Will it be a war in Lebanon?

Domestic conflicts

Diana Hodali

was born in Bonn to Palestinian parents. She studied English and media studies in Düsseldorf. Since 2001 she has been working as a freelance journalist mainly for Deutsche Welle, but also for other ARD broadcasters, on political and socio-political issues in the Middle East. She spent several months in Lebanon as a scholarship holder of the Heinz Kühn Foundation and the IJP (International Journalist Program). As a journalism trainer at DW Akademie, she travels regularly to the Middle East and North Africa.

Although Lebanon is deeply involved in the war in Syria, the country is struggling to maintain its stability. The rival parties still do not have their domestic political problems under control. In May there will be new elections for the first time since 2009.

27.03.2018, Lebanon, Baalbek: Syrian refugees prepare lunch for their children in a refugee camp. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

Current situation

Electricity bottlenecks, the garbage crisis, well over 1.5 million Syrian refugees and years of nepotism shape the mood in the country. On Transparency International's corruption index, Lebanon ranks 143rd out of 180 countries observed. The cedar state recently hit the headlines because the Sunni Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri unexpectedly announced his resignation on November 4, 2017 in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh, thus triggering a government crisis in Lebanon. President Michel Aoun refused to accept it after Hariri's resignation. When Hariri was back in Beirut a short time later, he revoked his resignation and announced that he would remain at the head of the government.

With Hariri's resignation, the Saudi-Iranian power struggle for influence in the Middle East entered another round. It is still unclear whether the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman dictated the withdrawal of Hariri, who is economically closely linked to Riyadh. What is certain, however, is that Saudi Arabia supported this step, because the aim of the royal family is to limit Tehran's influence in Beirut. Observers assume that Hariri should actually only return to Lebanon once Iran and Hezbollah have made visible cuts in their policies of interference and domination in Lebanon. But so far nothing can be seen in this regard.

Lebanon did not have a president between 2014 and 2016. After two years of presidential vacancy, Hezbollah finally succeeded in placing its candidate for the office: Michel Aoun. This was made possible by a deal with Hariri, who held the office from 2009 to 2014. Aoun named Hariri Prime Minister a short time later. The government brings together representatives from the two rival political camps: the Shiite Hezbollah and its allies from the "March 8th Alliance" on the one hand, supported by Iran, and the pro-Western and mostly Sunni "March 14th Alliance" led by Hariri the other side, which receives aid from Saudi Arabia.

But the real winner of the difficult formation of a government was Hezbollah - much to the displeasure of Saudi Arabia, which, in view of the clear positioning of Aoun on the side of Syrian President Assad, is increasingly angry and is looking for ways to undermine the great influence of Hezbollah on political events in the Push back Lebanon. Hariri and his allies are trying to come to terms with the power relations that have changed to their disadvantage.

In order to balance the balance of power between the various interest groups under the difficult conditions, the cabinet comprises 30 ministers - for around 4.5 million citizens. It is also significant that the government, Inaya Ezzeddine, has only one woman and the Ministry of Women's Rights is headed by a man. The central task of the government is to prepare for the next parliamentary elections, which will take place in May 2018.

Although the war has been raging in neighboring Syria for seven years now, and the Shiite Hezbollah are fighting with the allied Iran on the side of the Assad regime, the war has not yet crossed the border. This is all the more remarkable as the numerically larger Sunni camp openly sympathizes with Sunni opposition groups in the neighboring country. None of the major political groups are interested in the return of the civil war. A patriotic consensus has grown in Lebanon, with the desire for a stable Lebanese state and secure borders. Out of concern for internal security, the government has increased the military presence on the streets and set up checkpoints.
The greatest social and economic burden currently arises from the presence of Syrian refugees. The UN refugee agency UNHCR has registered over one million refugees in Lebanon (as of March 2018). This is a challenge for a state with a good 4.5 million inhabitants. It is estimated that there are an additional one million Syrians living in Lebanon who have not reported to the UNHCR. Since May 2015, at the insistence of the government, no more Syrians have been registered by the refugee agency. Only those who can provide evidence, for example, that a relative or a Lebanese pays for their maintenance can enter the country. Lebanon never signed the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. Therefore, the legal situation of the Syrian refugees is unclear; they are often faced with unfulfillable requirements.

