BESA Center Perspectives Paper n ° 1 831, November 26, 2020
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Despite their desire to oust bigotry from the corrupt government of their country, Lebanese civilians are likely to see heightened tensions across religious lines. Iran will continue to support Hezbollah despite its regional weakening, while Turkey and Qatar will play a more important counterbalancing role by increasing their influence over the Sunni community.
After the explosion in Beirut in the summer of 2020, Lebanon seemed ready for a revolution. The country’s economy was already in a deplorable state due to massive corruption, the global economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, sanctions against Iran (which controls Hezbollah’s ruling Shia militia) and recognition of Hezbollah as a terrorist group by more and more countries (which in turn have subjected it to increased sanctions).
Widespread protests against the government and sectarianism have intensified since the explosion, including against Hezbollah and Iranian influence in Beirut. The consequences of the explosion, especially with regard to cleaning crews and interactions with hospitals, will likely increase the spread of the coronavirus on a large scale, further weakening the economy. The country’s image has been damaged so badly – international donors refuse to help Lebanon until it adopts political reforms – that Hezbollah is essentially unable to launch an attack on Israel anytime soon.
The weakness of Iran and Hezbollah at this precise moment, as well as the withdrawal of the States from the Gulf of Lebanon, provided an opportunity for Turkey to enter the deere. Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Gulf allies have largely given up on trying to influence the Lebanese Sunni community, despite their common stance against Hezbollah. Turkey and Qatar intervened to fill the void, allegedly providing arms to Sunni communities in the north as well as aid following the Beirut explosion. The aid is mainly intended for the small Turkish community in Lebanon.
Pro-Gulf media in the region have expressed concern over these developments, as have pro-Iran and pro-Hezbollah media, including in Lebanon. This is curious, because some analysts believe that Iran has united with Qatar and Turkey to oppose the West and its regional allies.
The reality is that Turkey and Qatar do not work in perfect tandem with Iran, although they do sometimes cooperate in areas of mutual interest. Turkey is seeking, with Qatari funding, to broaden its neo-Ottoman vision of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood-based region, a project fundamentally incompatible with the revolutionary Shiite export from Iran.
The Ottoman Empire once ruled Gaza, Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. These are considered to be “relatives of the foreigner” by the Turkish regime. Like Iran, the Turks and Qataris want the Gulf countries and Western countries to be excluded from these nations. However, the regimes have diametrically opposed objectives in the region in general and in these countries in particular.
As Hezbollah and Tehran are blamed for the Lebanese coronavirus and the economic crises as well as the Beirut explosion, this is a golden opportunity for Ankara to challenge them and possibly eliminate them from the Lebanese political scene. While Turkey has also faced economic hardships (in part due to the pandemic) and Western sanctions in recent years, it remains richer and more powerful than Iran, and much of the West. still sees Turkey as an important ally against Russian and Iranian influence throughout the region. As such, it is better positioned to succeed in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria than the Islamic Republic.
In Syria earlier this year, the Turkish military crushed Hezbollah’s elite Radwan unit (and other fighters) among other Shia paramilitaries aligned with the Assad regime in Idlib. A weakened Hezbollah, mired in infighting with the Sunnis in its territory, will be unable to challenge the Turks and their allies in Syria. Placing Lebanon within Turkey’s sphere of influence would give Ankara better access to the Eastern Mediterranean and its gas resources, a particularly desirable prospect given that Lebanon has its own gas fields. It would also give Turkey access to a border with Israel from which it could threaten the Jewish state and “defend the Palestinian cause”.
If Turkey chooses to step up its surge of influence in Lebanon, the likely outcome would be another civil war. An impoverished, sectarian country with massive illegal arms caches and multiple foreign powers wielding influence within its borders is a worrying scenario. To counter a Turkish expansionist push, Iran will likely try to increase its aid to Hezbollah. He will see Turkey’s expansion in Lebanon as a step towards strengthening Ankara’s presence in neighboring Syria as well.
Turkey could, theoretically, send its Sunni supporters from Lebanon to Idlib to fight Iran-backed forces on its behalf. Qatar would likely fund such ventures. Turkey could then use Sunni Lebanese proxies in its other campaigns in Libya and against the Armenians (who are, coincidentally, on Iran’s northern border).
Any Lebanese force backed by Turkey would likely come into serious conflict with the country’s Christians, given that a large portion of Lebanese Christians are of Armenian descent. This further increases the likelihood of civil conflict. So are the interests of Israel and its Arab partners, who all want to see the fall of Hezbollah and block the imperial ambitions of Qatar, Iran and Turkey in the region. Stable Arab countries and the United States would likely provide funds for Christian militias in the country, while Israel would (again) provide weapons and training. Greece, Cyprus and Armenia could also come to the aid of Lebanese Christians because of their common interest in bogging down Turkey and their ethno-religious ties.
For Israel, a civil war in Lebanon could offer the advantage of an already weakened Hezbollah, mired in local conflict and perhaps even defeated by other enemies, with little or no damage to the Jewish state. At the same time, further instability on another northern border of Israel could lead to a refugee crisis and a revival of the Palestinian question, given the large proportion of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon.
Turkish and Qatari proxies on Israel’s northern border are also undesirable, especially given their commitment to the Palestinian issue. The unreliable U.S. presence in the region, as well as the possibility that wealthy Arab countries may switch sides in support of radical Sunnis, is another reason the Jewish state does not wish to see a second Lebanese civil war. . There is little appetite in Jerusalem to send troops to Lebanon at this time to fight Hezbollah, despite the campaign against him in Syria and the likelihood that the unfinished business of 2006 will eventually resume.
The IDF is increasing its arsenal and improving its training to prepare for such a war in the future. Israel is in economic crisis as a result of the pandemic and has problems with government stability. Now is just not the right time for the IDF to return to Lebanon.
To prevent a resumption of hostilities, the EU and the US, as well as the UN and influential Arab countries, must continue to recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist group and ban or sanction it. But the ban must include supplies of arms to forces other than the army, that is, Turkish-Qatari proxies as well as Hezbollah. Instead of waiting for tragedies to occur in the Middle East and even the world at large, the West and other influential blocs must act to prevent the outbreak of civil wars and sectarian terror before it is too late.
Dmitri Shufutinsky graduated from Arcadia University’s Masters program in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. He currently lives as a lone soldier in Kibbutz Erez, Israel, serving in the Givati Brigade under the Garin Tzabar program.