Syria sizzles, Lebanon stinks: another complex day in Israel's neighborhood
As untouched mounds of trash piled up on the streets of Beirut, Lebanon, in recent months, with no one coming to clean it up, a social movement began protesting under the motto “You Stink.” This “garbage crisis”—as it’s become known—has led to violent clashes between protesters and police and has showcased the broader inability of the Lebanese government to ward off its systemic dysfunction.
Operating on a parallel track with Lebanon’s domestic unrest, the latest reports suggest that fighters from the Lebanese Shi’a Muslim terror group Hezbollah—a proxy of Iran and a longtime perpetrator of violence against Israel—are joining Iranian forces in providing ground support to complement Russian airstrikes in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the civil-war torn country. But besides its military involvement in Syria, Hezbollah has been a political force in Lebanon through an anti-corruption, social reform, and poverty-alleviation campaigning platform.
Amid the region’s current chaos, how has Lebanon’s internal strife affected Hezbollah and the terror group’s approach to Israel? To answer that question, one needs to first understand the roots of Lebanon’s political system, whose reputation for being convoluted “is correct,” said Dr. Benedetta Berti, an associate fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies and a Kreitman fellow at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
The Lebanese system is both parliamentary and sectarian. There are 18 officially recognized religious sectarian groups, of which 12 are devoted to Christian denominations. In the 128-seat parliament, the seats are divided equally, 64 and 64, between the major Christian and Muslim groups. The most politically represented groups are Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shi’a Muslims.
Each political candidate competes “against a candidate from his own sect on a seat allocated to his sect, but to win he needs to get also votes of members of other sects,” explained Dr. Omri Nir, a Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies who specializes in Lebanon.
“[The candidate] must make alliances with politicians from other religious sects. This is only possible if he comes with moderate platform,” Nir told JNS.org.
When France gained control of the area comprising modern Lebanon and Syria from the League of Nations after World War I, the population of the area that is now Lebanon included a majority of Christians over Muslims. The French mandate gradually helped create a system of proportional representation along religious lines through a series of constitutions up until Lebanon’s independence in 1943.
“From Lebanon’s independence in 1943 to 1990, the main powers and political hegemony were in the hands of the Maronite [Christians]. But following the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, the formula has changed,” said Nir.
“One of the big changes was... parity in terms of the elected seats of Maronite Christians and Muslims,” added Berti.
By 2011, according to the U.S. State Department, a demographic study conducted by the Beirut-based research firm Statistics Lebanon showed that 27 percent of Lebanon’s population is Sunni Muslim, 27 percent is Shi’a Muslim, and only 21 percent is Maronite Christian, with the smaller percentages reserved for other Christian denominations and religious groups.
Therefore, “even though the demographics have shifted, the number of seats remains largely the same” because a “parity of seats [exists] between the Christians and the Muslims, divided between Sunni and Shi’a,” Berti said.
“Also, the three main political posts in the government—the prime minister, the president, and the Speaker of the House—are pre-assigned to a specific sectarian group. The means that the president of Lebanon will always be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister will always be Sunni [Muslim], and the speaker of the House will always be Shi’a [Muslim],” she said.
One of the major problems with this political system, Berti explained, is the weakness of the central government. As a result of the Lebanese civil war, Syria occupied Lebanon until 2005, when former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated. Since then, she said, “the system has been polarized between two [political coalition] blocs, the March 14 and the March 8 forces.”
In simple terms, “the March 14 is a pro-Western, anti-Syrian coalition, whereas on the other side you have March 8, [which] is led by Hezbollah, and they’re of course pro-Syrian,” said Berti. The two political coalitions have had great difficulty working together, resulting in government paralysis.
According to Berti, “The garbage crisis is just one more example of the Lebanese political system [being] unable to take the decisions it needs to run the country.”
Nir believes that the systemic issues in Lebanese politics did not directly cause the garbage crisis, but that the public did create a link between the garbage and the political system—which he said “is natural and catchy.”
