Lebanon Knows It Is on the Edge of the Abyss
The war in Gaza could soon spread to a country that can’t afford it in any way.
No one in Lebanon wants a war, but they may still get one.
No one in Lebanon wants a war, but they may still get one.
The country has been on tenterhooks since Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel amassed hundreds of thousands of troops—stationing many along its northern border with Lebanon. The scale of the Israeli response in Gaza may define Lebanon’s future as Hezbollah, a powerful Lebanese militia backed by Iran, may feel compelled to join in, despite its instinct for self-preservation. The Lebanese are fully aware the conflict might spill over and push the country, long teetering on the edge, into an irretrievable abyss.
It will be “catastrophic, a final blow to Lebanese resilience,” said Nizar Ghanem, the director of research and a co-founder of Triangle, a Lebanese think tank. “Israel can destroy Lebanon,” Sami Nader, a political analyst, told Foreign Policy. During the 2006 war with Israel, “it cost Lebanon billions of dollars.”
Yet, at a time when the country is grappling with myriad crises, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati has failed to get assurances from Hezbollah that Lebanon will not be engulfed in yet another conflict with Israel. “I could not get assurances about the developments from any party because the situation is constantly changing,” he said on Lebanese TV.
Lebanon has been reeling over the last few years under its worst-ever economic crisis; since mass protests erupted in 2019 over a cost of living crisis, Lebanon has faced rising unemployment and among the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world. As the economy went into a tailspin, the local currency devalued by 90 percent, inflation skyrocketed, and pushed 80 percent of people below the poverty line.
Living standards dropped substantially, and power blackouts for 22 hours per day became routine. A sense of injustice prevailed as no one was held accountable for the catastrophic explosion in Beirut’s port on Aug. 4, 2020.
The country’s parliament has repeatedly failed to elect a president; there is only a caretaker prime minister and a temporary central bank chief. The foreign reserves have depleted from $30 billion back before the 2019 crisis to $8.6 billion today—which, incidentally, is just a billion more than the $7.6 billion raised by the international community to help Lebanon rebuild the infrastructure destroyed in the 2006 war.
If there’s another war, experts believe Lebanon may not get a chance to recover. They say an already bankrupt Lebanese state won’t be handed any loans by the international community and the wealthy Arab monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may not want to flush Lebanon with money that could easily end up in the hands of Hezbollah, which they see as an Iranian militia training other militias in the region that present a threat to their security. “It could lead to a complete meltdown of the state,” Ghanem added. “And this time, Lebanon does not have the chance to borrow from international markets.”
In case of war, the chassis of basic infrastructure sustaining daily life may get bombed and demolished, forcing another generation of Lebanese to flee the country. There are chances of civil unrest, too. If Israel limits its operations to Hezbollah-dominated southern Lebanon, Bekaa, and Dahieh, where Shiites predominately live—many of whom support Hezbollah or are beholden to it—the people in those communities will likely flee to other parts of the country. That will further burden the civic services already under strain from the presence of Syrian refugees and could even exacerbate sectarian differences.
Khaled Zeidan, a restaurateur in a posh Christian neighborhood in Beirut, said his biggest concern is displacement—and the social tensions that could lead to: “The biggest risk is displacement from the south towards Beirut and other areas, particularly with the overwhelming problems we are currently facing.”
Even after decades of war, the country is still divided, and often members of a specific sect dominate a specific neighborhood or an entire city. There are palpable tensions in the country, with many opposing Iran’s influence through Hezbollah and long demanding the group disarm. Hezbollah’s weapons, ostensibly stockpiled to protect Lebanon from Israel, give it the power it exudes in domestic politics.
Mark Daou, a Lebanese member of parliament who taught media studies at the American University of Beirut, said the impact of the Israel-Hamas war is already being felt in Lebanon as the German airline Lufthansa has stopped flights and not all shipping lanes are open, causing shortages.
“We are starting to get tight on supplies. Lanes are not all open. It’s a struggle to get ships to send stuff to Lebanon,” he told Foreign Policy over the phone from Beirut. “This is just on the risk of war, not even an ongoing war.” (Lebanon is heavily dependent on imports—even for some basic food items.) Daou said Hezbollah has “no excuse” to go to a war that “will destroy the country.”
