Fin DePencier/Lebanese soldiers patrol near the porous Syria-Lebanon border
“You are now technically in Syria,” a Lebanese military officer told me as the convoy pulled over to the side of the road. I had joined their regiment on an anti-smuggling patrol somewhere near Ras-Baalbek in the Beqaa Valley. When the French demarcated the border between Lebanon and Syria in 1923, they drew arbitrary lines with little connection to tribal or ethnic realities on the ground. The result is areas along the border under de facto Syrian control but that are de jure Lebanese territory, and vice versa. The only tangible sign of a border is the river which makes a rough delineation, but it doesn’t follow the official border for long. Half of the cars here don’t even have license plates.
Another Lebanese officer pointed my attention to some crops across the waterway. “Some Lebanese people have property in Syria, as do some Syrians in Lebanon. So we must let them cross.” Further up the road was the first hard border we saw, but this isn’t an entry point for Syria; it’s a checkpoint outside a Lebanese enclave within Syrian territory. Beyond that checkpoint, I’m told, there is no consistent Lebanese military presence anymore. Both the Lebanese and Syrian pound are valid tenders.
But the military isn’t interested in the farmers here. Instead, they are apprehending suspected petroleum smugglers on a daily basis, they told me. This smuggling, which has cost Lebanon an estimated $20 billion over the last five years, is a key reason why Lebanon has the highest fuel prices in the world. Until recently, smugglers were purchasing fuel at a Lebanese central bank-subsidized rate and selling it for profit to both the Syrian government and to rebel groups. Realizing these subsidies were a perverse incentive, and to help preserve Lebanon’s diminishing foreign currency reserves, the central bank rescinded the subsidies back in July causing fuel prices to skyrocket. This has exacerbated the plight of Lebanese consumers in the short term, who are suffering from what the World Bank describes as one of the worst financial collapses in the last 150 years.
The ambiguous and lawless border is only one of the most extreme examples of the ongoing crisis of the Lebanese state as a whole. Always a fragile construction, its dysfunction has allowed religious authority and the patronage of foreign powers to fill the vacuum. And no one has played this game better than the Shiite Islamist political party and U.S-designated terrorist organization known as Hezbollah. Hezbollah, whose name means “Party of God,” operates within the state while brazenly flaunting its effective independence from it.
Fin DePencier/Lebanese soldiers inspect a vehicle for smuggled goods at a border crossing between Syria and Lebanon
But removing the subsidies hasn’t curbed smuggling, which is fundamentally a consequence of several rounds of harsh sanctions placed on Syria by the U.S., preventing Lebanese merchants from legally conducting business with the Assad regime and connected entities. The Lebanese military can’t possibly prevent all smuggling along its 245-mile border with Syria given its current capacity. While all major Lebanese political parties participate in fuel smuggling, the lynchpin of this racket is the network of alternative border crossings run by Hezbollah.
Soon after I left Lebanon, fierce street battles erupted in Beirut on October 14th, with Hezbollah and the Amal movement, another Shia political party, on one side and who they accuse to be Lebanese Forces, a Christian party with close ties to Saudi Arabia, on the other. Seven people, three of whom were from the Shia militias, were killed, with dozens more injured. It was the worst violence Beirut has seen since 2008, when Hezbollah clashed with the Future Movement, a Sunni political party, and with the Progressive Socialist Party, which predominantly represents the Druze minority. October’s fighting wasn’t sparked by record-high inflation or by critical shortages of gasoline and medicine, but rather because Hezbollah organized a protest outside the Lebanese justice ministry to demand that a judge who was investigating the causes of the infamous Beirut port explosion be removed and himself investigated for bias. The shooting “began from the Christian neighborhood of Ain el-Remmaneh, before spiraling into an exchange of gunfire,” a military source told Reuters. The military quickly secured the area, but by that time fighting had already spread to surrounding neighborhoods.
The military is one of the only institutions of Lebanon’s central government that isn’t completely dysfunctional. It has carved out a position of high legitimacy among the population and Lebanon’s major allies because its ranks boast members from all the major religious sects. But the government has been increasingly relying on the military to carry out missions for which it is neither trained nor funded, like basic police work.
