Kamran Bokhari and Faysal Itani discuss Lebanon’s multiple crises and the Beirut port explosion that served as a culmination of the problems the country is facing.
Itani says the port explosion was the result of decades of corruption that led the Lebanese government and public services to failure. After the civil war, Lebanon functioned under an arrangement that was supposed to help the country transform to a liberal democracy, but that transformation never took place. Now, amid an unprecedented economic crisis, Itani says Lebanon is far from the path to recovery and is on the verge of becoming a “robber baron state” in which the elite divide the spoils of the economy and the population is left behind.
There is a chance that the Lebanese elite could change and work more to benefit the people, Itani says – either out of a sense of enlightened self-interest, or out of fear of the pressure rising from the streets in the form of growing opposition. Itani also says that while the government may be lost, the regime – the overall structure that keeps business as usual operating in Lebanon – is very robust.
Bokhari and Itani also discuss Hezbollah’s rise, its current role in both Lebanon and Syria, and how relations between Lebanon and Syria have morphed over the years.
Kamran Bokhari: Hi, my name is Kamran Bokhari. Welcome to another session of the Center for Global Policy’s The Lodestar. That’s our podcast series. Today, I’m sitting in our office with my colleague Faysal Itani who is the deputy director for our non-state actors in geopolitics program. If you don’t know Faysal, you should Google “Faysal Itani” and “New York Times” and “Lebanon” and you will find that he wrote one of the first op-ed pieces on the tragic explosion that took place and destroyed the port in Beirut and caused a lot of suffering, not just in terms of death and destruction but also to the economy and exacerbated the turmoil in the country. So I’m going to hand the mic over to Faysal, who will basically give us a 30,000-foot view of where things stand right now and we’ll take the conversation from there.
Faysal Itani: So, what we, we don’t have an official account of what happened yet or an investigation finding. We do know that about 2,750 of ammonium nitrate were basically sitting around on this port for about six and a half years before they detonated, likely because of a nearby fire, which may have been fireworks. But in any case, you know, we have a lot of details of what happened over the years. Some officials tried to get them out, some petitioned the judiciary to allow them to move them because they were originally actually seized from a vessel, so they were stuck in this kind of legal and administrative limbo for all these years until they blew up, causing destruction and casualties that you named. I think about 250 people were killed, a thousand injured or so, and about 300,000 people are homeless. The political implications of this we saw most dramatically yesterday, with the resignation of the Lebanese Cabinet and the shift to a caretaker government. So that’s where we are right now, where you have that political limbo, we have the investigations that are ongoing. It’s completely unclear where those are going to land, who they’re going to point out where the culpability is. And of course Lebanon, as you said, the context for the Lebanese is that they’re mired in this really severe unprecedented economic crisis, a financial crisis, which is essentially a fiscal crisis, a currency crisis, and a banking crisis at the same time. And that preceded the explosion. So you could imagine that everything has been basically amped up and put on fast forward as a result of the accident.
KB: Thank you, Faysal. Thank you for sort of laying that out. So my next question is that, so clearly there is a need for external assistance that will come in the form of international institutions, financial lending institutions coming up with a package to put Lebanon back on the path of recovery. But as you say, the problem precedes the explosion, so there’s just not enough money right now to deal with the Lebanese, the broader Lebanese political economic crisis. So even let’s say, you know, if they get a lot of money, the issue to me it seems — and you should you know, I’d let you shed light on it — is that the fault is within the political system that’s not delivering. We know it’s confessional. We know it’s fractionalized. There’s a complex power-sharing arrangement, but the but the bottom line is it’s not delivering to the people or at least no longer as it used to be.
FI: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. So what we’re likely to see in terms of foreign assistance is going to be centered on the emergency. Basically the food emergency, the basic goods emergency, medical, perhaps some basic reconstruction some restoration of the port facilities, but that’s as far as I think it’s going to go. For it to go any further than that for the country to be back on the path of recovery, as you put it, I think that’s a much bigger haul. And now any moment of crisis creates this opportunity for things to change, and one country. we’ve seen try to capitalize hard on it is France. And they’ve come in with a very high-profile diplomatic presence try to push the government in a particular direction towards reform. The international financial institutions are the same. They’ve also tried to push Lebanon in that direction, but it hasn’t worked, or didn’t work before this emergency. We’ll see whether it works after, but it really comes down to the systemic problems you identified. This confessional system was a crafted a very long time ago, first of all, and it survived the civil war mostly intact, but it was basically conceived as a crisis management and conflict avoidance mechanism
KB: A compromise.
