Reimagining “Stabilization” in Lebanon

The Lebanese people have mobilized in historic and unprecedented protests across confessional lines, united in their belief that their current government is corrupt, predatory, and outdated. Protesters are not interested in stabilizing Lebanon if that means a perpetuation of the status quo system.

Amid protests spanning confessions and regions of the country, two sources of legitimacy have emerged: local civil society movements and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). The United States and its international allies quietly have supported the growth of the LAF and civil society over the last decade, with a new generation of Lebanese officials, technocrats, and activists now seizing the opportunity to create alternatives to the corrupt system. The LAF and civil society are trusted by the majority of Lebanese but are limited in their impact by broader cross-currents of conflict drivers and corruption. Working with international allies bilaterally and multilaterally, the United States should reinforce and better synchronize efforts to support these sources of legitimacy while pressing Lebanon’s current government officials to take immediate steps to address the economic crisis, to support the rights of Lebanese to protest, and to be responsive to their demands for reform. The United States should avoid framing its policy and programming in anti-Iran terms during this delicate time to avoid fanning narratives that will play directly into Iran and Hezbollah’s playbook. Likewise, the United States and international allies should avoid any perception of foreign interference in what appears to be an organic movement of Lebanese citizens.

This commentary illuminates how U.S. policy and programming to address drivers of conflict in Lebanon should be designed to be agile and responsive to unanticipated and rapid changes in the environment while also being open to a continual review and reassessment of outcomes, objectives, and framing. As defined by the 2018 U.S. Stabilization Assistance Review, stabilization is the “political endeavor to create conditions where locally legitimate authorities and systems can peaceably manage conflict.” Lebanon is the perfect example of a country that is struggling with local legitimacy and conflict management. It provides an opportunity for the United States to assist in building legitimate authorities and systems as the Lebanese themselves define them. It may be that in the case of Lebanon, being on the right side of history means conflict-sensitive transition planning rather than holding fast to traditional conceptions of stability and resilience.

Drivers of Instability

Poor Governance

The most important driver of instability in Lebanon is its corrupt governance system. Post-civil war Lebanon is governed through a confessional system with the intention of balancing political power between the plurality of religious sects and denominations within the country, with Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Maronite Christians, Greek Orthodox, and the Druze comprising the most powerful of the 18 total sects. The intention behind the Taif Agreement of 1989 was to mitigate existential fears and promote harmony between the different denominations. However, the system institutionalized sectarianism and promoted jingoistic cronyism reflected in the political instability in Lebanon today.

As per the Taif Agreement of 1989, Muslims and Christians must have an equal share of power in Lebanon. In practice, successive Lebanese governments have consisted of a Sunni Muslim prime minister, a Maronite Christian president, and a Shia Muslim speaker of Parliament. Other political positions and parliamentary seats are similarly rationed along confessional lines between the 18 Lebanese sects. Despite necessarily forming coalitions and working together in order to run the country, the political elite from each denomination sustains its constituents’ support by perpetuating the existential threat narrative. Because no one sect constitutes a majority within Lebanon, and because the memory of the civil war is still fresh amongst many Lebanese citizens, political elites are able to leverage fears for votes and support. The cronyism this system inadvertently promoted was long tolerated because the communities saw some benefits from supporting their representatives in power. However, as prices for unreliable electricity soar, as people lose access to their own money held in U.S. dollar bank accounts, as the corrupt government proves unable to handle wildfires, and as efforts to address economic malfeasance took the form of taxes on WhatsApp, people have seen whatever previous benefits existed rapidly dwindle. As these benefits disappear, so too has faith in the confessional system, resulting in the current political crisis.

Economic Malfeasance

Lebanon’s economy is in crisis. The economic malfeasance of the political elite is a key driver of popular unrest in the country and has brought the country to the point of needing urgent action. Lebanon is deeply in debt, mainly to local commercial banks whose owners are from amongst the corrupt political elite that have lined their own pockets at the expense of the country’s economic stability. The national debt now stands at an estimated 155 percent of GDP, the third-highest level in the world. The crisis hit new lows when the caretaker government in Beirut appealed for assistance from Saudi Arabia, France, Russia, Turkey, the United States, China, and Egypt to import essential goods.

Lebanon’s currency system has long used U.S. dollars interchangeably with the Lebanese pound, but as the deteriorating situation in the country led people to withdraw their dollars, the currency has become scarce. Banks and ATMs rarely have dollars available, and when they do, they limit withdrawals to just $1,000 per day and have almost entirely halted international transfers. Even if they have access to Lebanese pounds, ordinary citizens are having trouble paying rent, mortgages, and car loans, etc., as the local currency is being accepted less and less in transactions. U.S. dollars are reportedly being sold at black market rates 26 percent higher than the official exchange rate. Employers in the service industry have had to cut salaries dramatically—by as much as 50 percent—and some international companies have initiated contingency plans to transfer employees abroad. Many have been laid off.