The present economic collapse has also put enormous strain on the military, with the average soldier only making the equivalent of $84 per month as of mid-July. Without the authoritative presence and broad mandate of the military, the Western powers and Lebanon’s other religious sects all fear Hezbollah could move into the power vacuum and take control of the country. The irony is that if the much weaker Lebanese military ever tried to extricate Hezbollah, it would likely be defeated. The Shiite group would then tighten its grip on the country even further. But a full-scale conflict is unlikely; the most important lesson from Lebanon’s 15-year civil war is that no single sect can totally dominate while the country’s fractious current paradigm remains.
Fin DePencier/Lebanese military patrol along the Syrian-Lebanese border
Driving between the Lebanese military checkpoints in the Hezbollah-dominated Beqaa Valley, we passed billboards and large busts of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini, and the recently-assassinated Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani. After making contact with a Lebanese military regiment near the border, I jumped into a U.S.-supplied Humvee to join them on their patrol. The convoy of six Humvees, a handful of jeeps, and a few dozen soldiers were heavily armed for good reason. “We sometimes encounter ambushes here,” an officer told me as we drove through the ambiguous territory. But the fact that only about half the soldiers wore their ballistic vests and helmets told me that this was an unlikely occurrence in broad daylight.
A few minutes later, I noticed fields of marijuana crops next to us. Why are these allowed to exist? “It’s not our job, the national security service is supposed to take care of it.” And why don’t they? I didn’t get a clear answer. A local contact later alleged that the security services are paid off to ignore them. The drug lords, mostly Hezbollah members, openly flaunt their merchandise and weaponry on TV with the blessing of the ruling Christian Maronite party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). As we drove on, I leaned back into the cabin area of the humvee and snapped a picture of a large flattering banner featuring Nasrallah. “Do you know who that is?” the soldier asked. “A rockstar,” I jokingly replied. “Wrong, he’s a pornstar. He fucks the Lebanese people!”
Fin DePencier/Banner depicting Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, somewhere along the Syria-Lebanon border
As a bulwark against Hezbollah, the U.S. has invested more than $2.6 billion in the Lebanese military since 2006. This funding has enabled it “to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Lebanon, carry out operations against al-Qaeda, and expand control over Lebanese territory along its border with Syria,” according to the U.S. State Department. The regiment with which I was embedded was equipped with U.S.-made military gear, such as the quintessential Iraq War-era Humvees complete with .50 M2 Browning turret guns, as well as Vietnam War-era M151 Jeeps, select-fire M4 rifles, and more. Several Western countries and Saudi Arabia supply a lot of their other equipment, and some old acquisitions from the Soviet Union make up the remainder. A Lebanese military officer was eager to show me a British-made state-of-the-art observation tower: “With this technology, we can see someone coming into Lebanon from miles away.”
But what good is this equipment when rampant smuggling still persists? I asked an officer what happens to the suspects they apprehend. After a few seconds of contemplating the question, he reluctantly admitted that he didn’t know. Not only does the Lebanese military lack the capacity to deter smuggling, but they also lack the authority as part of a government complicit in the practice.
Fin DePencier/Lebanese soldiers patrol along the Syria-Lebanon border
On August 19th, I was sitting in a hotel lounge in Beirut listening to Nasrallah announce the group’s plan to import oil from Iran. In the middle of his speech, the power went out. It took about five minutes for everything to reboot and Nasrallah’s face once again graced the television screen. These power outages are now so frequent in Beirut that most people don’t even flinch or complain anymore. Instead, they sigh and wait to hear the click of a power line switching from their local grid to a generator. But not everyone can afford a generator, those who have one can’t always afford the fuel, and those who can afford the fuel can’t always find it. Lebanon hasn’t had a reliable state electricity grid since before its civil war, but reasonably priced and readily available fuel for generators made this an inefficiency instead of a crisis. Power outages from the central grid have lasted up to 23 hours a day since the start of August. On October 9th, the grid collapsed entirely, leaving the country in the dark for several days. Combined with the rise in fuel prices, living conditions in Lebanon are getting worse.