“Under this atmosphere, it is natural to blame the system and the corrupt politicians and to create a link to garbage and stench,” he said.
Another obvious example of this political stalemate is the fact that Lebanon has been without a president for more than a year, with the parliament being unable to elect anyone to the post.
Since 2005, Hezbollah’s particular agenda has been opposing the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, supporting Syria within Lebanon, and opposing the March 14 coalition. Given its social reform platform, Hezbollah in August said the “You Stink” protesters have the right to protest against Lebanon’s “endemic corruption.”
Meanwhile, another part of Hezbollah’s identity is “what they call the ‘resistance,’ which is of course the struggle against Israel,” Berti said. Due to the terror group’s preoccupation with fighting to preserve the Assad regime in the ongoing Syrian civil war, Berti believes Hezbollah is not likely to be “interested in another war with Israel today.”
The Syrian civil war also affects Lebanon in other ways.
“Lebanon is also under pressure because it’s hosting more than a million Syrian refugees. Basically one-third of the people in Lebanon today are Syrian refugees…that’s a big impact on the economy, [and] on everything basically,” Berti said. The garbage crisis in Lebanon, meanwhile, adds “to the many reasons why a war [with Israel] doesn’t make so much sense right now” for Hezbollah, she said.
Similarly, Nir said the current situation in the Middle East is “still a very uncomfortable period for Hezbollah to open a direct and comprehensive military confrontation against Israel.” At the same time, Lebanon’s “continued governmental vacuum” provides an image boost for Hezbollah “because that strengthens the argument that only its militia can protect Lebanon from ISIS (Islamic State) and other organizations active in the Syrian war.”
Hezbollah, he said, “differs from most politicians, because the protesters did not accuse it of corruption,” as opposed to the accusations leveled against Nabih Berr—the leader of Lebanon’s other Shi’a movement, Amal—who has become a symbol of corruption. Further, said Nir, Hezbollah may “become stronger in the long run if the [garbage] protest will eventually strengthen its political ally, Michel Aoun, leader of ‘the free Patriotic Movement,’” which is one of the main parties in the March 8 coalition alongside Hezbollah.
The possibility of a politically stronger Hezbollah is accompanied by the prospect of a weaker Lebanon overall, as the weakness of the country’s political system makes it more “welcoming to foreign interference,” Nir noted.
Several regional powers have been very involved in Lebanese domestic affairs, most notably Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, with the latter supporting mostly the Sunni Muslim community in Lebanon and the March 14 coalition. Iran supports the Shi’ite community, the March 8 coalition, and Hezbollah.
“Basically, Iran is interested in [Lebanese] domestic politics being favorable to Hezbollah, and of course one of its main interests is also that within Lebanon, no political move is made to try to disarm Hezbollah or to weaken its military,” Berti said.
The Iran nuclear deal and the increased Russian involvement in Syria in recent weeks also serve to “raise the morale” of Hezbollah, Nir said. While Hezbollah itself may not currently have its sights set on Israel, Berti believes the instability at Israel’s northern borders with Syria and Lebanon is a looming danger for the Jewish state.
“If there were renewed violence or anything like that, of course I don’t think that would be good [for Israel],” she said, adding that Lebanon’s domestic instability is also not something that significantly improves the situation for Israel, though that internal political crisis “is really not about Israel, as it is really a domestic conflict.”
A spokesperson from the Israel foreign ministry told JNS.org that Israel continues to view “Hezbollah as a dangerous terror organization and is ready to respond if Hezbollah uses violence against Israel or its citizens.”
In Nir’s estimation, “In the long run, if the garbage protests lead to a change of the political system and the Lebanese regime will be stronger, the impact on Israel will depend on who will control Lebanon.”
“Any change of the system and the political actors, at least initially, will contribute to the unstable reality of the [Middle East] and certainly will also require a major budget on the part of Israeli intelligence,” he said.