The crumbling of Lebanon: Characteristics and ten implications for Israel
By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | Spotlight: Israel & The Middle East | July 28, 2021
|Photo: Shahen books | CC BY-SA 4.0|
Since the nationwide protests in Lebanon in October 2019 that broke out due to the tough economic situation there, the macro-economic data reflecting the deterioration in its state of affairs seem to have turned into tangible phenomena reflecting the collapse of Lebanese state institutions and infrastructure.
Economically, the Lebanese Lira is taking a nosedive, having lost 90% of its value over the last two years, the GDP per capita has dropped by 40% between 2018 and 2020, and the country's external debt – one of the largest in the world – continues to grow, reaching over 170% of the GDP. Lebanon is insolvent, and its banking system is in a deep liquidity crisis that threatens to collapse it. Against this backdrop, poverty is spreading fast, with 75% of the population expected to find itself below the poverty line by the end of the year.
The severe political paralysis and absence of a functioning government that could have been able to obtain the necessary loans to get Lebanon out of dire straits only make matters worse. Since the May 2018 elections, full-time governments have been in office for 16 months, whereas provisional governments were in place for 23 months while holding endless political talks about forming a new government.
A political change in Lebanon does not seem to be on the cards as, on the one hand, the corrupt sectarian elites are determined not to give up their division of power, which they view as an existential interest, whereas on the other hand, they are unable to rule the country efficiently under the current sectarian system. This complex reality is making it difficult to set up an alternative ruling system that is not sectarian, and could solve Lebanon's huge economic and infrastructural issues.
In view of the political crisis in Lebanon, the EU, with much prompting by France, is looking into imposing sanctions on Lebanese political leaders who are thwarting attempts to form a government and carry out national reforms due to sectarian considerations, thus leading the country to economic collapse. In doing so, the EU is following the United States, who imposed sanctions on the senior Christian politician, Gebran Bassil, accusing him of being corrupt and impeding the formation of functioning government.
The combination of an exacerbating economic, sectarian, political and health crisis – which the World Bank has defined as one of the three most severe crises worldwide – is accelerating the crumbling processes in Lebanon, causing extreme harm to its citizens and their quality of life.
As a result of the electric company's huge debts (a loss of 1.6 billion Dollars in a single year), and the power grid falling apart, most Lebanese have no more than four hours of electricity a day. Power generators, the prices of which have skyrocketed, explode regularly due to overload, and power cuts leave entire cities shrouded in darkness, including the capital Beirut.
The electricity crisis is worsening due to a severe lack of fuel, and the endless lines at the refilling stations often turn into violent conflicts, which, at times, even involve the use of weapons. A UN report estimates that the shortage of both fuel supplied to the pumps and chlorine for purification will lead 71% of Lebanese to be at risk of losing access to drinking water in the next few months.
Cut subsidies and rising prices have led to a shortage of basic goods. Basic medication (painkillers, antibiotics, drugs for blood pressure and chronic diseases) is not available in Lebanon. Many citizens have also cut down on their meat consumption, skipping meals or going altogether hungry. According to a UNICEF report, 77% of Lebanese households struggle to buy enough food, and the number of citizens who cannot afford suitable housing has doubled (from 7% to 18%).
This harsh reality is making the Lebanese protest often, sometimes violent, and in some cases, the armed forces are needed to restore the quiet. Under such circumstances, many wish to escape from Lebanon, resorting to being smuggled on boats to Cyprus.
The crisis is also affecting the Lebanese Armed Forces. Its commander, Joseph Aoun, warned that the organization could collapse in the absence of financial support. It is struggling to pay the troops, whose wages have been cut from $800 to just $80-90. To overcome its distress, the Lebanese Armed Forces have begun organizing helicopter tours as a source of added income (each tour costs $150 in cash only).
Implications for Israel (Top 10)
The deep crisis in Lebanon, which is only expected to get worse, is basically bad news for Israel. The era of instability Lebanon is entering as a country, with its shattered institutions and infrastructure, means yet another failed state on the Israeli northern border alongside Syria.
Lebanon's collapse has strategic, primarily negative security implications for Israel.