Later that night, I was minding my own business in Beirut with some new friends when the thundering sound of Israeli F-35s interrupted our conversation. Israel had launched airstrikes on a Hezbollah warehouse along the Syrian-Lebanese border and the planes were now circling Beirut. The strike was likely authorized by Paris and Washington, both of which have warned several times against Hezbollah circumventing the state to provide a solution to the fuel crisis themselves. My friends were unfazed. The Israeli air force frequently violates Lebanese airspace with impunity. We moved on to another venue in the Hamra district, the crown jewel of Beirut that was still noticeably scarred from the 2020 port explosion. Near the end of the night, the dance floor went limp after yet another power cut. Again, few people complained; eye-rolling and some nihilistic shrugs were the main responses. Many Beirutis described this whole experience to me as a humiliation.
Fin DePencier/Political banners draped over buildings hollowed out by the port explosion in Hamra, Beirut
Shortly after Nasrallah’s announcement, the first oil tanker set sail from Iran to arrive in Lebanon by mid-September. The procurement of foreign oil represents a massive victory for Hezbollah against the Lebanese state and a propaganda win among the Lebanese people. Nasrallah spoke as the effective Lebanese head of state that day, warning Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the West against interfering with the shipments: “I tell the Americans and the Israelis that as soon as the ship sails, it becomes Lebanese territory.” Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Saudi-Lebanese politician whose father was a previous prime minister himself, was outraged that Nasrallah, a non-state leader, was speaking on Lebanon’s behalf. Hezbollah is developing the institutional logic of a regime—military strength, administrative capability, and an independent foreign policy—without formalizing its rule over the state. The organization has crafted itself a hybrid status: state-like power without formal state responsibilities or sovereignty.
Hezbollah’s Heuristics of Statecraft
Lebanon’s drift towards becoming a failed state only benefits Hezbollah, which will, in turn, be legitimized by more Lebanese people who have no other choice but to seek their support for gasoline, medical services, and other staples that aren’t provided by the absent central government. A 36-year-old father of two who had no choice but to accept support from Hezbollah described the dynamic well to Bloomberg: “They starve you so you have to run to them for food.”
Founded in 1982 as a consolidated militia to resist the Israeli invasion, Hezbollah is the only group that didn’t disarm after Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Hezbollah was forged by the patronage of the newly-empowered Iranian mullahs who helped mobilize support from the disempowered Shiite population, largely concentrated in Lebanon’s south. The group’s continued existence is justified by the Lebanese state, which sees it as a bulwark for a national military that is wholly unprepared for war against the ultra-modern Israeli military.
Hezbollah is widely believed to be responsible for the 2005 assassination of Sunni Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was highly influential in crafting the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the civil war. Following his death, Hezbollah, the Maronite Christian FPM, and a number of smaller groups formed the March 8 Coalition. In 2016, the civil war-era general Michel Aoun of the FPM was elected president of Lebanon, and two years later the coalition won a parliamentary majority after just under half of Lebanese citizens cast their ballots. With tight support from Iran and a flexible status which permits them to create quasi-governmental institutions within Lebanon, Hezbollah wields significant political power within the government of Michel Aoun and the FPM.
The concept of Westphalian sovereignty, in which a state has sovereignty over its internal affairs to the exclusion of foreign powers, does little to describe how power actually operates in Lebanon and its region. Hezbollah has successfully institutionalized itself as a de-facto ruling power in Lebanon’s non-homogeneous regime. The most powerful and established states in the region—especially Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey—also rely on a mix of religious authorities, ethnic diasporas, and non-state militant organizations to project power and maintain legitimacy.
The formal state is merely one part of these regimes: the institutional branch that launders political legitimacy for the other groups to the world order. Iran’s mullahs might run their Guardian Council, but Iran also has a parliament, judiciary, and domestic police force. These state institutions are ultimately controlled by the religious authorities but have a degree of autonomy from them. Lebanon is exceptional in this sense because many of the subcomponents of its political order are puppets of the region’s most powerful states. Lebanon’s political economy is thus a microcosm of broader regional ethnic and religious tensions, particularly the sprawling proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But life under the same national roof forces these enemies to co-exist. Real civic nationalism and unity have never taken root in Lebanon because the country is little more than a conglomeration of uncooperative, even incompatible, groups.
