Lebanon is a "failed state" in which the "economic quagmire" afflicts every stratum of society according to Jacques Neriah, a Middle East analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said during an April 1 Middle East Forum Webinar (video).
Widespread poverty, limited electricity, fleeing medical professionals, and an impending famine confront its population. Neriah said that "almost 3 million" Lebanese are impoverished, with "23 percent in extreme poverty" who survive on money sent by the "15 million" Lebanese in the diaspora. So dire is the situation that younger Lebanese join ISIS to survive on the "$150 per month" they receive.
A principal cause for Lebanon's near-collapse, said Neriah, is Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terror organization. Its entry into the Syrian civil war at Iran's behest alienated Saudi Arabia, which retaliated by withdrawing funds from Lebanese banks. The impact on Lebanon's economy was slow initially, but accelerated in 2019 when the Lebanese government raised taxes in the fall of "the Ponzi scheme that ... the Lebanese economy was built upon." This collapse, Neriah said, triggered Lebanon's worst crisis in "150 years."
Neriah: If Hezbollah loses seats in parliamentary elections, it will "paralyze the system, will paralyze the legislative body."
The political outcome of this calamity will manifest in "two main events" in the "next few months": district elections to parliament in May, and the presidential elections in October. Hezbollah, facing a barrage of public criticism, is "suffering setbacks" and may lose seats. Should that happen, it will "paralyze the system, will paralyze the legislative body," which will create "more or less what we are facing today in Iraq," which because of Iranian displeasure has not had a president since last October.
If no "deadlock concerning the legislation" arises and the presidential elections proceed, Neriah said there are four "contenders for presidency": the Maronite Suleiman Frangieh, who is "a close ally of Syria and Hezbollah" whose chances are "very slim"; Gebran Bassil, the president's son-in-law, sanctioned by the United States and "hated by the Lebanese public because of his corruption"; Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese armed forces whose chances, because of his Israeli background, are "very slim, if not nonexistent"; and Joseph Aoun, the "well-connected" chief of the army who has "good relations with Hezbollah" and is "backed by the United States, by France." For these reasons, Aoun has the best chance of winning.
Should a legislative deadlock over the presidency occur, Lebanon is likely to enter into a "cold civil war – not an open one." An "offshoot" of that outcome could find Hezbollah "tempted" to "conquer" the whole of Beirut. While this wouldn't mean that "Hezbollah would rule Lebanon," it would be the "beginning of its destruction," he said, adding that "when in every house you have a weapon, you have the rifle or a pistol," then "this is quite a different story."
Neriah said Hezbollah Secretary General Nasrallah's "vision" is to use Lebanon's "legal system" to take control and transform the country into "the Islamic Republic of Lebanon." Legislative deadlock could result in a "further cantonization of Lebanon" that would continue the societal cleavage experienced "during the civil war of 1975 to 1995."
Militarily, Hezbollah's priorities in the face of a failed state are twofold: "the domestic front in Lebanon, and the front with Israel." Neriah believes Hezbollah's priority is the Lebanese front, even though it is concerned Israel will use the Lebanese crisis as an opportunity to attack. Hezbollah's insecurity in its standing with the Lebanese people means that "the timing is not ripe" for Hezbollah to attack Israel.
Asked how Israel might manage the chaos in Lebanon, he advises it to "be very much aware" of "where Hezbollah keeps" its precision-guided strategic missiles and "take care of them as soon as possible."
A U.S.-Iran deal would also threaten regional security because the $100 billion it would transfer to Iran would finance Hezbollah and give it "more means to recruit people." Lebanon would then "have no chance" but to be beholden to Hezbollah's existing monopoly over its hospitals, schools, banks, supermarkets, and pharmacies.
Funding from the World Bank and the WHO could save Lebanon from economic collapse, but close oversight is a must.
Funding provided by outside sources such as the "World Bank, the World Health Organization, the WHO, and all the international organizations" could pull Lebanon back from brink of economic collapse. Neriah warned, however, that corruption necessitates close oversight of any such funds, as donations to "renovate" Beirut after the 2020 port explosion "disappeared in[to] the pockets of politicians."
Should Lebanon continue to sink into economic malaise to the point that it "cannot survive as a state," there may be a "Kosovo solution, where an international body" such as the UN Security Council would act as "a sort of advisory committee" to effect the reforms the "Lebanese themselves are not able to do." Only such intervention can prevent Hezbollah from filling the power vacuum created by government paralysis.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.