July 9, 2013
Though negative developments in Lebanon are generally viewed as spillover effects from Syria, the more complex reality is that Lebanon’s troubles begin at home and are being heightened to dangerous levels by the turmoil next door.  On July 9, the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East hosted a discussion with fellow Faysal Itani and Principal Director of Strategy for the Office of the Secretary of Defense Mara Karlin on the complex and pernicious effects of Syria’s war upon Lebanon. Senior fellow Frederic C. Hof moderated the discussion which highlighted two new issue briefs from the Hariri Center, “Beyond Spillover: Syria’s Role in Lebanon’s Drift Toward Political Violence and “Syria’s War Threatens Lebanon’s Fragile Economy.”

Itani, an author of the new reports, discussed how the insidious effects of Syria’s war upon Lebanon go beyond visible spillover effects, a term that mischaracterizes the root causes of Lebanon’s current crisis and obstructs solutions to it. The war has exposed uncomfortable truths in Lebanon including the hollowness of institutional mechanisms and the severity of the country’s Sunni-Shia divide.  It has placed weight upon the country’s shaky foundation and sped up the decay of its political, economic, and security institutions.  Itani insisted, however, that the formal political process in Lebanon does matter, despite Lebanese actors’ manipulation of it or disregard towards it.  Lebanon needs parliamentary elections, a cabinet, a functioning bureaucracy, and impartial security forces in order to deal with the challenges it currently faces.  Without these tools, the country will face collapse on multiple fronts.

Feedback on the reports highlighted the reality that Lebanon’s myriad problems are all political at heart.  The Lebanese army can, at best, buy time for Lebanon’s leaders to find a political solution to seemingly irreconcilable fault lines being exacerbated by the war in Syria.  The prospects of reconciliation, however, are made slim by Hezbollah’s disregard for Lebanon’s national interests revealed via its involvement in Syria.  Furthermore, Syria’s war will have secondary and tertiary effects on Lebanon that are invisible now but will plague Lebanon’s future. 

Speakers concluded that though there are few clear policy solutions to Lebanon’s predicament, the United States can continue to support the Lebanese Armed Forces so long as it acts as a neutral arbiter in recurring flare-ups.  The formal political process in Lebanon should be encouraged. However, if it fails, it is possible that a new system will be necessitated, providing opportunity for a new generation of Lebanese to forge a more sustainable way forward.

Video Interviews

We interviewed Issue Brief authors Faysal Itani and Sarah Grebowski for their views on the importance of Lebanon and the nature of the threats it faces. Six short clips in the player cover these important questions:

  1. Is Lebanon experiencing spillover effects from Syria's conflict?
  2. What effect is Syria's conflict having on Lebanon's inter-sectarian relations?
  3. Is sectarianism on the rise in Lebanon?
  4. Why does a failed state in Lebanon matter?
  5. Can Lebanon survive the Syrian conflict?
  6. What does the Syria conflict mean for Hezbollah?