Fin DePencier/Lebanese military checkpoint before an enclave within Syrian Territory in the Beqaa Valley
In order to rule Lebanon, the balance of loyalty has to tip in your favor across the country’s 18 sects, which is why Hezbollah’s alliance with FPM is so crucial. The Christian Armenian minority is also part of this coalition and has six seats in parliament. To learn more about how this complex alliance plays out in practice, I sat down with Vera Yakoubian, head of the Armenian National Committee in the Middle East and member of the Lebanese-Armenian political party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.
“What do the Armenians think about being allied with Hezbollah?” I asked. “We don’t have an alliance with Hezbollah, we are not allies. We are allies with the Free Patriotic Movement under General Michel Aoun, who is an ally of Hezbollah. But as Lebanese, we don’t consider Hezbollah to be a radical political organization. We consider it as resistance against Israel,” Yakoubian said.
I asked what she made of Hezbollah’s subjugation of the Lebanese government. She paused and then stuttered before reluctantly admitting the truth: “Lebanon is actually controlled by Hezbollah. But in the future, nobody in Lebanon can totally control the other parts. If they try, there will be another civil war.”
Knowing that they can’t claim a mandate to monopolize power, Hezbollah is willing to leave many state functions fulfilled by Lebanon’s formal government and military, even as it actively usurps others. But, unable to conduct its own foreign policy, police borders, uphold internal order, or even militarily outmatch Hezbollah’s forces, the Lebanese state’s role as a legitimacy-laundering operation remains the only real basis for its continued existence.
Finally, 13 months after the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab due to widespread outrage over the port explosion, and endless squabbling between the sects over who would fill the ministerial positions, Najib Miqati managed to form a new government on October 10th and became the new prime minister. But corruption is an inherent aspect, even a tradition, in Lebanon’s political system since the more power vested in a ministry, the more valuable it is for a political party and its cronies. Once they attain any political power, whether it be the administration of permits or the control of government coffers, the winners promptly appropriate the position for their factional benefit. Transparency International ranks Lebanon 149 out of 180 countries in its Corruption Perception Index.
Yakoubian’s unwillingness to label Hezbollah an ally demonstrates that the current ruling coalition is a purely strategic partnership. The political coalition in opposition to the government—which includes the Future Movement, the Christian party Lebanese Forces, and a number of smaller parties—consider Hezbollah to be an outright terrorist organization. But for the time being and foreseeable future, Hezbollah is the most powerful force in Lebanon.
The confessional power-sharing formula which keeps the country from degenerating into civil war is what simultaneously incentivizes this corruption. The government cannot act with a common purpose because the different sects fundamentally distrust each other. Even when compromises are made, these decisions will always be viewed in sectarian terms by the Lebanese population, which is justifiably cynical. No one has enough power to take full control of the state and the military and govern Lebanon on their own. The consequence is a country in free-fall.
Compounding this reality, Hezbollah’s allegiance lies with the Iranian regime, not necessarily with its Lebanese constituents and certainly not with its allies in the Lebanese government. These ties to Tehran make it impossible for the group to be the outward face of the country. But Hezbollah’s ability to unilaterally provide solutions while the government flounders has created a crucial moment of legitimization for the group, transforming it from a semi-integrated member of the state to an organization exercising sovereign-style action in its own right.
As the tankers of Iranian fuel rolled out of the docks and through villages, several videos emerged of Hezbollah members spraying celebratory gunfire into the air. In one video, a man shot off a rocket-propelled grenade which then landed on a neighboring house. What comes up must come down. The Taliban recently banned this practice in Afghanistan, perhaps a sign they are taking the role of official government seriously. Hezbollah, on the other hand, has no interest in ruling Lebanon officially.
Lebanon’s fuel shortage is completely artificial, a consequence of black market demand from Syria. Ironically, the country imported more gas in the previous year than at any other time in the nation’s history. While Hezbollah is ostensibly solving a problem the central government couldn’t, it is also directly responsible for the current state of affairs as one of the chief culprits of fuel smuggling in Lebanon. In an attempt to halt the Iranian fuel and prevent a Hezbollah victory, four U.S. senators traveled to Lebanon on September 1st and met with the Lebanese leadership. The senators warned the government of the “severely damaging consequences” of accepting Iran’s fuel, but evidently, the message was unconvincing.
Fin DePencier/A man approaches Lebanese soldiers carrying out searches near the Syria-Lebanon border
Washington’s policy response was quite significant: making an exception to its sanctions regime by allowing Egyptian fuel to flow into Lebanon via Jordan and Syria, perhaps showing a softening of the U.S.’s hardline stance toward the Assad regime in Syria. The Caesar Civilian Protection Act of 2019 targets entities providing funding or assistance to the Assad regime. These sanctions are devastating for Lebanon as it has the potential to be a central player in the lucrative reconstruction of Syria. In televised remarks on June 16th earlier this year, Nasrallah condemned the sanctions, saying the policy “aims to starve Lebanon in the same way it aims to starve Syria.” Thus Hezbollah was able to secure a double-victory by leaving the U.S. with no choice but to either withhold Caesar Act sanctions or weaken its grip on Lebanon even further.
When the Egyptian fuel arrives, it will need to come through southern Syria from Jordan before crossing into Lebanon. While Syria’s civil war still rages in its northwestern Idlib province and in its northeastern Kurdish region, its southern and western borders with Jordan and Lebanon are almost completely under government control, making the resumption of commerce with those countries possible. But the Egyptian fuel isn’t supposed to reach Lebanon until the end of 2021, as the Arab Gas Pipeline still needs substantial repairs. This means Hezbollah will remain the largest supplier of fuel in the country for at least the next three months, allowing it to gather fresh political support among consumers who have not previously supported the group.
Hezbollah has thrived during the Syrian civil war as an important ally to Assad and the Syrian government. But the war also created the conditions for Lebanon to be desperate enough to allow Hezbollah to accept Iranian fuel because of the increased sanctions faced by many of its suppliers. Now that the Syrian civil war is coming to a close, Lebanon is finally getting back on good terms with its neighborhood.
Lebanon’s Refugee Crisis
Entering the village of Qaa, the last population center solidly in Lebanese territory before the ambiguous border area, we drove through an arch marked by the flags of the twin Shia militias Hezbollah and Amal—yellow and green, respectively. Fixed to every streetlight were a large Amal flag and a solar panel on top. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has been funding solar energy projects in Lebanon since 2006, including a solar farm for farmers in this town. This panel was probably a part of that project. Sustainable energy solutions might work in isolated scenarios, and the farmers are certainly grateful, but the UN’s solution isn’t scalable when Lebanese people are making the equivalent of less than $100 a month. Desperate people aren’t concerned about their carbon footprint.
A few hundred meters down the road, still underneath these glimmering solar-powered light posts, is a stark juxtaposition: hundreds of cars waiting in line at the local gas station. These massive queues are normal across the country, and when the station runs out of fuel, some people opt to keep their cars parked in line overnight so they don’t lose their spot. “Gas station line essentials,” reads an Instagram caption written by a Lebanese girl named Miriam alongside a photo of her friends playing a board game in the backseat of their stationary vehicle. While the Western NGOs fund niche sustainable energy projects, Hezbollah has secured what the Lebanese people really needed: gasoline. In the words of a local Tinder bio: “If you have benzene, you have my heart.” The Iranians might have their own savior complex, but they seem to be more realistic about giving their clients what they need.
Fin DePencier/Archway entrance to the village of Qaafit, fit with Amal Movement, Hezbollah, and “Ya Hussain” flags
The NGOs, mostly Western in origin and funding, are another essential subcomponent in Lebanon’s non-homogeneous regime. There are dozens of NGOs operating in Lebanon that are either assisting or assuming responsibility for the basic functions of civil society. Western governments have crippled Lebanon with sanctions, and then sent in friendly NGOs to pick up the slack. Like Hezbollah, many of these NGOs are in Lebanon to serve the interests of their foreign backers instead of the Lebanese state.