FI: A compromise at the very least common denominator level, you know, and that was the — in 1990, when the civil war finished. And since then it was supposed to be a kind of transitional phase for the country to evolve in the direction of a genuine liberal democracy, which obviously never happened. Instead, this turned out to be a form of pluralistic democratized deep corruption, where you have elections and you have public institutions, but they don’t function and people get positions and privileges based on religious affiliation, personal contacts, anything of the sort. Then around this political class is was built the kind of quasi-criminal class and a financial sector that turned out to be basically a Ponzi scheme. And so you had layer upon layer upon layer of rot that descended all the way down to the basic bureaucracy and to the kind of Institutions that manage what goes where in the port and how long it stays there essentially, etc., etc. I know, I think now we’ve reached a point. just a kind of very dramatic, dramatic cap to all this is the explosion of the port. But of course this explosion of the port literally, without any hyperbole, is literally just another one of these things. It just happens to be bigger and killed more people. But if you go around Lebanon in terms of public administration, terms of civic life, it’s all been poisoned. Nothing works. Electricity doesn’t work, the roads don’t work, public institutions don’t work. The police are corrupt. The judiciary doesn’t work. So it’s all been penetrated by this political system, and it’s all been eaten out from the inside — hollowed out, so to speak. So that’s where we are. Yeah, absolutely. And I think that this is a kind of cap, the cap, very dramatic and kind of darkly poetic and very ugly way symbol of everything that happened over the past 30 years in the country.
KB: So I want to overlay this with you know, the situation that has unfolded since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. That, you know, Lebanon, as you just pointed out, you know, never really became that sort of functioning political economy — a liberal democracy as it was envisioned, but then came the Hariri assassination in early 2005 that really plunged the country into a different kind of crisis where not only did you have all those, you know, confessional factions, you were divided into two camps. There was the Syria-aligned camp and the Saudi-aligned camp, and I’ll let you go into the details of that — and that struggle which seems to have sort of tilted in favor of the pro-Syrian camp because of the Hezbollah factor has been, you know, the norm, if you will, since 2005 until this financial crisis broke out. People for the longest time weren’t looking at a financial crisis when they were looking at Lebanon. They would say, “Okay, so what’s happening between Hezbollah and its opponents,” when they wanted to look at Lebanon for the longest time. How would you factor that in, in terms of producing the economic malaise?
FI: Yeah. That’s an excellent question. What I’ll do, Kamran, is I’ll add kind of an extra segment to your timeline, though. I would divide the time between 1990 to now into three phases. The first phase is the kind of Pax Syriana that existed under the first Hariri, ,you know arrangement — let’s say cabinet — in which we saw Beirut physically rebuild a lot of the infrastructure restored in the context of an enormous amount of corruption and very tight Syrian control of Lebanese politics. This began to fray in the late 1990s as the economic aspect of the 1990s, as that promise of the kind of economic boom and rejuvenation for Lebanon stopped material — never materialized, really. It turned out to not have been — turned out to be a false promise or over-promised for many reasons that we can get into, but I won’t do so unilaterally. That obviously started to fray in the early 2000s. And then when Hariri was killed, that was the end of the story. There’s no more Hariri-Syria nexus; now we’re in a completely different phase of Lebanese politics. We are also in a very, a much more aggressive posture — Western politics in the region, U.S. politics with the invasion of Iraq, the “Axis of Evil” rhetoric, all that. So now we’re in phase 2. Phase 2, after the killing of Hariri, was what you call a just a good old-fashioned power struggle between opposing factions in the country, one of which was Hezbollah that allied with Syria and Iran, but more meaningfully Syria, in that sense and the Lebanese context, and the Assad regime. The other, Saad Hariri, some of the Christian factions aligned with Saudi Arabia and France and the United States. This was a period of time where some economic growth on paper was not actually awful. But now we know why that was the case — because the economy was overheating and some sectors were completely distorted. So let’s leave that aside. But in terms of political economy instability that culminated — I would say that ended, so I’m beginning that phase in 2005 and I’m ending it in 2008 with Hezbollah’s takeover of West Beirut. And that ended that Hariri-Hezbollah, West versus East, March 8th, March 14 — that’s what it was called at the time — struggle. That was decided in 2008. Now with the exception — of we’re entering the third phase now, with the exception of a brief period of time in Syria when everyone was saying, ‘Well, let’s wait and see what happens to the Assad regime.” I think this is when we entered phase 3. Phase 3 was defined by a recognition on the Hariri camps part that Hezbollah wasn’t going anywhere, that the West was not gonna save any more from Hezbollah, and hell — we can’t even rely on the Saudis anymore because Mohammed bin Salman is obviously no fan of Saad Hariri. When this recognition happened, Hariri and his allies made a choice that they were either going to go after real sovereign political power in Lebanon at Hezbollah’s expense, or they were going to share the equation with Hezbollah. And what happened here is interesting because at that point, I think, is ironically when you lost any hope of there ever being any kind of flexibility and suppleness in the Lebanese political system. I think at that point when everyone decides on the basic rules of the game, and everyone decides to play by the rules, including Hezbollah, by the way, which saw this as an opportunity to finally infiltrate those parts of Lebanese institutions they were not part of before — when that happens, there’s no more room for movement in the political system. Everything gets frozen in place. And that’s where we were until the economic crisis started, and I think with the port explosion it seems that that phase is over. I think that’s probably true. We’re basically Lebanon becomes a kind of robber baron state where things are just distributed. It becomes almost apolitical, you know — there’s no real politics. They agree on electoral law that keeps them in power. They divide the spoils of the economy, and everybody lives happily ever after. And that’s the arrangement we’ve been under for the past few years.
KB: Everybody among the elite, but not everybody.
FI: Everybody except the people in the country — except the population. Yeah.
KB: So now we have a system that clearly this elite has to know that, you know, they can’t just continue with business as usual, put a band-aid on it and move forward. They do know that something significant has to change. But what is that significant that has to change? And keeping in context the constraints that this is already a very fragile, delicate power-sharing, you know, arrangement going back to 1990, and then really complicated with the history that you just narrated. And so, you know, okay, so the government resigned. They are now the caretaker government. There are supposed to be elections. Some form of, you know, the same elite is going to be represented in the new parliament as power is going to be divvied up. It’s kind of like hitting the reset button without actually hitting it. So what — where do we go from here?
FI: So you bring up a good — I think you made it as a point, but I would raise it as a question actually. What do they — what do they perceive is happening around them as the political elite? Particularly the ones who’ve been there for — who are deeply entrenched, been there for a long time. Do they see it as a, “Oh, something has to change,” moment, or do they see it as some things need to be done to avert this catastrophe so that we can go on with business as usual — or maybe not quite business as usual, but more or less the same arrangement? I think now it’s important when you –when you have an analysis at that level to see, is this really about a bunch of beleaguered elites versus everybody’s at the door wanting to kill them? To an extent, yes, that’s what’s going on. But there’s another layer here, which is that whether we like it or not, these people have a lot of people on their payroll — a lot of people who are loyal to them from personal point of view, a lot of people who from a sectarian point of view may not love them personally, but perhaps are more scared of their counterparts in other sects than they are angry at the elite itself. And, and this kind of ambivalence runs deep in all Lebanese, including many of the Lebanese who are down there on the street demonstrating that they want the government out or whatever. And that’s — and if people deny that, I’m sure there are some people who don’t feel this at all. But anyone who’s had to navigate this environment who’s had to get a job, who’s had to get married — all of us are touched by this political system and you really can’t deny it. At some level you’re trapped in this game, which is what makes this regime so robust. I don’t think it’s fragile, actually. I think it’s really, really, really robust very strong and very hard to break out of. So what I’m thinking to get back to the original point, it may be that some of them are thinking that that’s enough for them to be able to ride this wave, make enough money to keep things going and continue. And actually, you know, I’m going to say I’m pretty certain that that’s the case — that a lot of them feel that way and that they don’t feel that they need to give up their position. They feel that they’ve earned it, that it’s theirs, and that’s the way things have always been. Now it could be, could be that an absolute terms the situation in Lebanon is getting so bad that it doesn’t matter anymore, that those things don’t matter anymore, but it’s very hard for me to tell as like a social scientist and an observer at what point, at what point can we say we are there. It’s really difficult. But your question about the government stands. This government was, unfortunately, I mean, sometimes it’s been called like a Hezbollah government because obviously it’s approved by Hezbollah, but truth is everything in Lebanon is approved by Hezbollah or it wouldn’t happen. So this government is something that Hassan Diab — who obviously had a very — former prime minister, a very high opinion of himself and his team probably thought that they could come and do some good stuff and they were obviously stopped by their own incompetence but also the elite, the elite that’s around them that wasn’t gonna let them do those things for obvious reasons. So us losing the government has nothing to do with us losing that regime. We just lost the government and I don’t know what unhappy soul now will be the next to take it on. We’ll see, but we are where we are.
KB: So I’m going to push back a little bit and ask you the same question a bit differently. So yes the elite — and I think you are right that the elite isn’t frightened enough, if you will — that their interests are at risk and therefore do a bit of changing here and there, and then, you know, maybe we can just continue on this path, and we would have sort of reduced the pressure on ourselves. But surely those who rely on, who live in country, part of the elite they know where their money comes from. They know the lay of the land. They know they can feel the pressures. They can’t be reckless, if you will. This is what they have lived for. This is everything to them. They will protect this, and I assume everybody is a rational actor, more or less, and they’ll say you know what, if we continue — there has to be at least some people who, you know, maybe not a critical mass but a significant number of people amongst the elite who say this isn’t going to work. We need to do something significantly different in order to protect our interests. They’re not doing things for, you know, purely altruistic reasons. Let’s — they’re doing it for themselves and then in the process, they’re handing out things to the people. So again, you know, if that is sort of true — let’s assume that’s true for now — what do you see, you know — constitutional amendments? You know, is there — obviously they can’t rejigger the power sharing system because that’s at the fundamental core of the political system. You don’t change that. But beyond that, what kind of constitutional amendments are likely to relieve them of the pressure and maybe you know kick this can down the road?
FI: So that’s a good question. The puzzling thing about it is, so conceivably there’s two ways out of this for them, other than packing up and leaving — or if you’re Hezbollah, you have the Hezbollah option where you just don’t care what’s happening if you do your own thing, but otherwise I can — I can perceive two options. One option is that they themselves change their behavior and the way they do business in the state. There are, of course, some people among these educated, smart, exposed people in the elite who understand that — who understand the tragedy, right? Then some of them resigned from government before any of this happened. So to their credit realized it was going nowhere was unacceptable, it was too corrupt, couldn’t be reformed, etc. The problem is, okay — how many of them are there? What positions do they occupy, and if there are more of them at more strategic levels, where are they? Where are they? Why don’t they make any statements? Why didn’t they go to the street to clean up? You know why don’t basic things happen that you would expect if someone was maneuvering that way? But nobody is positioning himself in that direction. Everybody’s shifting the blame for what’s been happening on to somebody else. So they may be there — that intention may be there. I just don’t see it. And I think you can be a rational actor and be stuck in that situation because the way you experience the country and the people around you, and what they tell you, is very different subjectively than, you know, being a normal person in Beirut. I’ve been in these circles before. I’ve spent some time with them. It’s like being in a royal court, you know, with a couple of exceptions of very smart people in the elites like Walid Jumblatt, who understands completely what’s happening but is a feudal warlord at the end of the day, and he’s not going anywhere. The other option, other than spontaneous self-improvement that would dilute their own power from the elite, is pressure — pressure from political forces that constrains them a bit and forces them to make some compromises. And this is the kind of pressure that you’re seeing the street trying to exert through things like the electoral law, parliamentary elections, gaining a kind of minority block — a minority opposition bloc of substantial or significant number so that that so that the other game is not the only game in town. And with a view to long-term reform of the political system. Nothing to do with abolishing the sectarian balance and all the stuff that you said, so these are and I think that has slightly more vote for me than for them as an elite to decide out of an enlightened self-interest that there are certain things that need to fundamentally change about the country. I don’t think these guys would survive those changes. And I think unless they’re stupid, they probably agree with me that this is the way this we have to
KB: Let’s assume they’re not.
FI: Yeah, let’s assume they’re not — otherwise, they wouldn’t still be here. They probably see it the same way — that this is the way the system works, you know, it works through a mixture of coercion and bribery and sectarian fear-mongering, some of which is real — felt in a real manner by people — and I don’t think they also … I also don’t think they perceive themselves as completely malevolent. I think they think that they have a social contract with people especially their people — capital T, capital P — and that they’ve kept their side of the bargain except for the recent economic difficulties, which I think that’s what’s really stopped them. What’s really stopped them is the country is out of money and there’s no more cash. So once that system — once the music stops and there’s no money, then the patriot circle that you can sustain shrinks a lot and you become you and your immediate followers. I think that’s where we’re going with the political elite.
KB: So I’m going to ask a question that a lot of people — is on the minds of a lot of people, especially, you know, at a time when — this is we can go back to the Arab Spring is that because Hezbollah is such a large figure, factor, actor in Lebanese politics, if anything happens to status quo in Lebanon, the question is how, you know, how big of a hit is it to Hezbollah’s ability to function as it has or, you know, are they going to be able to more or less ride the storm? And so what’s happening to Hezbollah?
FI: It depends how far — you’re saying in the context of this deterioration, or in the context of reform?
KB: I’m talking in the context of the financial crisis.
KB: The explosion and the needed reforms.
