Political Instability in Lebanon
In May 2018, Lebanon held its first parliamentary elections in nine years and Hezbollah—a Shiite political party and militant organization backed by Iran and designated by the United States as a terrorist group—increased its share of seats to 53 percent. Despite elections having taken place months earlier, Lebanese politicians were not able to break political gridlock and form a unity government until January 2019.
Tensions between Israel and Lebanon recently increased after the discovery of tunnels, allegedly dug by Hezbollah, leading from Lebanon into Israel. Israel launched Operation Northern Shield in December 2018 in response to the discovery, and the UN Interim Forces in Lebanon confirmed that at least two of the tunnels violate a 2006 cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hezbollah.
After gaining independence in 1943, Lebanon’s new political leaders created a system of governance that would allow for the proportional representation of the country’s three major religious groups: Maronite Christians (represented by the president), Shiite Muslims (represented by the speaker of parliament), and Sunni Muslims (represented by the prime minister). However, unresolved sectarian differences eventually devolved into a civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990, in which both Israeli and Syrian forces intervened—and more than one hundred thousand people died. Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2005 following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, but a war between Israel and Hezbollah quickly followed in 2006.
In the last decade, sectarian tensions between Hezbollah and Sunni groups have increased—as has political gridlock. In addition to a two and a half year leadership gap from 2014 to 2016, Lebanon did not hold parliamentary elections for nine years. Furthermore, Lebanese politics have become a proxy battleground for Iran, which provides support for Hezbollah; and Saudi Arabia, which supports Prime Minister Saad Hariri and other Sunni politicians. In November 2017, during his visit to the kingdom, Saudi Arabia seemingly held Hariri under house arrest and forced him to resign from office amid Saudi concerns that Hariri was not doing enough to counter Hezbollah’s influence. Hariri eventually returned to Lebanon—and to office—but tensions between political parties persist.
Lebanon’s economy has struggled as well, partly because of political gridlock, but also because of spillover from the Syrian civil war. In addition to hosting more than 1.5 million refugees (nearly one million of whom are Syrian), the eight-year conflict in Syria has affected cross-border trade and dampened Lebanon’s tourism industry. Lebanon has the world’s third-highest ratio of debt to gross domestic product and may face economic and monetary crises.
Despite Lebanon’s dissociation policy, Hezbollah’s armed component has also been involved in the Syrian civil war, which has exacerbated ongoing tensions between Hezbollah and Israel along the shared (and disputed) Israel-Lebanon border and has led to increasingly hostile rhetorical exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel over Israeli air strikes in Syria. Hezbollah has allegedly supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the start of the Syrian war.
Lebanon has traditionally been a strong U.S. partner in the Middle East. However, security risks, including weak governance, a shaky economy, destabilizing spillover from the Syrian civil war, and the increasing tension between Israel and Hezbollah, have alarmed U.S. policymakers, as well as leaders of partner states in Europe and the Persian Gulf. U.S. policymakers remain focused on mitigating the instability in Lebanon in order to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war and to prevent the growing influence of Iran in the region.