Nowhere do NGOs play a more important role than in the task of supporting Lebanon’s massive Syrian refugee population. The Brookings Institution estimates there are nearly 866,000 registered Syrian refugees still living in Lebanon, but closer to 1.5 million Syrians in the country overall. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) places Lebanon second only to Aruba for the world’s highest ratio of refugees to the native population. Over 20% of the population is now made up of Syrians, most of whom are Sunni, putting stress on Lebanon’s delicately balanced confessional system. The ruling coalition of Hezbollah and FPM considers the Syrian conflict to be effectively finished and is trying to move refugees home. But the Sunni opposition, religiously aligned with the refugees, questions the legitimacy of the Assad regime and prevents negotiations between the two countries.
In 2016, Lebanese leaders criticized then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when he appeared to suggest that Lebanon should naturalize its refugees. Such a move would permanently alter Lebanon’s confessional balance in favor of the Sunni opposition by boosting their political weight. And of course, the Sunnis have an interest in artificially growing their sect in Lebanon by naturalizing the Syrian refugees. In 2018, the EU and UN released a joint statement on the status of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, stressing the need to “ensure that any evacuation of civilians must be safe, informed, temporary, voluntary in nature and a solution of last resort including the destination of their choice, the right to return and the choice to stay, as per [international humanitarian law].” The FPM declared this statement to be an attack on Lebanese sovereignty. Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, known for his hostile and bombastic comments against Syrian refugees, said that “no one can give [Lebanon] lessons” on dealing with the refugee crisis “because all of them have not carried the burden the way we have.”
Unfortunately for the refugees who planned on staying indefinitely, donor fatigue has also set in among the supporters of NGOs, and the countries hosting the refugees are growing increasingly impatient. In tacit recognition of Assad’s legitimacy, current UNHCR Filippo Grandi recently tweeted that he has “discussed with the Syrian Government ways to strengthen coordination as we address internal displacement and to cooperate in removing obstacles to the return of refugees.” Many signs point towards at least a partial Assad victory in Syria’s civil war, with potential partitions ceded to the Kurds and Turkey. Syria’s Western-backed enemies, including Lebanese Sunni groups, are slowly recognizing that Assad and his government remain in control of Syria. Political obstruction on the part of Lebanese Sunnis to repatriating Syrian Sunni refugees makes sense as an attempt to maintain power in a country where the momentum is in Hezbollah’s favor.
After my visit to the border, we headed south for the Bar-Elias Syrian refugee camp, 25 miles inside Lebanon near the border crossing to Damascus. I went through a complex accreditation process to get access to the camp, but once there I ended up just walking right inside, just as the refugees can walk right out. Despite not officially having residency freedoms or privileges, most Syrian refugees are under little supervision in the camp. There was no military checkpoint to check my papers, no razor wire perimeter, nor any government infrastructure to stop the refugees from freely traveling around Lebanon. Instead, the refugees face persecution from the private sector.
We approached a man who seemed to be a community leader. He had a large family and dressed more finely than the other residents of the camp. During our discussion via a translator, he confirmed that he can leave the Bar-Elias camp at will and no one asks him any questions. The only thing he isn’t allowed to do is buy gas from the local gas station because the owner won’t sell it to him. A refugee from Aleppo, he has lived in Lebanon since 2011. I remarked to him that Aleppo is safe now, and asked if he intends to return. He responded that even if the city is militarily safe, the situation on the ground won’t be any better than inside the refugee camp. According to a survey by UNHCR, 70% of Syrian refugees say they intend to return someday, but many also say they don’t wish to return to Syria for at least a year—and of that group, 69% want to stay in their host country for now.
When the man first arrived in Lebanon, there were seven in his family, and he’s since had four more children. “How do you make a living here?” I asked. His family gets money from an NGO: 100,000 lira per person, per month. Official bank rates translate this into about $65 per head. But those rates don’t matter here; at the black market rate for USD, he’s getting around $5 per head. This amount is unsustainable for a large family. Given his attire, he must have had other forms of income. Even a 10-year-old girl I spoke to was working on a local farm, making about $1 a day, while another boy of about 14 did the same at a local mechanic shop.
