The March 8 Alliance’s effect on Lebanon’s economy

The March 8 Alliance’s effect on Lebanon’s economy

The March 8 Alliance coalition that holds together Lebanon’s pro-Syrian factions remains strong despite the Syrian Civil War continuing into its fifth year. How will the March 8 Alliance affect Lebanon’s economic and political interests as the war drags on?

One year has passed since Lebanon’s former president, Michel Suleiman, left office and Beirut still has not appointed his successor: this problem could be lingering for a while yet. The current make up in the Lebanese parliament is due to last until 2017.

At the helm of this uncertainty is the coalition pro-Syria parties known as the March 8th Alliance. The formation of Christian and Shia factions emerged following the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.

The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) is the dominant Christian party within the pro-Syrian bloc and was founded by General Michel Aoun who returned from exile in France after the Cedar Revolution in 2005. As the war in Syria drags on, the FPM is under rising pressure from Russia to find a political compromise. Russia has close ties with the Christian Orthodox communities in the Middle East.

The political stalemate continues

There is, however, a growing consensus in the Lebanese parliament that no decision is better than a wrong decision that could needlessly stir up the delicate sectarian balance, especially given the situation in neighbouring Syria.

Faysal Itani, a Resident Fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council explained to your GRI correspondent,

I think [March 8th’s] goals are negative, not positive. Hezbollah can live with there being no president: the security forces are on the balance not hostile, and that is Hezbollah’s priority. Meanwhile, since Hezbollah has no appetite for governing Lebanon, the performance of its formal institutions is not a priority. Meanwhile, Hezbollah benefits from pushing Michel Aoun as their only candidate, as that preserves the Aoun-Hezbollah relationship and keeps March 14 in check. It’s a win-win situation for Hezbollah.

Another player, the Amal Movement, headed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, is a Shia party which fought against Hezbollah in what is known as the Battle of the Camps during Lebanon’s own brutal civil war in the 1980s. Amal’s militia disarmed in compliance with the Taif Agreement in 1991, and though it retained its political organization, Amal is largely viewed as subservient to the needs of Hezbollah.

Nabih Berri has attempted to get the FPM to drop its insistence on appointing members of the security forces so the parliament could move forward with pending economic issues, such as the dam project in Wadi Bisri that would supply power to Beirut’s suburbs. 

Economic situation

Despite Fitch downgrading Lebanon’s foreign and local currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR) to a ‘B’ with a Negative Outlook, the country’s banking sector is confident. However, it has been a decade since Lebanon’s politicians have even agreed on a national budget. Fear abounds that the dysfunction may eventually result in a slowdown of foreign aid vital for tackling the refugee crisis.

The IMF noted that the Lebanese Treasury has some $36.3 billion in currency reserves. Foreign remittances are high due to Lebanon’s large overseas population. As a result, the status quo is acceptable across Lebanon’s political spectrum. The FPM has been a strong advocate for Lebanon’s expatriates which are predominately Christian. Hezbollah and the FPM are also embedded throughout Lebanon’s private and public sectors.

Faysal Itani discussed Hezbollah’s involvement in the public sector,

Hezbollah is a business as much as it’s a militant group – it has a strong patronage network and supporters (both real or nominal) and sometimes receive preferential access to jobs including and perhaps especially in the public sector. The same applies to other members of March 8, though this is a systemic characteristic of Lebanese politics, and not just limited to March 8. In the past few years the Free Patriotic Movement has reportedly made itself quite wealthy through bribery and cuts of government contracts.

Security situation

Hezbollah may be fine with indefinite political paralysis, but for Lebanon’s acting Prime Minister and caretaker President, Tammam Salam, a political independent, the need to fill the role is critical to the country’s security.

Lebanon remains a front in the regional confrontation between the Sunni Arab Gulf States and Iran’s Shia Crescent. Amid the uncertainty stemming from the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah views itself as the primary vanguard of Lebanon’s national security.

The Lebanese Armed Forces are highly dependent on Hezbollah for cooperation in securing the country’s borders from growing Sunni militant activity. There is no doubt that the Syrian civil war has been changing the group. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has stated the movement is in a fight for its survival.

Hezbollah’s victory against the Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel factions at Qalamoun is an indication of the group’s professionalism and skill. As part of the PR-blitz, the group recently took Western journalists on a tour of the front lines to highlight their progress.

However, Hezbollah’s numbers are limited. They cannot sustain operations and a presence in all parts of Syria. As the Assad regime faces more losses, Hezbollah will revert to protecting Lebanon from the fallout of Syria’s war.

End to political stalemate in sight?

Signs are slowly appearing that the deadlock could be ending soon. A meeting recently took place between the head of the Lebanese Forces and FPM leader Michel Aoun. Lebanese Forces (LF) is a Christian party aligned with the anti-Syrian March 14th coalition. The national unity cabinet suggested it will soon be resuming again.

The March 14th coalition has struggled in recent years; LF leader Samir Geagea was revealed meeting with Saudi Arabia to seek assistance for the party’s bankruptcy. The lead anti-Syrian Sunni party, the Future Movement, has been floundering with Lebanon’s Sunni community, though regional political support for the anti-Syrian bloc remains high.

Despite this, incidents such as the riots in the infamous Roumieh prison will only further divide the Sunnis and heighten the influence of Salafists. This is already evident in Sunni areas such as the Arkoub villages and will ultimately undermine March 14th. Though this may help Hezbollah and its partners in the March 8th coalition in the short term, the long term outlook will be dangerous.

About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the Washington DC Metro Area. He has presented at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIL. Chris’ writing has also appeared on NATO's Atlantic Treaty Association, Raddington Report, Small Wars Journal, and Syria Comment. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). You can follow Chris on Twitter @Solomon_Chris