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Upheaval in Lebanon: U.S. must Tread Carefully

A mere month following the declaration of an ‘economic emergency’ in Lebanon, protestors have taken to the streets to march against a government struggling with corruption, poor economic performance, and increasing unpopularity. The protests have largely been peaceful, but two people were killed when bodyguards of former MP Misbah al-Ahdab opened fire on demonstrators on 18 October. Meanwhile, this year the Trump administration has intensified its sanctions regime against Hezbollah as part of a strategy to weaken and isolate Iran. The move against Hezbollah is hardly surprising, given the rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran and the close ties between Iran and Hezbollah. U.S. policymakers must be careful to ensure that their attempts to undermine rivals do not have the opposite effect and create opportunities for Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia to expand their influence in Lebanon.

The potential for American strategic miscalculation would not be so ripe were it not for Hezbollah’s deep roots within Lebanese society. U.S. policymakers are not wrong in their assumption that Hezbollah represents a threat to American interests. Crucially, Iran’s influence in Lebanon is largely channeled via proxy through Hezbollah, so it makes sense to curtail the group’s hold over Lebanon. The complicating factor is that Hezbollah holds 13 seats in the Lebanese parliament and is deeply embedded within the legitimate political apparatus. Moreover, Hezbollah provides many Lebanese citizens with social services in the health sector, education, agriculture, sanitation, etc. Therefore, U.S. sanctions threaten to damage the provision of basic social services at a time of heightened financial fragility in Lebanon.

The U.S. should be careful to ensure that its sanctions do not further damage the imperiled Lebanese economy and plunge the general population into further financial woes. Such a move could strengthen the appeal of Hezbollah’s anti-American and supposed anti-imperialist ideological narrative. At the same time, other Lebanese political parties may turn to alternative foreign partners if the U.S. is increasingly perceived as a hostile actor.

So far, the sanctions have mostly been aimed at individuals within Hezbollah’s leadership. In July the U.S. imposed sanctions on Wafiq Safa, Muhammad Hasan Ra’d and Amin Sherri. Ra’d and Sherri who are both members of the Lebanese Parliament, whereas Safa is a key member of Hassan Nasrallah’s inner circle and leads Hezbollah’s Liaison and Coordination Unit. The Treasury Department has also targeted financial institutions believed to be facilitating Hezbollah banking activity, such as the Jammal Trust Bank which was sanctioned in August. By directing sanctions against specific individuals and institutions, the Treasury hopes to restrain Hezbollah’s access to funds and damage the efficiency of its leadership, whilst minimizing the negative effects felt by the general population. However, during a visit in March, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo implied that if Lebanon does not do enough to limit Hezbollah’s influence, the country would face further economic hardship.

Pompeo’s rhetoric has been firmly leveled against Hezbollah, but it is not hard to imagine what forms American punishment for a failure to tackle Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon might look like. The withdrawal of significant U.S. aid, which amounted to approximately $800 million in 2018 would be a significant blow. Moreover, the Lebanese economy is highly dollarized, at roughly 70 percent, making it more susceptible to U.S. sanctions. The withdrawal of aid and imposition of harsher sanctions would be a rash move unlikely to achieve any American policy objectives in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s ability to operate within the Lebanese government might be hindered but its armed militias would likely be unaffected in any significant way by sanctions. Any further damage to the Lebanese economy would limit the legitimate government’s ability to provide basic social services and could harm the appeal of political alternatives to Hezbollah. Financial disaster would limit funding available for the Lebanese armed forces and strengthen Hezbollah’s role as a security guarantor for the Lebanese people, further weakening the central government’s ability to exercise a monopoly over the use of legitimate physical force. Far from weakening Hezbollah, wide-reaching sanctions could provide the group with greater opportunities to consolidate its hold on Lebanon amidst significant social upheaval.

It is inevitable that Russia will seek to expand its area of influence into Lebanon. Putin already enjoys a relatively strong position in Syria complete with bases for Russian air force and navy assets. Recently, Moscow has intensified offers of military cooperation, arms exports and intelligence sharing with Beirut. Thus far some Lebanese policymakers have been reluctant to accept Russia’s offers for fear of alienating their American partners, but if Washington pushes too hard with sanctions, Beirut may be drawn closer towards alternative allies. Hezbollah are particularly keen to promote cooperation with Russia. In March this year, Hezbollah MP Nawaf Al Mousawi argued in favour of arms exports from Russia. Hezbollah and the Lebanese president, Michael Aoun, are also in agreement that Lebanon should engage further with Russia in the energy sector. Despite the share of imports from the U.S. into Lebanon being just over double that of Russia at 8.3 percent, bilateral trade between Lebanon and Russia is expected to rise and currently exceeds $500 million.

In order to secure its position in Lebanon, the U.S. must provide compelling alternatives to Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia. Targeted sanctions against key Hezbollah personnel, financiers and the group’s activities in Latin America and Africa may help to limit the pool of funding available, but the U.S. should also make moves from its soft power playbook. This would involve promoting bilateral trade, continued financial assistance, and support for the Lebanese armed forces. The delivery of aircraft, drones, and munitions to Lebanese forces this year is a good example of how the U.S. can help sure up Lebanese defenses and reduce the appeal of Hezbollah’s militias as an alternate source of security. More importantly, the U.S. must be seen to be doing as much as possible to prevent further fault lines appearing in Lebanese politics, which is all too often characterized by sectarianism. Ultimately, Washington will achieve greater influence in Lebanon if the U.S. is seen as bringing prosperity, particularly at this time of economic uncertainty.