After weeks of increasing threats between Israel and Hezbollah, including a retaliatory attack from the militia in response to an apparent Israeli drone strike, Lebanon has dodged a bullet. The fact there were no casualties allowed both sides to claim victory and wind down tensions, averting what many had feared would be an all-out war.
However, that is little reassurance for Lebanon as it faces a number of major challenges. The country now appears to be squarely in the crosshairs as regional tensions between the US and Israel on the one hand, and Iran on the other, continue to rise. The economy is in a dire state as Lebanon is struggling with an enormous public debt that threatens the national currency.
Last week the Trump administration sanctioned Jammal Trust Bank, accusing it of enabling Hezbollah’s financial activities. This was a rare US foray against a Lebanese bank, raising fears that further such steps might undermine international confidence in the banking sector. That would have grave repercussions as banking remains the pillar of Lebanon’s economy.
That the US-Iranian confrontation is having a greater impact on Lebanon than it did previously is not surprising. Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, witnessed a more hard-nosed response when he visited Washington recently. In Congress and the US think tank community, there are voices calling for a cut to military aid for the Lebanese army, which critics regard as being too close to Hezbollah.
Certainly, those in power in Lebanon have not helped the situation. A number of officials, including president Michel Aoun, have publicly defended Hezbollah, even when it was clear that the Trump administration was intent on isolating the party in Lebanon. The government and army have also taken positions in line with Hezbollah, embarrassing their defenders in Washington.
However, those who are tempted to weaken Hezbollah by targeting Lebanon should be very careful. A full-frontal attack on the country would very likely do nothing but destabilise the state, push an economy in crisis over the edge and weaken state institutions that, if they do not and cannot confront Hezbollah, nevertheless represent an alternative to the political order that the party would like to impose on Lebanon. In other words, one in which there is no effective state and all priorities are defined by Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons.
The critics respond that there is no effective state today. That grossly oversimplifies the Lebanese reality. The sectarian system forces even Hezbollah to take into consideration the priorities of its adversaries. The party cannot help but calculate the repercussions of a devastating war with Israel on other religious communities. Yet efforts to punish the whole Lebanese state, which itself reflects Lebanon’s sectarian complexity, are likely to weaken Hezbollah’s foes more than the party itself, giving it more latitude to do what it wants in the country.
That is why Lebanon has always benefited from international cover as a means of compensating for its elusive sovereignty. During the years of the Syrian military presence, then prime minister Rafik Hariri would often seek to widen his margin of manoeuvre with regard to Damascus by playing on his ties with international actors. This was particularly useful on the economic front, which was the main source of Hariri’s power with regard to Syria.
Today, too, Lebanon’s military relationship with the US, like its willingness to listen to international donors pushing for Lebanese economic reform, plays a similar role. For as long as Lebanon has links with international actors, above all the US and France, it means that it has to respond in some ways to the demands of both the Americans and the Europeans.
To use the Lebanese state’s active opposition to Hezbollah as a benchmark for measuring its seriousness is ludicrous. All a confrontation would do is lead to stalemate and sectarian tensions with the Shia community, possibly provoking a civil war. Nor does anyone believe that a vulnerable and divided state can challenge a militarily powerful and cohesive party backed by regional powers. In fact, so unrealistic is this expectation that those pushing for it appear mainly to want to strip Lebanon of its international protection, not impose behaviour change on the country.
And why would they want to do that? It could be because many of those pushing for such an approach are concerned with Israel's security and feel that it would have a wider latitude to act freely in Lebanon against Hezbollah if the country were isolated. That is why prominent friends of Israel, such as senator Ted Cruz, have questioned US aid to the Lebanese army, and it is why Israel has complained that the United Nations force in southern Lebanon is failing to curtail Hezbollah’s violations of UN resolutions governing the south.
It’s difficult to argue the contrary. But the real issue is what would happen if Lebanon were to become a free-for-all between Israel and Iran and its proxies. The country would certainly be destroyed, which would permit even a militarily bloodied Hezbollah to reassert itself before long. The party would face a demoralised, impoverished and exhausted society that would have even fewer means to counter its agenda than it does today.
Lebanon would effectively become a failed state and with more than one million Syrian refugees in the country, this might push them to migrate westwards. No one in the international community seeks such an outcome. Hezbollah is a major problem for which no easy solutions are available. Obliterating Lebanon to harm the party is the height of folly and would only serve to strengthen Hezbollah.
Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut