Lebanon is on a high-wire tightrope. It has the potential to become an influential partner for Western countries seeking some sort of resolution in the increasingly worrisome conflict in Syria. Beirut’s stated policy of neutrality and deep historic ties to international players such as France grant it a unique position as a bridge between the West and the Middle East.
Yet in some ways it is also on the brink of implosion, amid concerns Prime Minister Saad Hariri won’t be able to maintain control of the government and it will return to the political turmoil that dominated the country in the aftermath of its civil war. Instability is worsened by the presence of more than a million Syrian refugees seeking shelter from the civil and proxy wars taking place there. And there remains an ever-present threat posed by Hezbollah, whose political and military influence constantly undermines Beirut’s attempts to control the country’s direction.
Lebanon’s ability to remain neutral in regional crises has become increasingly difficult amid pressure from the West. The U.S. continues to push for domestic political reform and military cooperation, relying on Lebanon to maintain its border with Syria, and late Friday President Trump announced that the U.S. has “launched precision strikes” on targets associated with Syrian chemical weapons program as part of a “combined operation” with the U.K. and France. Instability in Beirut is magnified by Iran’s influence, chiefly through its partnership with Hezbollah, whose forces it regularly directs to intervene against Islaprmic extremists in Syria.
“Lebanese are split,” says Imad Salamey, a professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.
Half of the country believes the central government should ally with Western powers, particularly France and the U.S., while others have become increasingly critical of the Trump administration and its insistence on isolating Tehran, Salamey says. These opponents believe that future stability hangs on greater coordination instead with Russiaand its regional partners, including Iran.
Half of the country believes the Syrian government has developed and employed chemical weapons against opposition forces, while others believes reports of those attacks have been manufactured by opponents of the Syrian regime, Salamey says.
A military strike carried out by the U.S. in retaliation for the chemical weapons attacks in Syria would likely outrage most Lebanese, he adds, unless it is part of a broader strategy for preventing further chemical attacks against opposition fighters and other heavy-handed tactics by the regime.
“It goes up and down, it’s not a consistent position,” Salamey says of the public desire in Lebanon to more closely coordinate with the West.
At home, the perception of Hezbollah is divided, as well. Some consider it the only effective force to keep radical militants from spilling over the border with Syria, while others are fearful of how powerful it can become.
Hariri’s own credibility has also been called into question. He was reportedly detained by Saudi Arabia in November and forced to resign publicly as prime minister – considered an attempt by Riyadh to exert pressure on its rival Iran – only to be released, temporarily seek refuge in France and retract his resignation. Just this week he returned from a successful conference in Paris led by French President Emmanuel Macron where he raised $11 billion in loans and grants. Hariri even posted a selfie with Macron and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
Yet he returned home to a country that has in recent weeks found itself at the literal center of crossfire. Following an internationally rebuked chemical weapons attacks in Syria in early April for which the U.S. holds Syrian President Bashar Assad responsible, Israel reportedly launched a retaliatory airstrike against Hezbollah positions firing rockets from F-15 fighter jets in Lebanese airspace, and reportedly killed seven Iranians.
This comes at a time when Israel and Lebanon’s foreign ministries have attempted to warm relations between the occasionally warring countries. Lebanon’s minister of foreign affairs and emigrants, Gebran Bassil, is a Christian, son-in-law of Lebanon’s ambitious President Michel Aoun and reportedly also aspires to eventually become president.
Amid the fundraising conference, Israeli media reported that Bassil believes the chances of conflict between Israel and Hezbollah are decreasing as a part of his insistence that the central government in Beirut was in control of the country ahead of upcoming elections in May.
Power struggles in Lebanon have traditionally been between Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Christians, says Randa Slim, director of conflict resolution at the Middle East Institute. Now Hariri has begun to position himself in a governing alliance with Lebanese President Michel Aoun – a contentious political opponent and former head of the Lebanese army who has supported engaging with Hezbollah, and is Bassil’s father-in-law – in an attempt to find some sort of balance with the militant group without overtly aligning with or opposing them.
“We are seeing in a way the remaking of the power structure in Lebanon,” Slim says.
It’s becoming an increasingly precarious balancing act. Hezbollah leadership on Friday condemned the Israeli airstrike last week as an “historic mistake,” according to the Associated Press. Many analysts including Slim believe Iran will seek to retaliate against Israel, and will likely employ Hezbollah as a proxy force.
“There are going to be limits to how far they can stand up to Hezbollah,” Slim says of Hariri’s government.
American policymakers believe that enough international support and pressure for political reform in Lebanon can help transition it into a country like Jordan, considered an irreplaceable Western ally and partner particularly for military operations in the Levant, says F. Gregory Gause, a regional expert and head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government & Public Service. But he questions how much worth that would have while Hezbollah remains the country’s most powerful fighting force.
“They can’t, the society is too divided, the hollowness of the state after the civil war and development of Hezbollah as a counter-authority, I think it’s just too hard,” Gause says. “Lebanon is a weak reed to build a policy on.”