Hezbollah's growing hold on Lebanon in the medium range – Hezbollah is the most organized entity in Lebanon, and the only one supported by a regional power, Iran, who provides it with assistance that is financial, political and military. It has been operating a wide network of services for the Shiite community in southern Lebanon as it is, which was always active alongside the state institutions, particularly when they were dysfunctional (during the COVID-19 crisis, for instance, Hezbollah's alternative health system was prominent).
Growing Iranian influence in Lebanon – Iran has already proven in the past that it knows how to take advantage of crises in Lebanon to broaden its influence there. After the Second Lebanon War, it sent rapid humanitarian aid to the villages of southern Lebanon (bags of rice, restoration and repair of infrastructure damaged during the war, etc.). Thus, Iranian aid is being discussed now too, and it is likely to arrive before the international help does, as the international community is hesitant about engaging in the rehabilitation of Lebanon while it is still deep in political crisis and no government has been formed in Beirut. Nasrallah, Hezbollah's secretary-general, has already raised the possibility of Iranian oil tankers coming to Lebanon more than once.
Hezbollah's continued/accelerated armament – Iranian presence and influence alongside the weakening of Lebanon's control and oversight mechanisms create the optimal environment and provide freedom of action for Hezbollah to continue its force buildup with Iran's support. Its military force buildup projects are therefore likely to continue, and perhaps even be accelerated, with the help of Iran, with emphasis placed on manufacturing accurate missiles, improved air defense capabilities, and so on.
Restraints on Hezbollah – the organization will be forced to focus on domestic challenges, and cope with poignant internal and international criticism of its contribution to the exacerbating crisis in Lebanon, and the weapons it possesses beyond the state's control. This reality is expected to impose some restraints on Hezbollah with regard to its ability to challenge Israel on the border using various formulas, get involved in escalation or tension between Israel and Hamas or Iran, and certainly with respect to entering a largescale conflict with Israel.
However… volatility is growing – Hezbollah will display extreme sensitivity to the possibility that Israel will try to take advantage of the situation to curb its military capabilities. Under such circumstances, the potential escalation following Israeli foiling operations, even of a low signature, will increase.
Eroding Israeli deterrence – as Lebanon crumbles, Israel is required to consider that the deterrence effect of striking Lebanese state infrastructure is being eroded. Moreover, due to Lebanon's current state of affairs, the international community's tolerance threshold of damage to national infrastructure is expected to be very low, so much so that Israel is advised to reexamine the validity of the notion of destroying Lebanese infrastructure as part of a future campaign.
A less stable border – Israel should prepare for refugees and migration leading to smuggling and hostile actions, as well as for the possibility that the Palestinian organizations will take advantage of the situation to carry out terror attacks against Israel, particularly rocket launching.
Growing international assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces – the international community's concern that it would "lose Lebanon" is expected to strengthen its belief that it should aid the Lebanese Armed Forces. The latter is viewed as the only organization that represents a non-sectarian state structure, and as the only one that can serve as a future alternative to Hezbollah. Israel should therefore take appropriate action to ensure that the international community will not provide advanced offensive weapons to the Lebanese Armed Forces that could fall into the wrong hands, and pose a threat to IDF soldiers in the event of an escalation.
The Israeli-Lebanese maritime border talks – it would appear that Lebanon's deteriorating state would accentuate its need to resolve the dispute with Israel so as to enable international companies to start tapping into its gas reserves, providing it with the income it needs as desperately as oxygen. However, the political paralysis and absence of a functioning government are expected to make it difficult for Lebanon to make the necessary decisions to promote talks with Israel and reach a compromise.
Growing external involvement in Lebanon – the exacerbating crisis is expected to increase the involvement of regional and international actors in contexts such as financial aid, or economic and political arrangements. It is in Israel's interest that this involvement be headed by the United States, and that its interests be taken into consideration in the international diplomatic efforts pertaining to Lebanon.
Israel's objectives in this context are: strengthening the capabilities and authorities (but not the ORBAT) of the UN force in Lebanon (UNIFIL); continuing the process of having Hezbollah in its entirety (both political and military branches) recognized as a terror organization; conditioning aiding Lebanon upon an international demand that Hezbollah cease its armament efforts and military activities in civilian areas; reducing Iranian influence in Lebanon while reinstating the impact of Saudi Arabia and moderate Gulf states.
Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental
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