Lebanon formed a new government on January 21 after weeks of violent protests across the country dubbed "100 days of rage." The country had been without a prime minister and functioning cabinet since the departure of Prime Minister Saad Hariri in October. For the first time in months, U.S. officials now have a functioning Lebanese cabinet they can work as the two countries face a range of problems: ongoing instability in the region, U.S. tensions with Iran, Lebanon’s failing economy and an ISIS resurgence in the Levant.
Some ISIS networks fled to Lebanon after operations by the Syrian military and its allies Iran and Hezbollah. ISIS retains significant latent capability and thrives on continued instability and poor governance. The stability of Lebanon is critical to ongoing efforts to contain and defeat ISIS.
All of these developments are important to U.S. defense policy. Regardless what elected officials are in power in Beirut, the Lebanese military has traditionally remained a close U.S. defense partner and a reliable ally. The Lebanese Armed Forces have some of the most capable special operations forces of any Arab military — except perhaps the United Arab Emirates — due largely to years of training and joint operations with U.S. special operations forces. Despite the country’s political uncertainty, it has remained a cohesive, resilient force and retains a certain degree of autonomy from politics. But the country’s ongoing troubles have taken a toll. The new government has a critical role in maintaining the capability and impartiality of the Lebanese Armed Forces.
There are some troubling signs for the United States in the new government. Some ministers are worryingly close to Hezbollah. That raises concerns about Iranian influence, threats to Israel and whether the new prime minister might help Iran and Russia to prop up the Assad regime in Syria.
The pro-Iran, anti-Israel Shia militia appears to have more sympathetic ministers in the new cabinet than has been the case at any time in Lebanon’s history. There is also relatively little representation from the country’s Sunni and Christian communities to balance Hezbollah’s influence. This is a break from past precedent, in which successive Lebanese governments have included ministers representing each of the country’s major Muslim, Christian and Druze confessional groups.
Despite being a responsive U.S. partner, the Lebanese military has made it clear that it cannot and will not take action or even threatening steps against Hezbollah or Iranian networks in the country. The new government in Beirut will be even less likely to take concerted action against Iranian-sponsored anti-American activities. Also, Beirut may not be as cooperative when it comes to forcing Lebanese banks to abide by U.S. sanctions against Hezbollah and Iranian-linked businesses and organizations. Hezbollah has even made gradual and quiet inroads into the leadership of the Lebanese Armed Forces. This will be a problem for the U.S. partnership, especially since the killing of Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, who was close to Hezbollah.
Perceptions of Hezbollah influence in the new government among other Arab states may increase Lebanon’s isolation from Sunni governments hostile to Iran — especially Saudi Arabia and UAE — and may increase tensions with Israel. Saudi Arabia has pulled economic and military aid in the past following concerns about Hezbollah influence in Beirut and in the Lebanese Armed Forces. Lebanon is in dire economic straits; the drying up of aid from wealthy Arab states could not come at a worse time. Lebanon will be in critical need of financial aid from the U.S. and Europe. Depending on how forthcoming that assistance is, the new government may be receptive to aid from Russia and China, which are both looking for greater influence in the country. Lebanon may also be receptive to closer ties with the Assad regime in Damascus, potentially creating more problems for the United States.
Lebanon has suffered from over nine years of civil war in Syria, which has caused waves of refugees to flood into the country. Lebanon is a small country of just six million people divided along religious lines. It is especially vulnerable to spillover from the civil war on its border, which has upset its already delicate ethnic and religious balance while putting strains on the economy and public services. The country’s economic woes and widespread protests are partly a function of the Syrian conflict.
Despite concerns about Hezbollah and ISIS, it was inequality, corruption and economic mismanagement that brought Lebanese from all walks of life into the streets — including Shia and supporters of Hezbollah. The mandate of the new government is to address these economic problems, not to do Iran’s bidding against the United States, threaten Israel, or prop up the Assad regime in Syria. The further leaders in Beirut veer from economic issues, the more likely they are to face new waves of protests and calls for their ouster.
These constraints suggest that the new government, regardless of its ties to Hezbollah, is likely to be a pragmatic one. U.S. officials can work with the new leadership on stabilizing the economy, preventing an ISIS resurgence and developing the Lebanese Armed Forces. Some caution may be in order on Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria’s Assad, but these too are issues that Washington and Beirut can at least discuss, now that Lebanon has a government. There is room for common ground.