Lebanon Has a Sovereignty Problem

Lebanon suffers from a sovereignty deficiency, most obviously highlighted by Hezbollah’s existence and its usurpation of several state prerogatives. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that Hezbollah exploited a pre-existing vacuum of state power within Lebanon’s fabric as a country rather than creating it.

Throughout its history, Lebanon has been plagued by manifestations of lawlessness due to its fractious nature and the reluctance of “Official Lebanon” to take responsibility for what occurs in its territory. Two seemingly disparate current events, the latest renewal of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon’s (UNIFIL) broadened mandate under Security Council Resolution 1701 and the clashes in Sidon’s Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, respectively, illustrate this underlying deficiency of Lebanese sovereignty.

UNIFIL’s mandate, established in 1978 and broadened after the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel War, was meant to be temporary (hence the qualifier “interim” in the name). UNIFIL was supposed to gradually hand over responsibility for controlling Lebanon’s territory and securing its southern border to the Government of Lebanon and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).

However, nearly two decades later, this objective remains further from accomplishment than it was when Resolution 1701 was passed. The resolution was intended to curtail Hezbollah’s control over south Lebanon. However, in the intervening years, the group has vastly expanded its south Lebanon footprint and arsenal and even facilitated a growing presence of Palestinian militants under its command. LAF and UNIFIL are in the area but powerless to stop this growth or any actions contravening the requirements of 1701.

In part, Lebanon’s dereliction of its duties owes to its fractious, sub-sectarian feudal makeup. The country’s institutions, including LAF, can therefore only operate by consensus, including that of Hezbollah, which garnered 356,112 mostly Shia votes in the 2022 Lebanese Parliamentary elections, the most for any party. Expecting the group to consent to its own disarmament is an exercise in folly. To attempt to do so without Hezbollah’s consent would invite its supporters' ire and could spiral into civil war. In short, Lebanon cannot realistically implement Resolution 1701.

But rather than take responsibility for this state of affairs, or admit its inability to remedy Hezbollah’s growth, Lebanon has instead adopted an idiosyncratic interpretation of Resolution 1701. This interpretation  excludes Hezbollah from the ambit of 1701’s  operative clauses, “require[ing] the disarmament of all armed groups,” and clearing the area between the Litani River and the Blue Line “of any personnel, assets, and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon…” Beirut thus quietly but obviously, absolved itself of any requirement to extend its sovereignty and singular authority “over all Lebanese territory” or to secure or control its borders.

Nevertheless, as it does every year, the Lebanese Government will doubtlessly request the mandate’s renewal, and the Security Council will automatically approve, thereby mindlessly picking up Beirut’s slack.

Resolution 1701’s territorial ambit extends from the Blue Line to the Litani River, but the problem of state vacuum it diagnoses exists throughout Lebanon. Since the Resolution’s passage, Sunni Islamist militants plunged Lebanon into violence in 2007, and Hezbollah staged an armed takeover of Beirut in 2008 and clashed with Druze militants in the Chouf Mountains. In the subsequent decade, the Shia organization unilaterally intervened in Syria’s civil war while exercising the state’s policing prerogatives in neighborhoods of Beirut in 2017. In October 2021, deadly clashes erupted between Hezbollah and its opponents in the Lebanese capital’s Tayyouneh/Ain al-Remmeneh neighborhood. This period of Lebanon’s history has also been punctuated by a string of unsolved political assassinations.

Indeed, even as the increasingly absurd ritual of automatically renewing UNIFIL’s mandate occurs in New York, another demonstration of the depth of Lebanon’s abdication of its sovereignty just manifested itself in Sidon.

In late July, clashes erupted in Sidon’s Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp between Fatah and an Islamist faction –  alternatively identified as either “Shabab al Muslim” or Jund Al-Sham –displacing 20,000 Palestinian refugees and, for a moment, threatened to spread into Sidon. The conflagration was sparked by an earlier, unresolved, familial blood vendetta resulting from the killing of an Islamist fighter by a Fatah militant.

Fighting in Lebanon’s refugee camps occurs frequentlyparticularly in Ain Al-Hilweh, notorious as a hotbed for extremists. In fact, this latest clash harked back to the 2007 Lebanon Conflict, when LAF struggled to clamp down on Islamist factions in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli, with fighting spreading to Ain al-Hilweh and violence reaching Beirut.

But the Lebanese response has been nothing short of conspiratorial, demonstrating the depth of Beirut’s irresponsibility. Reports and analyses in media outlets, ranging from those considered respectable by Lebanese standards to those less so, blamed hidden hands, naturally of foreign origin. Some absurdly blamed U.S. support for Al-Qaeda as the source of the problem; others defaulted to saying it was an Israeli conspiracy to stoke more of Lebanon’s ongoing dysfunction to further constrain Hezbollah; and finally, some even blamed Palestinian intelligence chief Majed Faraj, who visited Lebanon days prior. This conspiratorial chorus – animated by Underpants Gnome logic – was joined by Lebanon’s top officials, including Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who called the timing of the clashes “suspicious in light of current regional and international context,” accusing – again – foreign hidden hands of using Lebanon as an arena to settle scores.

But one need not look further than Beirut’s halls of power to find the source of this manifestation of lawlessness. In 1969, under Syrian pressure, Lebanon abdicated responsibility and jurisdiction over Palestinian refugee camps on its soil to Palestinian militant factions under Yasser Arafat. In what became known as the “Cairo Agreement,” Lebanon granted Palestinian armed groups the right to effectively use the camps as autonomous territories and bases. Later engulfed in a civil war that was largely an outcome of this arrangement, a Lebanese parliament of dubious legitimacy – again acting under Syrian direction – declared the Cairo Agreement null and void on May 21, 1987. But powers granted cannot easily be retracted, and the Lebanese Government and LAF continue to honor the terms of the Cairo Agreement by convention.

However, disorder rarely arises in a vacuum, more often building on prior disorder. In fact, the creation of Lebanon’s lacunae of sovereignty cannot be blamed on the Palestinians or this agreement – as many Lebanese are wont to do. It predates them by decades when armed militias of even ostensibly sovereigntist Lebanese political factions roamed the country unchecked. In 1969, the Palestinian factions were therefore only demanding their share of the quasi-anarchy built into the Lebanese status quo – allowing sub-state actors to create states within the state and autonomy of private arms. Since its official rise in 1982, Hezbollah is only following suit.

But the corollary to Lebanon consistently blaming some undefined other – usually foreigners – as the source of its problems is that Beirut expects outside powers to sort them out. U.S. officials noted this Lebanese predilection as far back as 1957. Stephen Dorsey, a U.S. official stationed in south Lebanon as a coordinator for the Litani River Project, complained that his Lebanese hosts “want the Americans to do things for them.” U.S. ambassador to Lebanon Robert McClintock similarly noted Beirut’s preference for being “incapable of sustaining itself except under the guns of foreign warships.”

Decades on, this mentality persists. Lebanese officials insist Hezbollah is a “regional issue” and must, therefore, “be solved in the regional context,” with some anti-Hezbollah Lebanese even telling this author that they hoped for an Israeli invasion to sort out the group. In other words, the Lebanese expect Israelis to fight and die to solve a problem caused by Lebanese citizens. But this reassignment of responsibility does not end with Lebanon’s Hezbollah problems.–Shortly after the 2020 Beirut Port Explosion, at the height of Lebanon’s economic crisis, 60,000 Lebanese signed a petition demanding the return of the French Mandate.

These seemingly disparate phenomena are anything but that – they are all underpinned by the same Lebanese refusal to assume real sovereignty over their country, responsibility for causing its problems, and the burden of solving them. That is Lebanon's foundational flaw rather than Hezbollah or Palestinian militias.

As any person deprived of the ability to freely determine their destiny can attest, sovereignty is a blessing. But sovereignty is not merely possession of the trappings of statehood – it is a sense of responsibility. Lebanon possesses the former but utterly rejects the latter. The absurd outcome has the Lebanese blaming outside intervention for creating all of the country’s problems and an incorrigible dependence on outside assistance – often from the same parties accused of creating the country’s disorder – to sort out domestic, self-inflicted, chaos. As the Lebanese continue to deny their own agency, their country continues to sink into the consequential mire of their country’s consistently poor decisions. Rather than take the blame and begin the long and arduous process of repairing past harms, the Lebanese fall back on conspiracy theories to explain their country’s woes, thus reconciling themselves to lawlessness as the norm while Lebanon’s collapse proceeds apace.