon as a country that would be sovereign and open to economic engagement with foreign countries on an equal basis led to tension with the Syrian regime, which regarded Hariri’s strategy as a threat to its interests in Lebanon.
The Cedar Revolution
On February 14, 2005 a bomb attack on a convoy carrying the former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, killed him, his former economy minister, and twenty others. Popular outrage at the murders – in effect a regicide against the man synonymous with the reconstruction of post-war Beirut – unleashed the “Cedar Revolution”, forcing the involuntary withdrawal of Syrian troops after 29 years of occupation.
Two weeks later, on February 28, 2005 the pro-Syrian Lebanese government resigned and called for new elections. After Syria announced an end to its military presence in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, called for a pro-Syrian rally to be held in Beirut on March 8. Six days later, on March 14, the anti-Syrian opposition organised a large rally, which marked a month after Hariri’s assassination. From this point, a battle for control of the Lebanese state began between the Sunni-dominated March 14 alliance and the Shia-dominated March 8 alliance and their regional and international allies.
March 8 v March 14
The March 14 alliance is largely made up from centrist Sunni Muslims with a significant number of Christians, and until August 2009, the Druze under Jumblatt. While some members had previously cooperated with Syria, by 2005 all members came to oppose Syrian influence in Lebanon and blamed Syria and its allies in Lebanon for Hariri’s assassination. Up until the Arab uprisings that began in 2010 it was closely allied with so-called ‘moderate’ Arab states and most of the Gulf States, and to Western countries, particularly France and the US.
Meanwhile, the March 8 coalition represented forces that had benefited from the Syrian occupation and continued to align with Syrian interests. This bloc was led by Hezbollah (literally “The Party of God”), a Shia organisation composed of a military branch, sociocultural institutions, and a political party.
Since its foundation, the movement has continued to play a consequential role in Lebanese politics. The group brought down the government of Saad Hariri, son of Rafik, in 2011. And though Hezbollah helped usher in a replacement in Prime Minister Najib Mikati, it forced his departure from office and a collapse of the government in March 2013 in a dispute over the Lebanese security forces.
Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah
At this time of heightened rivalry and political deadlock, Hezbollah entered a war with Israel after kidnapping two IDF soldiers on the Lebanese-Israeli border in the summer of 2006. During the two-month war, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, stated that he was going to have an open war with Israel, “whether the Lebanese wanted or not.” Nonetheless, Hezbollah managed to capitalise on the war to win hearts and minds not just all over Lebanon but also across the Arab world, as many came to regard it as the only Arab force able to stand up to Israeli aggression. After much negotiation a peace agreement came with UNSC Resolution 1701, drafted by the US, France and Israel on August 14, 2006. In the wake of the 2006 war Lebanon’s Hezbollah’s increased security role remained highly contested but it enabled Lebanon to effectively project power and influence outside its borders and against external threats.
The withdrawal of the Syrian troops and the 2005 elections disrupted the Syrian hegemony and created a new context for security politics in Lebanon. The victorious March 14 forces were able to lead a new government, but parliament was closely divided and the cabinet included representation from the March 8 opposition, including the Hezbollah movement.
Spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon
Although President Bashar al-Assad of Syria withdrew his military forces from Lebanon in 2005, Syria continued to heavily influence internal events within Lebanon. Assad was confident that the Arab uprising that began in Lebanon in March 2005 would not affect Syria. However, on March 15, 2011, just as pro-US regimes across the region were facing waves of demonstrations, a revolution erupted in Syria, this contrary to Assad’s prediction.
The peaceful phase of the revolution was brief, and soon the military crackdown by the Assad regime led to armed resistance by the opposition with the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Increasingly, non-Syrian militias were to join the fight, depicting the Assad regime in Damascus as heretical and ungodly. The Syrian uprising threatened to topple the Assad regime, which, for Hezbollah, would have carried the risk of losing this important lifeline. Iran therefore summoned Hezbollah to help Assad in an attempt at crushing the Syrian opposition.
In the first months of the Syrian uprising, Hezbollah’s leadership refrained from taking a clear and decisive stance, cautiously weighing its options. After summer 2011, however, following the uprising’s increasing militarisation and some individual calls by Syria’s fragmented opposition for international protection and military intervention, Hezbollah began to prop up the regime and gradually increased its support, with a view not only to keep it alive but also to provide it with an edge.
Not only has Hezbollah provided the Syrian regime momentum, it also averted its military defeat; dislodged rebels from areas adjacent to the borders; stopped further outrages against Shia Muslims; and prevented a detrimental recalibration of the regional balance of power. In the process the group has evolved at the military and political level, ultimately impacting upon its strategic outlook, capabilities and role—both in Syria as well as back home in Lebanon.
By May 2013, Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged that Hezbollah was dispatching fighters to Syria, a clear violation of the Baabda Declaration, a document outlining Lebanon’s policy of ‘disassociation’ from the conflict.
By then, Hezbollah had gained unrivalled power within Lebanon and seemed to be securing a stable political order and security position. But these soon began to unravel as the result of Hezbollah’s expanding engagement in the civil war in Syria and of growing sense of insecurity within the Lebanese Sunni community.
Hezbollah’s involvement has also heightened its rivalries and created new enemies within Syria. Because of its military role supporting Assad, it is not surprising to note that Hezbollah is seen as a key enemy by anti-Assad opposition forces. In particular, Hezbollah is especially despised and targeted by groups operating within the “Salafi-jihadist” camp. This is certainly true when it comes to groups like al Qaeda-linked Jahbat al-Nusra (JN) or Islamic State (IS): both organisations have engaged in a number of bloody clashes against Hezbollah and in both cases their military rivalry is heightened by their belief that the group and the Shia community in general is “heretical” in its interpretation of Islam.
Similarly, within Lebanon, Hezbollah’s assistance of the Syrian regime has not only fuelled political and sectarian tensions between the Shia and Sunni communities, but it has also resulted in direct violence against Nasrallah’s group and the Shia community in general. Hezbollah responded by establishing its own checkpoints and visible security patrols around Shia populations and institutions. However, these checkpoints caused tensions with non-Shia communities and Hezbollah faced criticism for claiming public authority over security in areas far from the Israeli-Lebanese border.
2014 Security Plan
In response, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) launched in April 2014 a new security plan to restore the rule of law by setting up their own checkpoints and increasing raids along the Syrian-Lebanese border. Soon elements of the Lebanese security apparatus, spanning the LAF, Hezbollah and others, found themselves cooperating, despite their political divisions and historic background.
Yet, despite this arrangement, the underlying problems caused by the Syrian conflict have not been resolved. A number of direct attacks against Hezbollah occurred in the past few years, including rocket attacks against the “al-Dahiye” – Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Beirut; suicide bombings against Shia, Hezbollah and Iranian targets and operations targeting the LAF. Al Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades bombed the Iranian Embassy in Beirut in November 2013 and, more recently, IS itself took responsibility for a tragic suicide bomb attack in a densely populated street of Bourj al-Barajneh – a predominantly Shia neighbourhood in Hezbollah’s southern suburb stronghold in Beirut in November 2015.
The Bourj al-Barajneh bombings, killing over 40 people and wounding 200 others have highlighted the security plan’s intrinsic limitations. Its major shortcoming consists in putting the onus solely on security measures, while ignoring root causes: Sunni and Shia radicalisation, fuelled by political parties and regional sponsors; deplorable living conditions for Syrian refugees; the deteriorating socio-economic situation of Lebanese themselves; and eroding state institutions and services.
Still, the margin of action of these militant groups remains limited. They may inflict damage on Lebanon and its people, but not in a systematic, strategically meaningful way. For instance, in August 2015, IS and JN, along with smaller armed groups, attempted to take over a town in north-eastern Lebanon, but their efforts were thwarted by the Lebanese Armed Forces. Moreover, hardly a week goes by without reports of security forces announcing the arrest of a jihadi activist or the dismantling of explosive devices.
The Resistance Axis
The reasons behind Hezbollah’s ‘all-in’ approach with respect to the Syrian civil war are related to the historical strategic alliance between the Lebanese-Shia organisation and the Syrian regime; to the geo-strategic importance of preserving the so-called ‘Axis of Refusal/resistance’ as well as to the strength of the personal relationship between Nasrallah and the Assad regime. The term resistance axis (jabhat al muqawama) designates the alliance among the Islamic Republic of Iran, Syria and the strongest Arab non-state actors, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas.
As Iran and Saudi Arabia jostle for power in the Middle East, Beirut has managed to maintain an uncomfortable balance between the two. However, the last few months the Saudis have grown understandably impatient with the fact that Lebanon, and especially its armed forces, remains under the hegemony of Hezbollah. For the first time, Riyadh is playing hardball in their dealings with Lebanon, deciding on February 19, 2016 to cancel about $4 billion worth of aid to the Lebanese army and internal forces. The aid had been offered in a bid to bolster the army and make it more able to hold its own and operate independently from Hezbollah.