Regional Instability

Historically, Lebanon has been both a microcosm of the region’s security challenges and a battleground for outside actors’ proxy wars and power plays. Instability in Lebanon’s neighborhood often spills over into its borders. Lebanon was already hosting close to half a million Palestinian refugees within the country before the Syrian conflict added another 1.5 million to the refugee population. With an estimated 4 million Lebanese people in country, this gives Lebanon the highest native citizen-to-refugee ratio in the world. The presence of refugees has long been used for political point-scoring by the Lebanese political elite looking to stoke fears to maintain power. Concerns around potential demographic and economic impacts (though debatable) have allowed the government to severely restrict refugee integration into Lebanese society and to prohibit refugee employment in various lucrative professional sectors. However, refugees are notably absent from the list of grievances in recent domestic protests, an indicator of other factors being greater drivers of instability.

Lebanon’s proximity to Israel and the political ascendance of Hezbollah in recent years has resulted in greater Iranian influence in the country. Inevitably, this has led to Iran and Saudi Arabia competing in Lebanon. Former prime minister Saad al-Hariri is seen as being under Saudi Arabia’s thumb, whereas Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri and the entirety of Hezbollah are seen as Iranian proxies. Lebanon’s Christian community is split, with some aligned with Hariri and others with Hezbollah. Protestors have called out players like Iran for sowing discord and instability within the country, and Iran has consequently begun to see the protests as a threat to its influence in Lebanon.

U.S. Policy and Programming in Lebanon

Over the last decade, the United States has focused its policy and programming in Lebanon on building legitimate, inclusive institutions and on providing Lebanese citizens with the tools they need to build a secure and more prosperous future. U.S. policy in Lebanon supports regional foreign policy objectives including countering Iran’s destabilizing activities, countering terrorism from the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates, and particularly in the last seven years, bolstering its ability to absorb considerable Syrian refugee flows. The continued state of war between Lebanon and Israel, including disputed territories, combined with the direct threat of Lebanese Hezbollah versus Israel impedes U.S. objectives to building national institutions in which those antithetical to Israel play a part. U.S. foreign assistance to local civilian and security sectors has played an important role in developing a strong civil society and a resilient LAF. However, on balance, U.S. policy and programming in Lebanon is not aligned with the country’s conflict drivers nor is it well-positioned to adapt to its changing economic and political realities.

Civilian Assistance

Lebanon is one of the highest recipients of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) assistance in the Middle East, with over $160 million obligated for FY 2019 alone. USAID efforts focus primarily on education, water and sanitation infrastructure, governance, and so-called “friction reduction” programs designed to develop refugee hosting communities. Past USAID programming through the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), much of which focused on civil society and governance, had the built-in flexibility to react to dynamic challenges in Lebanon. Though some flexibility does exist within programs designed to reduce friction in communities hosting large numbers of refugees, most current USAID programming is comparatively less agile, less focused on issues at the heart of the current political crisis, and much more rooted in longer-term development objectives. USAID leadership and implementing partners thus find themselves facing a gap between existing mandates and more immediate needs within Lebanon that U.S. development assistance does not currently seem well positioned to address. 

Civilian assistance to Lebanon is impacted by a number of U.S. Treasury sanctions related to Hezbollah. While Hezbollah is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, it is also a significant player within Lebanese politics; this leads to tricky situations like the sanctioning of Lebanese financial institutions and political figures due to their ties with the organization. Treasury restrictions also impact assistance to Shia-majority areas, where many development agencies do not partake in activities for fear of being seen as benefiting Hezbollah. The dearth of development initiatives in Shia areas, many of which would otherwise qualify for assistance, perpetuates the Hezbollah narrative of the United States’ anti-Shia sentiment and engrains the aforementioned sectarian tensions even deeper into that constituency.

Security Sector Assistance

The United States has been the primary international supporter of building professional security services in Lebanon, particularly the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). This assistance has included training, equipment, advising, institutional capacity building, and exchanges. The LAF increasingly participates in combined operations with U.S. counterterrorism forces and provides the United States with unimpeded access to the majority of the country, with exceptions in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, where Hezbollah dominates. U.S. and international assistance to other Lebanese security services such as the Internal Security Forces (ISF) has grown in recent years, but these other services suffer from the same confessional allegiances and constraints as other Lebanese institutions and have not been fully professionalized. The LAF thus fill gaps in internal security missions in addition to its counterterrorism portfolio resulting in a stretched force and budget, which is today further constrained by Lebanon’s economic crisis.