The key question is if Hezbollah—armed with 150,000 precision-guided missiles—including hundreds of long-range rockets that can hit anywhere inside Israel—will heed the call of Hamas, its ally in the axis of resistance against Israel. Or will Israel’s leadership, with troops already mobilized and global sympathy onside, see an opportunity in opening another front to destroy Hezbollah’s armory?
Hezbollah does not have the consent of the Lebanese people to wage a war on Israel. It also isn’t suicidal and won’t enter a conflict without gaming out an exit. Yet it is an ideological organization with thousands of fighters and reservists who were enrolled and brainwashed with anti-Israel rhetoric.
Even though the United States has sent two aircraft carriers to the Eastern Mediterranean to deter Hezbollah and Iran from expanding the conflict, the opening of another front in Lebanon cannot be ruled out. Hezbollah may enter the war with all its might in three situations: extreme bloodshed in Gaza; if Israel starts bombing Hezbollah’s stockpiles, hidden all over Lebanon; or if Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei deems it the path to be.
Elias Farhat, a retired Lebanese Army general, said the Lebanese armed forces and Hezbollah are at a high degree of readiness. He said Hezbollah is likely to intervene in the current conflict if “Israel escalates its attacks on Lebanon and targets deep in Lebanon”—presumably Hezbollah’s rockets or leadership or Lebanese cities—or if “Israel storms in[to] Gaza and commit[s] more massacres.”
Hezbollah may opt for limited involvement to assuage Hamas and save face in front of its devoted and determined cadre while still preserving itself. The group may intensify rocket shelling and send its elite Radwan commando unit to carry out raids of varying magnitude—depending on the state of affairs in Gaza—across the blue line.
Nader, the political analyst, said that in the end, the decision would be made in Tehran, depending on Iran’s calculus. “Hamas is a strategic asset for Iran and a huge instrument of pressure. It offered Iran clout inside Israel,” he said. “If they feel they are about to lose this strategic asset that they have been investing in for years, they will push Hezbollah to open another front.”
As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken went on a six-nation tour of the Middle East to prevent a regional conflict last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Beirut and Baghdad and met Hamas’s leadership in Doha to firm up the alliance among Iran’s proxies. “In light of the continued aggression, war crimes, and siege on Gaza, opening other fronts is a real possibility,” Amir-Abdollahian said in Beirut.
Hezbollah is heavily armed and a much more serious adversary for Israel. It has devoted fighters, a loyal support base, and thousands of reservists, who on any given day express a desire to move to Europe or the United States to build a better life but are still unwavering in their support to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah.
Both Israel and Hezbollah have warned of bombing each other back to the “stone age,” and military experts agree that it would be a destructive war for both sides.
Israel can destroy Lebanon, but Hezbollah, too, can cause a huge amount of damage and attack critical installations and population centers. It can fire volleys of rockets to overwhelm the Iron Dome air defense system and open a third front in southern Syria against the Israel-held Golan Heights. “The Syrian front will open if the situation deteriorates to a dangerous extent,” Farhat said.
In August, Nasrallah warned that it would take a “few high-precision missiles” to destroy Israel airports “civilian and military” and other targets including “the Dimona [nuclear] power station.”
The last war with Israel definitely hurt Lebanon, but it catapulted Hezbollah from a rookie militia to a “savior.” Hezbollah built a huge museum in the mountains to celebrate its performance. Tales of how it emerged from under the ground, via tunnels, and fought Israelis are the stuff of legend in villages on the border. These villages are now tense, and so are Lebanese elsewhere in the country.
So far, the exchange of fire between Hezbollah and the Israel Defense Forces has been frequent but calibrated so as not to escalate. But that’s no comfort for people who are far too acquainted with how quickly skirmishes can turn into full-blown conflicts.
“Another collapsed Middle Eastern nation, it’s not a joke,” says Ghanem. “We hope it doesn’t happen [in Lebanon].”
More from Foreign Policy
Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak
Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.
Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage
The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.
The West’s False Choice in Ukraine
The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.
Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.