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Lebanon on knife-edge

With Syria to the north-east, Israel in the south and faced with its own political crises, Lebanon finds itself challenged on many fronts.
Bildet viser libanesiske potestanter

FRUSTRATION: Lebanese protesters in Beirut hold a national flag on which is written in Arabic "We are all refugees" during a demonstration against a curfew on Syrian refugees.

Foto: NTB Scanpix

FRUSTRATION: Lebanese protesters in Beirut hold a national flag on which is written in Arabic "We are all refugees" during a demonstration against a curfew on Syrian refugees.

Foto: NTB Scanpix

From 1975 to 1990, the country was devastated by civil war. Much of this period was characterized by ‘proxy wars’, with one or several of the fighting parties allied with or receiving support from external powers, the real aim being to shake the balance of power between the superpowers.

Today, Lebanon stands as a buffer state for Europe, against the threat from IS and the refugee crisis.

Watch NUPI seminar on Lebanon with Tine Gade:

Five main threats

Tine Gade, Senior Research Fellow at NUPI, has interviewed political leaders, economists, international organization staff, academics and journalists, seeking to find out how Lebanon can remain fairly stable, but balanced on knife-edge – and what might tip the country over.

She identifies five main threats to this stability: three security threats, plus one political and one economic.

IS and Hizbulllah

Lebanon is a small state with of a population of less than 4 million The Syrian civil war is being fought dangerously close to the border – and Lebanon has already received some 1.5 million refugees fleeing that conflict.

‘The first security threat is the risk that the IS will open a front in Lebanon. Until now, the group has viewed Lebanon as a place for retreat’, Gade explains. ‘The second threat concerns Hizbulllah’s domestic political ambitions and Israeli fears of the group’s expanding military power.’.  

She goes on to explain that Hizbullah, with its strong standing in Lebanon both militarily and politically, will not return to Syria in the near future, but that the group has drawn certain ‘red lines’, which it requires Lebanon to respect. Moreover, the group has already been strengthened in Syria. It has lost important leaders, but new ones have emerged.

Syrians vs Lebanese?

The third security threat identified by Gade is also connected to the civil war in Syria.

‘It concerns the risk that the frustrations and small conflicts between Syrians and Lebanese will escalate, and that violent actions between the groups will take place more often — for example in shape of more systematic attacks on Syrians in Lebanon. Syrians are exposed to discrimination and are often wrongly blamed for security issues in Lebanon.  The Lebanese fear militarization among the refugees,’ Gade says – but goes on to emphasize:

‘We are still very far away from the latter scenario, since Syrians in Lebanon don’t seem to have any interest in mobilizing politically towards the Lebanese authorities or taking sides in the domestic political crisis in the country.’

The biggest threat

Politically, the biggest threat is a gradual undermining of democracy in Lebanon.

‘The country has neither a president or a constitutional parliament, and the government is totally dysfunctional. The representative institutions are in a completely locked position, given today’s situation’, Gade notes, adding:

‘In my opinion, however, what is most dangerous is the economic threat: unemployment, rising poverty, disintegration in infrastructure and dangerous sanitary conditions.’

Holding ground

Despite a fragmented history characterized by internal and external threats, Lebanon has remained a relatively stable country in a conflict-prone region. Gade has sought to understand what keeps the country from a complete breakdown.

‘There are several reasons for the resilience of Lebanon. The country is no longer the arena for a regional and international proxy conflict. Its resilience can also be due to the system for distribution of power where all parties can expect to get something in return. That means that the various parties are not interested in a complete breakdown of the system’, says Gade, who goes on to elaborate:

‘Thus far, the costs of state breakdown have been considered to be too high – and that has prevented the outbreak of war. Besides, the fighting parties in Syria, as well as international actors, all have their own interests in Lebanon’s banks.’




  • Terrorism and extremism
  • The Middle East and North Africa
  • Humanitarian issues
  • Conflict
  • Governance


Population: Key figures as of August 2016

  • 1 million: Syrian refugees in Lebanon registered with UNHCR
  • 1.5 million: approximate total number of Syrians in Lebanon
  • 450,000: Palestinian refugees in Lebanon
  • 42,000: Palestinian refugees from Syria in Lebanon
  • 3.9 million: Lebanese national residents

Sources: UNHCR/UNRWA/World Bank
Key political actors

  • The Future Movement, led by Saad Hariri (Sunni), son of slain former Prime Minister Rafiq. Confessional, but not Islamist, movement.
  • Hizbullah, led by Hassan (Shia). Controls a sizeable parliamentary bloc and the country’s largest military arsenal. Islamist movement.
  • Free Patriotic Movement, led by General Michel Aoun (Christian). Ally of Hizbullah since 2006.
  • Amal, led by Nahib Berry (Shia). Confessional, but not Islamist, party.
  • Progressive Socialist Party, led by Walid Jumblatt (Druze).

Other political actors:

  • Sunni Islamist groups (including Salafis and the Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood)
  • Palestinian groups
  • Civil society groups