A recurrent question when it comes to Lebanon is how a country with so many frailties and divisions did not implode after 2011, given its close proximity to the Syrian cauldron. Though it has flirted with disaster many times, Lebanon has consistently proven the naysayers wrong.
Two factors, at least, could explain this. One has to do with the regional cold war since the Arab uprisings in 2011. The other derives from the domestic equilibrium in Lebanon among the country’s political and sectarian forces. Hezbollah and its regional backer, Iran, didn’t want a domestic confrontation with their Lebanese adversaries, while the anti-Hezbollah camp and its backers didn’t have the means to engage in one.
While Syria is one of the many theaters in the proxy battle between Iran and the Gulf states, above all Saudi Arabia, during much of the Syrian conflict both sides helped stabilize Lebanon, each for reasons of its own.
For Iran, the decision was an easy one to take. Hezbollah is the jewel in the crown of Teheran’s networks for regional domination and conquest, and the party could have been negatively affected by tensions and conflict in Lebanon, at a time when it was engaged in a long, bloody, and sometimes risky and existential fight in Syria. Therefore, from Hezbollah’s perspective everything needed to be done to ensure that its back was safe at home, so that its resources could be solely devoted to its Syrian mission, namely safeguarding the Assad regime and ending the uprising.
For Saudi Arabia, Lebanon always had a particular status in the kingdom’s regional outlook. This derived from the historical, even emotional, ties between the two countries, as well as the function that Lebanon has played for Gulf leaders generally, and Saudi Arabia’s leaders particularly. To them and their families, the country has long been a place of leisure, as well as one where they could invest their money or have it managed. This, too, helped safeguard Lebanon after 2011.
Then there is the matter of capabilities. Saudi Arabia was once the patron and protector of the March 14 coalition that opposed Hezbollah, and in particular of Saad Hariri’s Future Movement at its core. Yet March 14 took a severe beating in 2008, when it sought to challenge Hezbollah’s order in Lebanon. After that, the Saudis were compelled to acknowledge that the country had fallen to its regional foes, which pushed it to sponsor a reconciliation between Hariri and the Syrian regime. After 2011, the new Saudi-Syrian understanding over Lebanon collapsed. This bad experience was one the Saudis did now want to replicate after the uprising in Syria.
The Lebanese translation of this political reality after 2011 was what was called the “policy of distancing,” whereby Lebanon would strive to remain equidistant from all parties in a divided Middle East. This approach was adopted during the mandate of president Michel Suleiman. It was pursued, albeit with less conviction, after the election of Michel Aoun to the presidency in 2016 and what it represented as a political victory for Hezbollah, and in some ways for the Syrian regime. In the deal that was struck leading him to endorse Aoun’s election, Saad Hariri negotiated retaining this policy of distancing, but he also knew that Lebanese power relationships had changed radically in the interim, to his disadvantage.
These considerations on both the domestic and regional levels are now changing. They are changing precisely because Syria’s war, even if it is not ending, has at least reached a stage where President Bashar al-Assad’s regime appears likely to survive. And as the Syrian situation heads towards de-escalation and the conflict there takes on new dimensions, the risks for Lebanon may paradoxically increase, while the reasons for why Lebanon was spared until now may no longer be valid.
Regionally, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are now seeking ways to compensate for the loss of Syria as a place where they could defy and bleed Iran. A renewed desire to reverse their regional fortunes could lead them to try regaining a foothold in Lebanon. The Gulf states, Israel, and the United States do not want Iran to reap the benefits of a victory in Syria. If ever they seek to rebalance the regional relationship with Tehran in the Levant, the only place to do so would be Lebanon, despite the many risks that would accompany such an effort.
In such an event, and despite its reticence to jeopardize its Lebanese sanctuary, Hezbollah could have no choice but to accept such a challenge, especially if there is an Israeli component to it. This would be especially true if Israel were to seek revenge for its frustrating war against the party in 2006, but also because it would allow Hezbollah to place Israel back at the center of its attentions, after years of engagement in Syria.
Within Lebanon, the situation in Syria may upset the internal status quo. That’s because once Syria is stabilized, a contentious question will come back to the fore, namely how quickly and to what extent the Lebanese state will need to normalize its relations with the Assad regime.
Of the many issues crippling the government of Saad Hariri today, the matter of normalization could prove fatal to its fortunes. While ministers named by Hezbollah and the Aounists are advocating alignment with Damascus, Hariri and his allies are being summoned to Saudi Arabia in view of consolidating a front that would oppose Hezbollah. Hariri himself could be forced to join such a coalition if he does not want to displease his Saudi patrons. Such a standoff, if it takes place, will affect a wide variety of bilateral Lebanese-Syrian concerns, including security, border issues, refugees, as well as how Lebanon might gain from Syria’s reconstruction, which Hariri has apparently eyed to reverse his own financial problems.
Most worrying for Lebanon are the new geopolitical conditions that now surround the country. Beirut faces an overtly aggressive Trump administration in the United States, which is strengthening sanctions against Hezbollah and Iran. It can hear the drums of a war with Israel, with many seeing a conflict as inevitable in the coming years. And it is anxious about the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country, which an unsatisfactory “solution” in Syria could leave out in the cold.
In such a context, the war in Syria could prove to be an interregnum of relative calm before a gathering storm occasioned by regional rivalries. The Lebanese hope the pessimists will be proven wrong once again.