FI: Yeah, so, so Hezbollah has like kind of hierarchies of needs, you know. The first, first and foremost, most important in this hierarchy is the support of the Shia constituency, or at least the lack of any opposition among the Shia constituency. This is where the economy poses a problem — poses a problem for them. Because Hezbollah has a lot of money. They’re not about to run out of hard currency or anything like that. But the Shia being poorly off, and suffering at the socio-economic level, it’s not good for them. It’s a — it’s a bad thing. I’m not going to say it’s an existential threat. It’s a bad thing. It’s tempered by the fact that the Shia perceive themselves to be surrounded by hostile parties that want to push them and the progress they’ve made in Lebanese society and politics back through targeting Hezbollah, but also through targeting this Shia. So the Shia are kind of also in this strange relationship with Hezbollah where the worse things are getting, in a sense the deeper their bond — bond is maybe too positive a word — but the more — yeah, the more intertwined they become with Hezbollah because of this mutual dependency, so it’s very hard to see the causality between impoverishment in the Shia community and Hezbollah. I’m going to say that’s a variable I can’t really predict. The other stuff is a bit easier to predict. So Hezbollah cares about its military autonomy, right? Hezbollah cannot afford to live in a country where it is surrounded by hostile parties all the time. It cannot afford a open-ended violence with the Sunnis, it cannot afford an open end confrontation with Lebanese military, even if it will win those confrontations, which of course it will, but it cannot afford a permanent hostile — permanent state of hospitality with them. Because they have to worry about Israel and now they have to worry about Syria as well. and they know that. They’re not stupid, which is why they maintain good relations with the army, which is why they invaded West Beirut in 2008. They invaded West Beirut in 2008 because they don’t want to invade West Beirut anymore. So they wanted to send that signal of the imbalance of power. And they realize that. So Hezbollah has to make sure that whoever’s in Lebanon and whoever’s in Damascus is not hostile to them. If they can make sure of that they’ll be fine. It is not as good for them as the situation they were in one month ago where they not only had all these things but also had ministerial access, were taking over parts of commerce and business, were basically living large in addition to being a militia and all these other things. I think those days for them would end. But as long as there isn’t a state of hostilities they can survive. Now when you bring up the question of reform, so this is where the opposition itself is kind of divided. There’s a fault line within the opposition. Let’s assume that all the opposition does not like the fact that there’s an autonomous militia in the country that wants to run its own foreign policy. For the most part, that’s true. There is this division between of sequencing — like is the problem … is part of the problem or the immediate part of the problem that we have and autonomous militia …with a its own foreign policy, and do we need to get rid of that to make any meaningful progress in civic life, and political life, and economic life? If so, then the confrontation with Hezbollah is now, even if it’s not military — whatever form it takes it’s now. And that’s bad for Hezbollah, obviously, and bad for the opposition, too. The other alternative is this is a fight that’s a geopolitical problem. It’s not a fight that’s going to be solved in Lebanon. And if you push for that kind of fight, that’s the kind of fight Hezbollah can win very easily. So we actually should be flanking, outflanking Hezbollah with reforms and creating what we — what we can have a actual functioning civic state. And that in itself by default will put Hezbollah in a much more uncomfortable position than us colliding with them head on right now in this context. So that argument postpones the problem for Hezbollah but also, you know friends, I’m not endorsing it one way or the other but it’s also much more complicated situation for Hezbollah. Because then Hezbollah has to give up the oh, you know, the trifecta of resistance and army and people as it says now … and then have to find a way to coexist with in a state that’s actually a real state. It’s a fiendishly difficult problem, but either, either of these reform pass is bad news for Hezbollah. One would just take longer and be more complicated. And they cannot live with either of these outcomes. So there’s no way.
KB: Given the amount of time that Hezbollah is — has been at the helm of affairs to use that phrase, you would think that they have evolved beyond just being a militia. Am I wrong in sort of conceptualizing Hezbollah as a parallel military force to the Lebanese armed forces? Is it — I mean because militia means something very, very, if you will raw, and not really sophisticated. It’s a ragtag kind of thing. It seems to me that Hezbollah is just sort of like, you know, another military in the same state beholden to another faction. And if that’s the case, and then it has increasingly embedded itself in the political structures, bureaucratic structures, of the Lebanese state. So why — why wouldn’t Hezbollah, you know, feel more comfortable saying, “Okay we can do reforms, and part of these reforms is that we get far more deeply embedded into the state where we own the process.” You know, I’m just sort of thinking outside the box here to be able to sort of guess what the next move of Iran’s premier proxy in the region will be.
FI: No. I don’t think they would object. I don’t think they would object to this. And I think I would even say perhaps this was the soft trajectory they were on. But this is where you run into kind of structural limitations on what could happen. I take your point that it’s not a militia in the Che Guevara, you know, ragtag. This is a sophisticated paramilitary force, of course, that has at least two or three forms we know of. One is the form in South Lebanon. The other one is in the Bekaa … different terrain. And the third is whatever’s been fighting in Syria for the past for the past few years — a very different kind of Hezbollah, operationally speaking. But even that aside Hezbollah has the kind of mixed blessing of operating in this very fragmented country where it is possible to make sure no one can touch through sheer coercion, but it’s very possible to exert control over the whole apparatus because the country is so fragmented. Let me give you a perfect, the perfect simple example. All right, if Hezbollah were — to let’s say Lebanon became a better armed place and more factions had better weapons, and some sort of fight where to break up with Hezbollah. I would probably say Hezbollah would win this whole thing in maybe a couple of months. But the question that would follow after that is okay, what do they what do they do now? They’re in you know, North Lebanon in some Christian village or there in you know this village in the Bekaa, or they’re in Beirut sitting around in this Sunni area. What do they do? And the answer that is they have no inclination whatsoever to be there. Because they don’t want to be in that environment. It’s not theirs.