U.S. training has been touted as a major factor behind the professionalism and values of the LAF, and the LAF is largely respected across and thought to be representative of all Lebanese sects—perhaps Lebanon’s only true national institution. Notably, the LAF has exhibited considerable restraint to protect civilian protesters and avoid goading by Hezbollah and its surrogates. It took swift action to remove, detain, and prosecute through the civilian judicial system a soldier who shot a civilian protester in November. In contrast, the ISF and riot police have turned increasingly violent against protestors in Beirut, injuring dozens by firing tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons, and drawing criticism from organizations such as Amnesty International. Although the LAF has largely avoided the same level of criticism, it will be increasingly tested by Hezbollah and other spoilers as the economic and political crisis persists. Reinforcing civilian protection training and doctrine within U.S. programs for the LAF and ISF will be crucial to mitigating these challenges.

U.S. security assistance has been critical to the LAF, which is why the government and military leadership in Beirut were deeply disturbed by the decision to block $105 million in U.S. security assistance to the country. Although the decision was reversed recently, the lack of transparency around why assistance was withheld in the first place and the reason behind its resumption has left the LAF, the Lebanese government, and its citizenry wary of U.S. intentions in Lebanon. It also feeds fears of abandonment of U.S. partners, particularly on the heels of the perceived U.S. betrayal of the Syrian Democratic Forces following Turkey’s intervention in northeastern Syria in October.


As the political and economic turmoil in Lebanon reaches a crescendo, the United States must reevaluate its civilian and security assistance to Lebanon to better align policy and programming with Lebanon’s conflict drivers. The most immediate need is to address Lebanon’s economic crisis. The U.S. government should work with allies and partners and multilateral institutions to develop a strategy to subvert a total collapse of the Lebanese economy. Specific economic recommendations are outside the scope of this project but have been captured by others, most importantly by Lebanese scholars.

In reevaluating its role, the U.S. government should be careful not to play into the narratives of either groups like Hezbollah, which accuses the United States of sowing turmoil and strife in Lebanon via conspiracy theories of, for example, providing funding for protests, or of the protestors participating in the thawra“revolution”—across Lebanon over the country, some of whom blame the United States for perpetuating the corrupt status quo that has brought Lebanon to the brink today.

Beyond the immediate economic crisis, the United States should take several steps to better align civil and security sector policy and programming in Lebanon to be more conflict-aware, scoped both at supporting Lebanese in building their own inclusive, national institutions and in buttressing local civil society and governance structures. 

Reframe U.S. Policy and Programming to Align with Conflict Drivers and with Allied Contributions

The U.S. government should work with its allies to reach a common assessment of Lebanon’s conflict drivers and how to leverage comparative advantages in programming across the civilian and security sectors to address them. Civilian and security sector programming should incorporate anti-corruption, transparency, and accountability measures to reinforce the need for reform at the ministerial level. Lebanon is entering a period of transition that some believe will forever change governance in the country. Consequently, traditional frameworks of stability and resilience may no longer apply.

Reintroduce Agility and Conflict Sensitivity into U.S. Assistance

The United States should focus on reintroducing some flexibility and agility into its assistance in Lebanon. Such programming provided in the past by USAID OTI programs should be under consideration for reimplementation so as to respond in a timelier manner to current needs on the ground. U.S. foreign assistance—including longer-term development programming—also needs to be reassessed through conflict sensitivity lenses given that the current political and economic crises may have long-lasting effects. As part of this reassessment, USAID and security sector assistance planners, contract officers (local and international), and implementers should receive conflict sensitivity training. USAID should create regular feedback loops within and among its own leadership and implementers to share information and strategies for adapting U.S. policies and programming to the dynamic political and economic environment.

Condition Economic Development Programs

Longer term U.S. assistance programs should be conditioned on specific milestones indicating governance reform in Lebanon and concerted efforts to correct the systemic corruption and cronyism within the country. The United States should not take sides in the current political crisis; instead, it should focus on bolstering Lebanese civil society, institutions, and systems of governance—much in the same way as it has done for the LAF over the years.

Sustain Support for the LAF and Bolster Support for the ISF

The LAF is a plank of credibility in the current corrupt system, far from perfect but far better than any other institution. The United States should sustain support to the LAF and build out its program to professionalize the ISF to protect civilians in the current crisis, provide for inclusive and responsible security for local communities, and enable the LAF to focus on a narrower mission set.

As part of its Pursuing Effective and Conflict-Aware Stabilization project, CSIS conducted fieldwork in Lebanon in November 2019 to inform the findings of this commentary, including interviews with stakeholders across the Lebanese government, security services, U.S. and allied governments, local civil society organizations, multilateral institutions, international humanitarian organizations, and implementers of U.S. government assistance.

Hijab Shah is an associate fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Melissa Dalton directs the Cooperative Defense Project and is deputy director and a senior fellow with the International Security Program at CSIS. Erol Yayboke is deputy director and senior fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at CSIS.

This project is made possible by the generous support of Chemonics International, Inc.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.
Erol Yayboke

Erol Yayboke

Former Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program

Hijab Shah

Melissa Dalton