Moreover, Arab Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia have declared Hezbollah a terrorist organisation. These two developments, and other similar moves looming on the horizon, are likely to exert serious pressure on Lebanon’s economic and political stability. It may also make Lebanon less secure. Signalling its concern, the UN has called on other countries to make up the $4 billion.
The Syrian crisis also tore along political divides, with March 14 supporting the uprisings and their March 8 adversaries the Assad regime. Both sides view the Syrian conflict as potentially leading to a transformation in the domestic balance of power in Lebanon.
After Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced his government’s resignation in March 2013, policymaking in Beirut halted and the economy nosedived as pro- and anti-Assad factions struggled to agree on a new cabinet. The appointment of a new interim cabinet in March 2014 was in part the result of foreign patrons putting pressure on Lebanese actors—pressure that was spurred by developments on the ground in Syria.
Also, Lebanon has been without an executive head of state – a position traditionally reserved for Maronite Christians – since President Michel Suleiman’s mandate ended in May 2014. Parliament has convened since then more than 35 times without electing a new president due to the lack of a two-thirds quorum.
In the past few months, however, key Lebanese political players have switched partners, undermining the two main blocs. Late 2015, in an apparent breakthrough, Future Current (FC) leader Saad Hariri struck a counterintuitive deal with Suleiman Frangieh, a Christian politician and close friend of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. This would have made Frangieh president and Hariri, reportedly, prime minister.
This gambit was soon countered by another: earlier this year, Samir Geagea, the head of the Christian political party Lebanese Forces, who had been a candidate for the post, endorsed the candidacy of his greatest rival, Michel Aoun, the 80-year-old leader of the Free Patriotic Movement. The surprise announcement marked a rare show of unity in a Christian community riven by divisions for decades.
Both leaders continue to have deeply divergent political postures, both internally and concerning the region. Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah has grown stronger over the years; he has supported Assad in the Syrian conflict and built close ties with Iran; he is also a harsh critic of the Future Current (FC) and Saudi Arabia. On the other side, Geagea remains a visceral opponent of Hezbollah, Damascus and Iran, and has forged important ties with Riyadh.
Trash collection crisis
Meanwhile, Lebanese citizens have been mired in their own filth since July 2015, when the country’s main landfill closed its gates, without providing an alternative. The protest campaign “You Stink”, led by youth and civil society activists who, being opposed to politicians, claim to be ‘non-political’, pointed the finger at the politicians, who failed to find new disposal options despite nearly a year’s warning.
These activists saw the piles of rubbish as symptomatic of the failure not only of the political class but also of the Lebanese political system. The peaceful protests turned violent by late September and continued throughout the following months amid enduring discontent over the internal political stalemate.
Removal of garbage from the Beirut suburbs began on March 19, 2016 after the goverment approved an emergency plan to temporarily reopen the Naameh landfill.
Lebanon has one of the weakest governments in the entire Middle East, yet it has managed to subvert popular demands for reform more effectively than virtually all of the surrounding Arab states. Nonetheless, a growing number of Lebanese are fed up with the rules of the game in their country: sectarian, patron-based politics and a culture of impunity for elite corruption have left little space for good governance.
In short, the current crisis is the product of the accelerating erosion of state structures, growing social dislocation and displacement, but also communal consolidation and de facto devolution of power to militias. These trends are profoundly reshaping the fragmented Lebanese society, economy and polities, the particular dynamics of which largely are eclipsed by political actors’ single-minded focus on the terrorist threat, the reflexive responses which are exacerbating, not alleviating, the underlying causes.
Although the Assad regime in Damascus is consolidating military gains on the ground, an outright regime victory remains unlikely. However, should the regime emerge victorious, the prospect of widespread renewed conflict in Lebanon could diminish, particularly if Hezbollah withdraws from Syria, removing a major impetus of sectarian violence in Lebanon.
From delayed parliamentary and presidential elections to protests about uncollected garbage, Lebanon remains in limbo. Fortunately for the Lebanese, the country has lost its status as the prime locus of proxy and sectarian wars in the region. In the meantime, Lebanon has no choice but to provide shelter for over one million Syrian refugees.
This article was written by Thomas Thielemans and has been published on his personal blog. You can follow him on twitter: .
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