Lebanon: Locked into escalation?

The collapse of Lebanon’s government has thrust the country into a deepening political crisis. The war in Syria and recent actions by Hezbollah also suggest that internal conflict may return to Lebanon.  

Director, Middle East and North Africa programme

The resignation of Lebanon’s government this past weekend has thrust the country into deepening crisis, raising fears about the destabilising impact of a political vacuum and the fight for control of a new government. More significantly, the moves underpinning the government collapse, including Hezbollah’s willingness to stake a more assertive domestic position, suggest that Lebanon is increasingly locking itself into a cycle of escalation and that the journey towards a return to potential internal conflict is shifting up a gear.

For the past two years, Lebanon's two main political groupings, the Hezbollah-dominated 'March 8' coalition and the Sunni-dominated 'March 14' coalition have effectively been waging a proxy war in Syria, the former supporting Bashar al-Assad and the latter the rebels. While the battle has largely unfolded within Syria, both sides have been driven by, and maintained their focus on, its implications for control of Lebanon. The resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati suggests that two sides are now bringing the confrontation closer to home.

Mikati, in power since June 2011, submitted his resignation on Friday evening in response to the cabinet’s unwillingness to extend the term of Major General Ashraf Rifi, head of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), or approve an election commission for the parliamentary vote due later this year. The fate of Rifi – and by extension control of the ISF – emerged as particularly controversial, a symbol of the deepening polarisation between the two sides.

The ISF, under Rifi’s leadership, has long represented a critical pillar of domestic strength for 'March 14', particularly given Hezbollah’s control over Lebanon’s rival intelligence agency, the General Security Directorate. In this context, 'March 8’s desire to appoint a new ISF head, an apparent attempt to bring all the country’s internal security agencies under Hezbollah’s remit, provoked vigorous Sunni opposition. Given these dynamics, it is unsurprising that Mikati, a rare Sunni allied with 'March 8', chose to resign rather than acquiesce to demands by Hezbollah and its allies within his cabinet that Rifi retire. Though head of the 'March 8' government, Mikati would have paid a painful political price among his own Sunni constituency, particularly ahead of upcoming elections, for supporting a perceived attempt to bring the ISF into Hezbollah’s orbit.

The most immediate result of the collapse of the Mikati government is a potentially destabilising political vacuum. More worryingly, however, Hezbollah’s recent actions suggest that the competing groups are moving ever closer towards upending the uneasy balance keeping Lebanon from falling into turmoil. To be sure, Hezbollah and 'March 14' Sunnis have been fighting an intensifying proxy battle in Syria for some time now, but Hezbollah’s attempt to assert control over the ISF, at the same time as it pushes a new election law to strengthen its position vis-a-vis Sunnis, points to a new willingness to tighten its grip on Lebanon, a domestic aggressiveness it resisted over the past two years.

Hezbollah’s actions reflect an escalation that has been gathering pace for some time now and for which both 'March 8' and 'March 14' are culpable. On the one side Hezbollah, which has increasingly offered Assad military know-how and fighters, has come to see the battle for Syria as a broader regional struggle targeting the forces of resistance. It looks upon the Syria crisis as an existential threat, viewing the full collapse of Assad as a stepping stone towards renewed domestic and international targeting of its own position in Lebanon. Accordingly it has increased its support for Assad and sought to tighten its grip on power in Lebanon. Of course, this has been a self-defeating, vicious circle: as Hezbollah has offered Assad ever greater support, it has provoked deepening opposition in Syria, Lebanon and across the broader region. Hezbollah has fed the very monster it fears most.

Lebanese Sunnis, backed by their regional and international supporters, have, however, also fanned the flames. Not only have they extensively supported Syrian armed rebels, but growing Sunni assertiveness in Lebanon, particularly among more radical groups, has fed the desire for a Sunni regional revival intent on drawing Hezbollah into its crosshairs. Sunni and 'March 14' figures have not been shy in declaring that once Syria is secured, they will turn their sight towards reversing Hezbollah's ascendancy in Lebanon, directly feeding the sense of escalating domestic confrontation.

Hezbollah and Lebanese Sunnis now feel, more than ever, that their positions within Lebanon are existentially tied to the victory of opposing sides civil war in Syria, making the prospect of deescalation increasingly hard to envisage. For Sunnis, the tide of history appears on their side, and they are intent on seizing the unprecedented opportunity to reverse their decline of influence. Hezbollah is increasingly unwilling to engage in any significant compromise that will make it vulnerable to the new regional dynamics, particularly at a time when the US is also seeking greater international action against it. Hezbollah's recent attempt to use the Mikati government to cement its preponderance reflect this shifting dynamic.

Given this logic of escalation, the prospect of the battle seeping into Lebanon is growing, particularly as the military wings of both sides increasingly face off in the Bekaa. Even if a short-term deal is cut over a new government – and a national unity body tasked with supervising elections will likely be formed after prolonged negotiations – the reality remains that the two sides are locked into a battle in Syria and are intent on solidifying their positions in Lebanon at the expense of the other. Rowing back towards a position of meaningful and sustainable compromise is clearly becoming ever harder, even if political figures continue to publicly declare their commitment to maintaining Lebanon's stability.

Ongoing stalemate in Syria is for the moment probably the best hope for Lebanon. Any shift in the balance of power there will directly feed the ambitions and fears of their partners in Lebanon, potentially bringing simmering tensions to a head. So long, however, as neither side prevails in the struggle for Syria, there remains an opening for deescalation in Lebanon. The collapse of the Mikati government offers some slim hope in the form of a potential revival of much needed national dialogue talks and a national unity government. But short of a renewed commitment towards building bridges and staving of intensifying escalation, direct conflict may be becoming harder to avoid.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Author

Director, Middle East and North Africa programme