Lebanon hanging on despite increasing regional collapse

Lebanon hanging on despite increasing regional collapse

Lebanon is currently one of the few stable countries in the Middle East, but this stability remains fraught. Its fate is still influenced, although not dictated, by external powers and events in a region, which is increasingly divided and dragged further into several conflicts.

Political paralysis is nothing new in Lebanon, but it may become even more entrenched in light of ramped-up engagement between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

Lebanon has long been host to proxy rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, manifesting itself for the past ten years by two political camps – the March 14 coalition and March 8 coalition. The March 14 coalition, led by the Sunni Future Movement, is American-backed and Saudi-funded, while the March 8 coalition, led by Hezbollah, is pro-Syrian and backed by Iran.

Political paralysis has been most evident since May 25 of last year, when former President Michel Sleiman left office at the end of his term without being replaced, owing to the inability of the March 8 and March 14 camps to agree on a mutually acceptable candidate.

In addition to the disconnect over the election of a new president, the two camps are also at odds over the country’s foreign and defence policies as well as a new electoral law. Although the increased urgency of securing the country’s borders have forced them to the negotiation table, it is unlikely their divisions will be surmounted in the near future.

The recent escalation of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen is not likely to have a direct impact on domestic Lebanese politics, but political paralysis is likely to be further perpetuated.

Economically, the ongoing political paralysis has had the most detrimental effect on the Consumer Confidence Index, which had reached a record level in decline by the end of 2014 as a result of growing insecurity (and down 3.75 percent in January 2015 from the previous year).

The prospects of this Index rising again are hampered by the lack of viable end to the political paralysis, and uncertainty created by other events in the region, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

Insecurities on the border, both the southern border with Israel and the eastern and northern border with Syria, have intensified for the last few months, although incursions have been minor in nature. Despite their divisions, both Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army are working together, relatively successfully up until now, to guarantee the security of Lebanese territory.

Hostilities from the Syrian conflict have regularly encroached into Lebanon, most notably in August of last year when gunmen affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra temporarily overran the Bekaa border town of Arsal.

Lebanese Army General Jean Kalwaji has asserted that an Islamic wilayat (state), extending from the Bekka to the North, has been established and that both the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra are preparing for a renewed campaign into Lebanon.

This prediction was confirmed on 5 April when an overnight ‘militant’ infiltration in the northeast border was attempted. It is not clear whether the action was attributable to IS or Jabhat al-Nusra.

Violence on the Southern border, which killed two Israeli soldiers and a UN peacekeeper in January 2015, was the deadliest escalation on the border since 2006 and prompted the UN Security Council to release a warning urging all parties to exercise “maximum restraint”.

Such insecurity highlight the great necessity for the Lebanese Army, which is arguably the clearest sign of the otherwise largely non-existent Lebanese state, to remain well supported and funded. It is currently coping well (in partnership with Hezbollah) to combat threats to the territorial integrity of the country, although these threats are likely to intensify over the summer months.

While Lebanon is not necessarily closer to being ‘on the brink’ (of political, economic, social and sectarian collapse) today than at any other moment, it is facing ever mounting pressures from regional conflicts, which grow the more conflict is entrenched.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon, who now make up a quarter of the population, are placing a heavy burden on the country economically, socially and politically.

Lebanon has tried to stem their flow in the past six months, implementing an ever wider range of legal conditions to their entrance to the country, most recently in January of this year when authorities imposed strict visa restrictions, requiring all Syrians have to obtain tourism or business visas to enter and limiting the amount of time they can stay.

However, these measures, if successful, can only stem the flow of refugee numbers, leaving Lebanon the increasingly pressing concern of dealing with those currently within its territory. This is a problem which will only get more precarious as economic and social tensions become increasingly acute.

In addition, concerns that some Syrian refugees may ally with the Jabhat al-Nusra in the event of border skirmishes heighten resentment towards the Syrian population, leading to increasing incidents of discrimination.

Economically, the Syrian refugee crisis continues to negatively affect the growth of the country, draining or diverting resources at all levels of governance.

Currently Lebanon remains in the same situation as the past few years: hanging on, but only just.

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