KB: They don’t want responsibility for it.
FI: Yes, and it’s not controllable, you know, even if you’re much more powerful, it’s not controllable. You’re not going to win over the population. You’re talking about a society that’s paradoxically quite strong, you know … and Hezbollah will struggle with it. And it’s the same thing with the other institutions of the country. Hezbollah did not come in and start snatching up everybody else’s bounty and putting it in — taking everybody’s lunch and putting it in their pocket. They just wanted to share for themselves. But hey — Hariri, Aoun, and all their subordinates? Everybody was still making tons of money, and this was understood as the game, you know? So it’s not a zero-sum thing as much as it’s a way to play two games at the same time: the game of compromise, Lebanese compromise, as corrupt and petty as it is, and the … resistance game which is the game Hezbollah wants to play by itself. And it you’re not invited. So they’ve been very good at doing both those things and they’ve learned a lot in the process.
KB: I want to go back to something you said earlier about the Syrian factor. You mentioned something that caught my attention that so, you know, everybody’s waiting to see what happens to the Assad regime. So let’s bring that in, let’s factor that into this Lebanese equation. To me seems like after the withdrawal of the Syrian military following the Cedar Uprising in 2005 and the pressure from the United States, Lebanon has slowly untethered itself from Syria and in a way that Lebanon in the bad old days or the good old days, depending on who’s talking, used to be, you know, what the Syrians were trying to manipulate. We’re far removed from that situation.
KB: We’re now — we have Hezbollah, a pillar of stability for the Assad regime. If it wasn’t there then situation would be much different. So Hezbollah — sorry, Lebanon — doesn’t seem to be in the Syrian orbit anymore. So let’s say, you know, the Assad regime — whatever happens to the Assad regime is very unclear. But it is — am I correct in assuming now that Lebanon is oscillating on its own frequency separate from the Syrian, you know, factor?
FI: Yes, for now I think that’s correct. Look, I think this state of affairs happened less because of the physical disengagement from the country in 2005, although that did change some important things, and more because of the war in Syria. Because if you remember the years after 2005 were spent characterized by essentially the Syrian regime killing, it’s Lebanese .
KB: Intelligence operations.
FI: Yeah, so it became remained a very permissive environment, I’ll put it that way, and that way they are choosing, you know. the head — the deans of universities and the editors of newspapers — no. That stuff finished. They weren’t doing that anymore. But at the high level of strategic issues, they were still involved. But of course that has completely changed now, and I think that’s largely a function of the weakness of the regime and the fact that Syria itself has now become a kind of strategic depth for Hezbollah from Lebanon rather than the opposite way around
KB: It’s a great way to plan.
FI: And they have — it’s the Wild West now. You know, everything goes in Syria, you fight your fights there so that you can be okay in Lebanon. Which in a way is a kind of gift for Hezbollah industry and for Israel, in a strange way. But at the end of the day Assad regime or not, I mean eventually I’m assuming — maybe not, actually — but let’s say eventually some kind of stable political system emerges at least in Western Syria around that — around that chain and the mountains etc. Whoever controls Homs, Hamah, Damascus … is going to be powerful, you know, and whoever controls them is going to have a huge say in Lebanese politics. We just look at the map. You don’t have to look at the intricacies of the politics. But, but for Hezbollah, and really for any faction Lebanon actually — it doesn’t just apply to Hezbollah — you cannot survive as an entity or political party in Lebanon if whoever’s sitting in Damascus hates your guts and is making a point to grind you down.
KB: But … let’s say the one who’s sitting in Damascus is fighting for survival. Then what?
FI: Then it doesn’t — then it doesn’t matter, as long as you have room to operate in Syria. As long as … if no one controls Damascus that’s a manageable problem because then you can just circumvent them. Like the Iranians are doing in Syria today. Iran is doing whatever they want in Syria, unless they collide with the Russians. That’s a different story. But as far as the Assad regime is concerned, they don’t take their permission to run supplies to the Eastern desert … they just do it and they can — and they can live with that situation as long as Jabhat al-Nusra is not in control … no Sunnis are in control of the major metropolitan areas. That’s the situation Hezbollah can sustain. It’s a difficult situation and it costs them. They lose people, they lose material. But they can sustain it and it’s a hell of a lot better than getting pounded in South Lebanon and South Beirut and Bekaa, so it’s something they can live with.
KB: I want to sort of raise the altitude of the conversation here just a bit and I want to ask you a single question that has four parts. So there are four major powers in the Middle East right now that have, to varying degrees, a stake in what happens to Lebanon. They’re the Israelis, the Saudis, the Iranians, and the Turks. Could you go through each one of them and tell us how are they looking at this current situation in Lebanon that is becoming, let’s just say more and more unstable and uncertain and it has to unnerve them.
