«Congressional Research Service 7-5700 R42816 Lebanon: Background and U.S. Policy Summary Lebanon’s small geographic size and population ...»
Lebanon: Background and U.S. Policy
Christopher M. Blanchard
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
February 14, 2014
Congressional Research Service
Lebanon: Background and U.S. Policy
Lebanon’s small geographic size and population belie the important role it has long played in the
security, stability, and economy of the Levant and the broader Middle East. Congress and the
executive branch have recognized Lebanon’s status as a venue for regional strategic competition and have engaged diplomatically, financially, and at times, militarily to influence events there.
For most of its independent existence, Lebanon has been torn by periodic civil conflict and political battles between rival religious sects and ideological groups. External military intervention, occupation, and interference have exacerbated Lebanon’s political struggles in recent decades.
Lebanon is an important factor in U.S. calculations regarding regional security, particularly regarding Israel and Iran. Congressional concerns have focused on the prominent role that Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shiite militia, political party, and U.S.-designated terrorist organization, continues to play in Lebanon and beyond, including its recent armed intervention in Syria. Congress has appropriated more than $1 billion since the end of the brief Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006 to support U.S. policies designed to extend Lebanese security forces’ control over the country and promote economic growth.
The civil war in neighboring Syria is progressively destabilizing Lebanon. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly one million predominantly Sunni Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon, equivalent to close to one quarter of Lebanon’s population.
Regional supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al Asad are using Lebanon as a transit point and staging ground in a wider regional conflict. Hezbollah has intervened in Syria in support of Asad, and Sunni extremist groups based in Syria are cooperating with Lebanese and Palestinian Sunni extremists in Lebanon to carry out retaliatory attacks against Hezbollah targets.
The U.S. intelligence community told Congress in its 2014 Worldwide Threat Assessment that, “Lebanon in 2014 probably will continue to experience sectarian violence among Lebanese and terrorist attacks by Sunni extremists and Hezbollah, which are targeting each-others’ interests.
…Increased frequency and lethality of violence in Lebanon could erupt into sustained and widespread fighting.” In January 2014, the U.S. State Department warned against all travel to Lebanon in light of growing terrorist threats.
The question of how best to marginalize Hezbollah and other anti-U.S. Lebanese actors without provoking civil conflict among divided Lebanese sectarian political forces remains the underlying challenge for U.S. policy makers. The ongoing political deadlock and the prospect of executive, legislative, and security force leadership vacuums amplify this challenge.
This report provides an overview of Lebanon and current issues of U.S. interest. It provides background information, analyzes recent developments and key legislative debates, and tracks legislation, U.S. assistance, and recent congressional action. It will be updated to reflect major events or policy changes.
For more information on related issues, see CRS Report RL33487, Armed Conflict in Syria:
Overview and U.S. Response, coordinated by Christopher M. Blanchard; CRS Report R43119, Syria: Overview of the Humanitarian Response, by Rhoda Margesson and Susan G. Chesser; and, CRS Report RL33476, Israel: Background and U.S. Relations, by Jim Zanotti.
Congressional Research Service Lebanon: Background and U.S. Policy Contents Background
U.S. Assistance and Issues for Congress
Legislation in the 112th and 113th Congress
Figures Figure 1. Lebanon: Map and Select Country Data
Figure 2. Location of Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon
Figure 3. Lebanon’s Political Coalitions
Figure 4. Map of United Nations Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) Deployment and LebanonSyria-Israel Tri-border Area
Figure 5. Map of Conflict and Displacement in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq
Tables Table 1.Chronology of Select Violence, Attacks, and Related Developments
Table 2. U.
S. Assistance to Lebanon and UNIFIL Contributions, FY2009-FY2014
Contacts Author Contact Information
Background Since achieving political independence in 1943, Lebanon has struggled to overcome a series of internal and external political and security challenges. Congress and the executive branch historically have sought to support pro-U.S. elements in the country, and in recent years the United States has invested more than $1 billion to develop Lebanon’s security forces. Some Members of Congress have supported this investment as a down payment on improved security and stability in a contentious and volatile region. Other Members have criticized U.S. policy and sought to condition U.S. assistance to limit its potential to benefit anti-U.S. groups.
The Lebanese population is religiously diverse, reflecting the country’s rich heritage and history as an enclave of various Christian sects, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Alawites, and Druze. In order to mitigate a tendency for their religious diversity to fuel political rivalry and conflict, Lebanese leaders have attempted with limited success since independence to manage sectarian differences through a power-sharing-based democratic system. Observers of Lebanese politics refer to these arrangements as “confessional” democracy.
Historically, the system served to balance Christian fears of being subsumed by the regional Muslim majority against Muslim fears that Christians would invite non-Muslim foreign intervention.1 Lebanese leaders hold an unwritten “National Covenant” and other understandings as guarantees that the president of the republic be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of Parliament a Shiite Muslim. Although Christians were always an overall minority in Lebanon, the large Christian community benefitted from a division of parliamentary seats on the basis of six Christians to five Muslims. This ratio was adjusted to parity following Lebanon’s 1975-1989 civil war to reflect growth in the Muslim population.
Sectarianism is not the sole determining factor in Lebanese politics.2 The confessional system at times has produced alliances that appear to some to unite strange bedfellows, including the most recent governing coalition that linked Hezbolla—the Iran-backed Shiite militia, political party, and U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization—together with leftist parties and pro-Syrian Christian factions.3 While the reality of religious sectarian rivalry persists, it is also true that some political leaders support the preservation of the confessional system to preserve their own personal interests. These factors, combined with the tensions that have accompanied regional conflicts and ideological struggles, overshadow limited progress toward what some Lebanese hold as an alternative ideal—a non-confessional political system.
See for example, