Hybrid Sovereignty in Lebanon – How Can the U.S. Avoid a ‘Catch 22’?

Lebanon, a perpetually fragile state suffering from new political and economic crises, is again seeking international assistance. The new Lebanese prime minister even admitted Lebanon was unable to pay its debt. Previous efforts at stabilization have largely failed. To avoid the same fate, a new assistance package must follow an updated policy.

Past aid to Lebanon focused on decreasing corruption, fighting terrorism, and managing refugee problems. Another aspect was building partner capacity (BPC), through military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). But Lebanon’s problem is not that the state is too weak but that Hezbollah, a non-state designated terror organization, is too strong. A more realistic, and modest, policy would seek to oblige Hezbollah to act responsibly by binding together military and financial aid, conditioning them on Lebanese sovereign control of its borders, physical and virtual.

Hezbollah is not merely a “group” or a militia or Iranian proxy, it is a multi-faceted military and terrorist organization, social movement, and political party that portrays itself as “the protector of Lebanon.” It is not just an influential political actor. It is a hybrid actor, which exercises “hybrid sovereignty” alongside the Lebanese state, exploiting national infrastructure, such as airports, seaports and banks, and impacting Lebanese national policy.

An illustration of this hybridity is the relationship between Hezbollah and the LAF. Although the armed forces are a non-sectarian and sovereign institution, Hezbollah can influence their activities. Sometimes, LAF-Hezbollah cooperation coincides with U.S. interests, such as the fight against ISIS. But in other cases, Hezbollah limits LAF’s ability to exercise sovereignty, most critically when it comes to border security.

Near Lebanon’s borders, Hezbollah is the dominant actor. Along the Israeli border, it has effectively prevented the implementation of UN resolution 1701, and thus has been able to dig underground tunnels into Israeli territory. It probably uses its dominance on the Syrian-Lebanese border to bring into Lebanon arms, technology and personnel.

Hezbollah’s status and power is not new. It is a significant reason for Lebanon’s stagnation. Now, the people of Lebanon have grown tired of it. Dramatic non-sectarian protests have resulted in the formation of a new government, described as professional, technocratic and politically unbiased; Hassan Diab, the new premier, is an honored academic. But practically, most ministers are still influenced by Hezbollah. The Lebanese already call this a “Halloween government.”

On the one hand, the U.S recognizes the challenge of Lebanon’s hybridity. Some attempts to deal with it have been made, such as temporarily suspending aid to the LAF, and sanctioning Hezbollah-related individuals and institutions. On the other hand, the U.S. attempts to deal with it fall victim to a “catch 22.”

U.S. policy focuses on strengthening Lebanese state institutions as a counter-measure to Hezbollah, considering the LAF as the sole defender of Lebanon. But, since Hezbollah is embedded in the Lebanese state, any attempt to weaken it by pressuring Lebanese institutions contradicts this U.S objective, since it weakens the state as well. Lebanese officials find it hard to counter Hezbollah, even if they claim otherwise. This model of U.S. security assistance, one of  several in the Middle East, might need some adaptation.

To promote Western and Israeli interests in Lebanon – such as weakening Hezbollah, countering Iranian influence, limiting Russian influence, minimizing the chances of a military escalation, and  stabilizing Lebanon – a change of perspective is needed. An updated policy should focus on pressuring Hezbollah to become more accountable and, therefore, more responsible.

The key lies in binding together international financial and military assistance, conditioning both on two issues. First, implementing control of physical borders, solely by Lebanese state security forces. These should be the sole defenders of Lebanon – not just from external military invasion, migration of refugees or terror attacks, but mainly from non-state actors developing their own sovereign mechanisms alongside the state. Second, establishing economic transparency in terms of external funds entering Lebanon. The West should put aside, for now, issues like fighting corruption or restoring stability. Sanctions against corrupt Lebanese individuals are useful but should not be the focus.

If Hezbollah chooses to allow such international assistance, its actions might face operational difficulties, and it might have to reveal Iranian money entering Lebanon. If Hezbollah calls to reject it, it risks being perceived as the one who sabotaged a national Lebanese effort. True, Hezbollah has recently rejected IMF financial assistance. But it should face a tougher dilemma, one than would confront it with accepting or rejecting Lebanese signs of sovereignty.

Now is not the time to pull U.S. assistance from Lebanon or the LAF. However, the U.S. should condition its assistance on border control and, working with the IMF, financial transparency. This is a change of perspective – from an idealistic and “soft power” effort with distinct military and financial elements, to a realistic security-centered and combined one. It might just make Hezbollah more accountable and restrained.

IDF Col. (ret.) Itai Shapira is a Distinguished Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) and former Deputy Head of the Research and Analysis Division (RAD) in the Israel Defense Forces.

Originally published in RealClearDefense