FI: Yeah, that’s a good question. I would — I’ll start with Israel because that’s in a way the simplest one. I would imagine that whoever is in Israel has gamed out of scenario through which Hezbollah seizes control of Lebanon’s strategic assets, state … state institutions, things of that sort, and perhaps there is a contingency to prevent or essentially just destroy those if Hezbollah does do that. We are not at a point where Hezbollah is doing that, but I think the Israeli lens for Lebanon, especially after 1982-83 and the whole debacle, is a thoroughly militarized one. I don’t think they see it as a place, really, where these things are happening. I just I think it’s easy. I think they see it as a place Hezbollah is. And the rest of the place is just a dysfunctional mess, so the main strategic question for them is are there spaces Hezbollah hasn’t filled that Hezbollah might fill? And are the other areas it didn’t have complete room for maneuver that it might now have? And we’ll see. I don’t know but I imagine that that would be there. That’s their scenario planning. I think insofar as a bad scenario, that could take place, of course. There’s a good potential good scenario, where Hezbollah ends up losing, but the Israelis are not known for their strategic optimism, I’ll put it that way. The next you asked about Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Turkey? Turkey is playing an interesting game. Turkey recognizes that there is a substantial portion of disenfranchised Sunnis in Lebanon. These are Sunnis who at one point to the other were largely — these are not like hardcore Islamists, although those do exist. But these are the majority of Sunnis — kind of lower middle class, middle class, who largely at some point were under the umbrella of the Hariri empire, but that empire shrink and Hariri’s priorities changed, especially under Hariri Junior. And so they just fell out of that picture. Their old patrons, the old Tripoli families and the old North Lebanon families, were destroyed by the Hariris anyway over a 20-year period or cut down to size. So these guys are left with nothing. And the Turks understand this and they see it as an opportunity. So they’ve been spending money and exerting soft power there. You’ll see the occasional pro-Turkish demonstration, Turkish flags. It’s hard to tell really how pervasive it is. But what I can tell you for sure is the opportunity is there for the taking. There is of course the Turkish-Arab barrier and that’s always going to be there, and that’s a real barrier. It’s not insignificant. But you’re talking about a country that especially for a time in the Levant Sunnis are kind of disoriented politically where a country like that can exert a lot of soft power, I think, not to mention spend a lot of money — and it doesn’t have to be a lot of money because Lebanon is small, at the end of the day. So they have potential there, particularly in the north. As you move down to the south through Lebanon the place socially changes once you hit Beirut. That’s more entrenched in the Hariri camp, slightly more kind of cosmopolitan, and more oriented towards the Arab world and the West rather than to the Turkish message. So I don’t think they’ll be quite as receptive over there. But let’s see, given the way events are going.
KB: Considering that the Turks are looking at the Mediterranean Basin …
KB: And they’re in Syria. You have to think that the Turks are saying well, we’re going into Syria. We have to have a plan for Lebanon.
FI: Sure. It’s the same space, I mean. Especially Tripoli. And in Tripoli is North Lebanon is historically not even that far in history and you’ll politically is part of Northern Syria. I mean people the families — not long ago, you could use both currencies there. Their people would go to school over the Border
KB: Bilad al Sham.
FI: Bilad al Sham, exactly. And especially in the north. I mean, they don’t develop its own distinct character, but — but that’s — north is very much like that. The Iranians! I think the Iranian calculus is exactly the same as Hezbollah’s. If we can maintain the status quo, let’s do that because that is the best status quo Hezbollah is going to get in Lebanon.
KB: Can they?
FI: Probably not, so what is our bunker option, you know? How can we take care of the community and just stay out of this potentially very ugly breakdown in civil order, crime, you know, discord which is which is most certainly going to hit Lebanon everywhere, and how could his beloved how can Hezbollah protect itself from that? I think that’s their calculation, frankly. I don’t think there’s anything more to it more different — differently to it than Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia is an interesting one. The Saudis at some point over –there was quite a long period actually where the Saudis were starting to lose patience with Lebanon, but King Abdullah was always — he kind of had this paternalistic sympathy for Saad Hariri. The current defect or foreign policy maker of Saudi Arabia, Hamad bin Salman, doesn’t … believes that basically Lebanon is a bad investment, that Hariri is a bad investment.
FI: Yeah that we spent all these years building him up, financing him, building his empire, tolerating him, and then he went and struck this deal with Hezbollah and split the pie and he’s sitting around posturing in Lebanon, happy that he’s prime minister. Let’s cut him down to size. Of course, you know, we don’t, we don’t we haven’t forgotten the 2017 kidnapping of Saad Hariri and MBS forcing him to resign on television and all the humiliation around that. We also know that MBS spent quite a bit of energy and time basically breaking down Hariri’s business empire in Saudi Arabia.