The country's infrastructure had already reached its limits before the war in Syria, also because of the widespread corruption and nepotism. Most Lebanese know that the old political class does its thing in its own pocket, exploits the country and ignores the common good. The power outages are getting longer every day, water is increasingly in short supply, and waste disposal hardly works. In the summer of 2015 there were protests under the slogan and hashtag #Youstink ("You stink"). The campaign had raised hopes among the population that interdenominational politicians would finally agree to tackle the problems. The protest movement gave rise to a citizens' movement that sought changes via the local elections in 2016: "Beirut Madinati" ("Beirut is my city") is the name of the association of 24 independent candidates who received 40% of the votes cast on the spot.

Causes and backgrounds of the conflict

The conflict has both external and internal causes. In the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for supremacy in the Middle East, Lebanon plays a key role due to its proximity to Israel and its internal turmoil. Both countries are also trying to take advantage of Syria's current weakness. Iran has been exerting increasing influence on the cedar state for years through the Shiite Hezbollah, which has its strongholds in the south of the country. With this goal in mind, Hezbollah has been massively upgraded in recent years. Tens of thousands of rockets are said to have reached Lebanon from Iran via Syria. Meanwhile, Tehran is concentrating on building another front against Israel in Syria.

Saudi Arabia is concerned about the growing influence of Hezbollah, and therefore Iran, in the region. The leadership of Saudi Arabia has influence in Lebanon - as an investor, investor and - in good times - as a tourist partner. The call on its citizens to leave Lebanon or not to travel to the Cedar State at all can be understood as an attempt to get various parties to take more decisive action against Iranian influence. The Saudi Arabs are trying to build a Sunni counterweight to the Shiite-Iranian axis in Lebanon. But Riyadh does not have a partner organization comparable to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Rather, the royal family supported Sunni militias and networks that operated nationwide for years. The political structure in Lebanon is also fragile. A postponement, no matter how, can at any time lead to a new version of the civil war.

The central internal cause of the conflict is the rivalry between the Sunni camp led by Saad-al-Hariri and the Shiite camp led by Hassan Nasrallah. One is Prime Minister and the son of Rafiq al-Hariri, who once made billions in profits from doing business with Saudi Arabia. The other is General Secretary of the powerful Hezbollah, the "Party of God", which was co-founded by Iran among others in the 1980s. The position of Hezbollah in Lebanon is singular: it is at the same time part of the "government of national unity" and de facto a military power center that cannot be controlled by any other power in the country.

The country's economic situation is bad. Politicians neglect rural areas in particular. Jobs, government contracts and some social benefits are given proportionally to the various religious communities. Due to the religious-denominational proportional representation, which goes back to the "National Pact" of 1943, exclusive collective identities are constantly reproduced. Social and economic struggles for distribution are therefore always religious and confessional disputes as well. The resentments cultivated by the various population groups are systematically used by the political leaders for political mobilization. That is why many Lebanese vote for the party with their denomination in elections.

Coming to terms with the (civil war) past has almost disappeared from the political agenda, or it is being used for political purposes. The (selective) memory of injustices suffered, controlled by upbringing and the media, reinforces the often unconditional identification of the Lebanese with the religious community into which they were born. The post-war generations found only limited answers in their parents' homes - each denomination reports on the war from its own perspective. As a result, the wounds have not yet healed and the mistrust between the former parties to the conflict continues to smolder, which also plays into the hands of external powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Members of Hezbollah with flags of Lebanon and Hezbollah at a party event on "Martyrs Day" in November 2009. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

Processing and solution approaches

In 1989, the Taif Agreement (Saudi Arabia) ushered in the end of the 15-year civil war. The areas into which the country had disintegrated were reunited to form one state. The denominational proportional representation agreed in the "National Pact" was also implicitly confirmed - albeit with a few corrections in favor of the Muslim groups. A 50:50 parity has now been set for the distribution of seats in parliament. In addition, the powers of the President, who is determined by the Christian groups, have been restricted in favor of the Prime Minister and the Speaker of Parliament. The office of head of government is reserved for a Sunni Muslim and that of parliamentary president for a Shiite Muslim.