“How did you end up in Lebanon? Why not Turkey?” I asked the man. He suggested the deciding factor was the work opportunities in Lebanon and that it was difficult to get into Turkey, or Europe for that matter. Back in the car, I debriefed with my translator. Why would the local gas station not sell to him? He responded that if the man does not have a car then perhaps the store owner is worried that he is involved with smuggling fuel. So then why would he need money from the NGOs? My translator was blunt about his view of the situation: “The refugees go to an NGO, collect their free cheque, then visit three more and do the same thing. The refugees are bad for Lebanon; they all need to leave.”
Fin DePencier/Three young girls in the Bar-Elias Syrian Refugee Camp
Not all the camps are as easily accessible as Bar-Elias. In Lebanon’s southern Sidon district sits the notorious Ain al-Hilweh camp, which hosts an estimated 70,000 Palestinian refugees and an additional 40,000 Syrians. Since this camp is controlled by Hezbollah instead of the government, I was denied access. Lebanese media frequently labels the camp a zone of lawlessness by Lebanese media and is said to have hosted terror cells from al-Qaeda and Hamas—but mostly Hezbollah itself. After an attempted assassination attempt on his life in 2005, then-defense minister Elias Murr claimed the culprits were being given refuge there. The camp also helped stall the 1982 Israeli advance on Beirut in 1982 by eight days which inflicted heavy casualties on the invading troops. During the civil war, the camp was run by various Palestinian groups until Hezbollah took partial control in 1993, which they have maintained ever since.
The Lebanese government insists that it lacks the resources to apprehend suspects in Ain al-Hilweh. What they really lack is the authority from Tehran and Damascus. In 2017, the government finished constructing a concrete wall around the perimeter. This is the same desperate solution the Colombian government resorted to in 1991 for Pablo Escobar when it constructed him and his entourage a private prison, but really a fortress, from which he could manage his drug empire with impunity.
Ain al-Hilweh is a microcosm of the Lebanese state, where Hezbollah has thrived in the Hobbesian chaos. Sanctions have only emboldened the group and legitimized their claim that the Western axis wants to punish, not help Lebanon. Hezbollah and its patron-state Iran aren’t becoming complacent either. Their mission to cement Hezbollah as the undisputed de-facto authority in Lebanon continues. Fuel shipments were just the beginning. On October 8th, Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Lebanon and pledged to build two power stations as well as rebuild the Beirut port, “if the Lebanese government makes such a request.” He went on to say that “I would like to assure you that the Islamic Republic of Iran will always stand alongside Lebanon and assist it in overcoming the various problems it is going through.”
Hezbollah endures and their coercion is legitimized: Iran recognizes they have a responsibility to maintain Lebanon if their proxy increasingly rules it. Iran has heavily invested in having a foothold on the northern Israeli border, and while some Lebanese see this presence as pushing Lebanon towards conflict with Israel, others think having a defense against Israel alone is justification for Hezbollah to have outsized political power. Wielding power over this tiny but important Mediterranean country has earned Hezbollah the status of Iran’s most successful proxy organization, but not the status of a real government.
While lacking a mandate to actually rule Lebanon, Hezbollah has successfully occupied the shell of an almost completely failed state. Sanctions have created a vicious feedback loop, in which attempts to curb Hezbollah’s influence just deteriorate the Lebanese state, which allows Hezbollah to fill the vacuum of state function. The Lebanese military is desperately trying to hold the center as the only legitimate state institution. But the military lacks the capacity to hold on to power, and Hezbollah has proved that a mandate is easier to build than capacity. Hezbollah also has a powerful ally in the victorious Assad government in Syria, both of which now have an interest in repatriating as many Syrian refugees as possible to undermine Sunni influence in Lebanon. Repatriation prevents the Sunnis from growing their base in Lebanon, and protects Hezbollah’s Shiite base from the internal threat of Sunni influence.
But while Hezbollah continues to consolidate power, the sanctions they attract and international support they repel are damaging as they try to garner more widespread legitimacy. Until now, popular support hasn’t been imperative to Hezbollah’s strategy. It has preferred to foster a weak Lebanese state and a weak population that will come begging on its doorstep for help. But as Hezbollah continues to usurp the Lebanese state, it increasingly won’t be able to avoid responsibility for state failures. At some point, a regime has to rule.