Lebanon is slowly dying

Lebanon is currently in the throes of the worst economic crisis in its history. There are daily fuel and electricity shortages, a chronic lack of medical supplies and a lack of essential drugs in hospitals. Some 77% of Lebanese households are unable to buy enough food. The Lebanese pound has lost 90% of its value over the past two years. Lebanese citizens, meanwhile, are barred from withdrawing more than $ 100 per week as foreign currency reserves are dwindling. The situation is reaching a point of no return, with the real possibility of widespread famine. Lebanon today is in all respects a failed and collapsing state.

How did the country get to this point? Less than two decades ago, Lebanon revamped its image as a commercial and tourist center on the Mediterranean coast. The “March 14” movement, named after the popular mobilization which forced a Syrian withdrawal in 2005, is on the rise. It was touted as one of the few successes of what was then the US administration’s regional democratization strategy. I visited the country at that time, in 2007. A palpable desire for normality could then be discerned among young Lebanese. The civil war was already a distant memory. There remained, at least among Sunnis and Christians, a sort of fear of a return to political violence. The Israeli occupation in the south ended in May 2000. Normalcy seemed at hand.

What didn’t go well? What was wrong was also discernible at the time. So then, it was obvious that there were two powers in Lebanon. The first, as represented by the March 14 movement, was conspicuously forward-looking, oriented towards the West, towards commerce and towards normality. The other power was that of Iran, through its oldest franchise, the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. This interest had its own military might which surpassed that of the state and eclipsed other irregular military presences in the country. It also had its own economy, its own sources of income, its own smuggling routes.

The Iranian element’s plan was for the two Libans to continue to exist indefinitely. The former was to provide a convenient shell of normality and legitimacy under which the latter could continue its assigned tasks in Tehran’s long war against Israel. Supporters of the March 14 project tended to avoid discussion of hard power issues. This, in retrospect, was to prove fatal.

Any chance that March 14 Lebanon could mount an armed defense of its vision of the country ended with the events of May and June 2008. In a brief conflict in the streets of Beirut, the forces of Amal and Hezbollah dismissed with contempt the disorderly military mobilizations of pro-March 14 Sunni and Druze forces.

From that moment, the die was cast. It was clear that there would no longer be any attempt at real resistance to the Iranian project in Lebanon. What there would be instead would be obscurity and denial. The Iranian approach corresponded perfectly to the desire of the Lebanese to ignore reality.

I remember speaking to a predominantly young Lebanese audience in London at an event in the summer of 2008, shortly after the violent events in Beirut. I warned that the emerging prospect in the country was Iranian occupation. No one, perhaps understandable, wanted to hear this from an Israeli. “We prefer to have them rather than you,” shouted a young Lebanese under the applause of the audience. So be it. Now she has her wish, and its consequences.

IN THE YEARS after 2008, events followed a downward spiral. The Syrian civil war brought some 1.8 million refugees to Lebanon, further straining the country’s fragile infrastructure. The war dealt a crippling blow to the tourism sector, which accounted for around 7.5% of Lebanon’s GDP. The growing dissatisfaction of the Saudis and the United States with the reality of Iranian power in the country came to a head in 2015-2016. In early 2016, Riyadh announced the withdrawal of its deposits from the Central Bank of Lebanon. This follows the cancellation of $ 4 billion in aid to the Lebanese armed and security forces.

The 2015 US “Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act” hit hard on the financial services sector, another key component of the Lebanese economy. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates issued advisories against travel to Lebanon at this time. This ended the country’s traditional role as a permissive playground for visitors seeking a pleasant respite from the restrictions of the Gulf.

At this point, Lebanon was looking to manage a public debt of $ 69 billion, totaling 150% of GDP. But as the official economy collapsed, the Iran / Hezbollah shadow economy flourished. Not, however, in such a way that the average citizen benefits. The porous or Hezbollah-supervised borders between Lebanon and Syria have allowed the smuggling of oil imports and their resale in Syria, for the benefit of Hezbollah. The Syrian-made Captagon amphetamine pills and cannabis had been smuggled in the other direction, finding their destination in European cities or the Gulf via routes overseen by Hezbollah. Needless to say, none of the profits from this booming industry have gone to servicing the national debt or benefiting crumbling public infrastructure.

In March 2020, amid nationwide multi-faith protests against corruption, poor public services, youth unemployment and mismanagement, Lebanon defaulted on its debt payment for the first time. A reform plan has been approved by the International Monetary Fund, but following the resignation of the government after the explosion of the port of Beirut in August 2020, negotiations have stalled. The Lebanese economy contracted by 20% in 2020.

This is the context of the current serious crisis in Lebanon. All the elements – US sanctions, Saudi and international withdrawal of aid and investment, subsequent default and loss of confidence, resulting currency devaluation, underground economy benefiting only itself, and crippled political system – are all directly attributable to the distorting effect the presence of the omnipresent Iranian project on Lebanese soil has brought.

From this point of view, the current situation constitutes a stern warning for all countries facing the infiltration of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its various militia franchises. These are good for building the paramilitary muscle and converting it into political power. They have no knowledge or interest in economics. As a result, the net result of their de facto seizure of power in a country will be the ruin and impoverishment of that country. Lebanon is now the case study of this process.

From Israel’s point of view, there is not much you can do but continue to guard the borders. There is no reason to assume that the current chaos in Lebanon will tip the Iranians and their proxies towards military adventures in the south. When hunger and the collapse of infrastructure are a real prospect, no one is likely to rally to the national colors – not those of Lebanon, and certainly not those of Iran and its local agents.

With regard to any international response, international aid should be subordinated to the disarmament of the Iranian proxy and to the in-depth reform of the political system. Any other remedy runs the risk of offering support to the current dysfunction in Lebanon created by Iran.

The key point: Lebanon was the first Arab state to undergo internal collapse, and therefore the first to receive the intentions of the IRGC’s brand of political-military takeover. Taking local variations into account, similar Iranian efforts are now underway in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Lebanon is the first Arab state to have been brought to destruction by this project. The significance of current events extends far beyond the borders of Lebanon. Iran is responsible for the slow death of Lebanon.

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