In Lebanon, Christians and Muslims are equal partners. The constitution is the only one in the Arab world that does not prescribe a state religion and expressly guarantees religious freedom. Institutional reforms put an end to the political preponderance of Christians and thus took account of the demographic development in favor of the Muslim population. Decentralization and new institutions, such as a constitutional court, should open up new opportunities for participation and thus reduce the fear of marginalization that exists on all sides.

However, the majority of the reforms - with the exception of the changed proportional formula between the denominations - were never implemented. Traditional political leaders, as well as former warlords, showed no interest in giving up their power base. Until 2005, Syria, as the occupying and guaranteeing power of the Taif Agreement, practiced the "divide-and-rule" strategy in order to maintain the status quo. Syrian secret services controlled Lebanese politics and large parts of the state apparatus for 15 years. Widely ramified networks of organized corruption formed under their protection. After the Syrian withdrawal, the polarization between the two camps quickly undone the emerging reforms.

History of the conflict

In the 19th century, competing European and regional powers took advantage of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire to gain influence in the eastern Mediterranean through alliances with local elites. The local elites relied on the loyalty of their religious community in the political and social conflicts triggered by colonization and modernization. Tensions arose between the Druze and Christians, especially in the central mountain region of Lebanon. Between 1840 and 1860 these escalated into armed conflicts and pogroms against Christians. Following the intervention of European powers, limited autonomy was then established within the Ottoman Empire, in which the principle of proportional representation of the six religious communities was applied for the first time.

The contacts to European powers and markets favored the social advancement of the Christian population. At the end of the First World War, the Catholic Maronites in particular strived for the formation of an independent, Christian-dominated Lebanon. They found support from their traditional protective power, France, which controlled the former Ottoman province of Syria as a mandate power on behalf of the League of Nations. Many Muslims initially rejected the new state founded in 1920 and pleaded for remaining with Syria or for a pan-Arab unitary state. It was not until the anti-colonial liberation struggle of the 1940s that Christian and Muslim politicians and parties came to a compromise that provided for the division of political power between Christians and Muslims and the obligation to Lebanon as an independent nation.

The rivalry for power in the state continued afterwards. While the Lebanese Christians hoped to secure their privileged position through alliances with non-Arab powers (above all France, USA and Israel), the Lebanese Muslims tried to embed themselves closely in the Arab-Muslim region. In order to neutralize the predominance of Christians, they formed an alliance with the PLO in the early 1970s, which had strong support in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. 15 years of civil war were the result.

The Taif peace agreement (October 22, 1989) could only come into force after the failure of the "war of national liberation" against Syria, which was declared by the Christian-Maronite general and head of government, Michel Aoun, in March 1989. Aoun's armed forces were defeated by the Syrian army in October 1990. As the occupying and guaranteeing power of the agreement, Syria obliged the changing Lebanese governments to support its hostile attitude towards Israel and the USA. After the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, the Lebanese Sunnis and some of the Christians advocated close adherence to the then "pro-Western" (and predominantly Sunni) Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Shiites, on the other hand, stuck to the position of "resistance" against Israel and the USA, represented by Syria and Iran. This position was also supported by some of the Christians.

Fueled by the war between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, the conflict between the two camps led to a chronic constitutional crisis in the country. Political offices remained vacant, institutions were impaired in their function or paralyzed. The political crisis escalated in May 2008 and led to several days of fighting between supporters of the government and the opposition. Armed supporters of the Shiite parties Hezbollah and Amal occupied large parts of the capital Beirut; more than a hundred people died. At the mediation of Arab states, a "government of national unity" was formed in 2008/2009 and the conflict was temporarily defused.

The events of the Arab uprisings (2011) also led to demonstrations against the ruling political system in Lebanon. However, these were quickly appropriated by Hezbollah and its allies for their own political ends and soon came to a standstill.


Perthes, Volker (2016): The End of the Middle East as We Know It - An Essay. bpb series of publications Volume 1702, Bonn.


Country information on Lebanon from Transparency International

Report on Saad al-Hariri's resignation

Report on the replacement of the presidential post in Lebanon

Lebanon in the regional structure