KB: Do they have another alternative?
FI: No, I don’t think so. No.
KB: Why would you do that if you don’t have an alternative?
FI: Because my sense is, I mean I’m not I’m not a Saudi expert but my sense is that this kind of northern arc of the Levant for the Saudis is lost.
KB: And also they’ve accepted defeat.
FI: I think — I think they’ve accepted it’s not worth the candle, you know. We concentrate on Yemen. We got screwed on the Iranians, maybe elsewhere, the Gulf, Bahrain.
KB: So I see what you’re saying.
FI: The Islamists and Egypt, you know, that kind of stuff but, but — that this is not worth fighting and we don’t have any reliable allies. They tried Hariri, didn’t work. They tried the Islamists, it didn’t work in Syria. So I think he just — he’s just done with it and doesn’t care and probably views Hariri with a certain degree of contempt. Now it’s not a hostile relationship, as far as I can see, but Hariri is no longer the wonder child of Saudi Arabia.
KB: That’s remarkable.
FI: It’s really amazing. It’s amazing to watch because Hariri Senior was a hundred percent “I need to use the Saudi Arabia’s men in Lebanon.” And there were so many personal relationships. This is, you know, they’re all Saudis, the Hariri family. And those children, Saad Hariri, grew up in Saudi Arabia. So there’s a lot of personal contact. It’s not just the transactional relationship. What MBS did is really really harsh and I don’t think the Hariris saw it coming.
KB: So bringing it back to Lebanon, then what are the options for Hariri? I mean, okay, the Saudis have washed their hands and saying it’s not worth the investment, but truly Hariri needs a patron in order to survive in that kind of landscape. Do the Turks come in on this?
FI: That’s the thing. I think he calculated that he doesn’t need a patron as long as he makes his peace with the place, you know and just enters the game as someone among others, shares the spoils with Aoun and his men … so once he made his peace and kissed the ring or rings, as a were in Lebanon, then he could sit at the table and play. Now, you’re only going to get so much because you no longer have the Saudis throwing billions at you, but he was fine. Don’t forget what happened to his patronage network over the past four years. He lost his major companies, thousands of employees, it was a complete disaster for him. And one of the reasons he decided to kiss these rings is he needed money. So because he didn’t — he lost his external patron, essentially, and he began to view himself as the main conduit for Western money into Lebanon through the financial systems and began to believe that with him at the helm Lebanon could access the bailout money that it needed to survive.
KB: So that’s his — he’s carved that position.
FI: Yeah h. That’s his game.
KB: He’s carved that position out that I’m — I’m an ally of the West …
KB: With the French and the Americans.
FI: Exactly. Yeah, that’s his calculation.
KB: So this is a three-player game, then — you know if the Saudis are out of this game, then it’s the Turks, the Iranians, and the Israelis, and of course, you know with Saad Hariri pitching for the West. It seems like in terms of regional players are only three regional players that are now projecting influence into Lebanon. How does that change the place or it doesn’t?
FI: So I, with the caveat that the Israelis I think are in a reaction — reactive position to the Lebanese where the Israelis are practicing dynamism, I think it’s a Syria more so than more so than Lebanon. Of course, it’s intimately intertwined. That takes us to Turkey and Iran. Iran has a 40-year head start here, so there’s not — it’s not comparable at all. As a foreign party the single most powerful player is by a good margin the Iranians, but — and this is where things get complicated when you talk about power — what is it that Lebanon needs now? It doesn’t need weapons, it needs money.
KB: And the Iranians don’t have money.
FI: Yeah, so somebody has to step up with money, and that person will get a hell of a lot of clout just by holding the cash because everybody in the country needs money — everybody including these
KB: Including the allies of the Iranians.
FI: Including allies of the Iranians, yeah. People have to eat. So now let’s see who steps up with the cash, if anyone. I mean it’s possible no one will.
KB: I think what you did just there is nicely, you know, shine light on the next conflict to be happening with who’s pouring money in.
KB: How does that change the people who are already there, i.e., the Iranians. So that’s your next fault line. Hey, listen, we can keep talking about this forever and ever. I, you know, this is a topic that’s close and dear to your heart, and I’m fascinated by it. So we’ll keep this conversation going. Folks, That was my colleague Faysal Itani, who is the deputy director of our non-state actors in geopolitics program. He’s an expert on Lebanon, a native of Lebanon, and I don’t think you guys can, you know, get another good analyst although, you know, there are many others out there. Keep listening to The Lodestar, keep watching our website for more content, and you know, the — this issue isn’t going anywhere by any means, and it’s only one of many issues that we try to grapple with on a daily basis. So this is Kamran Bokhari signing off for right now. Take care, everybody. Cheers.
Although transcription is largely accurate, there could be some inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.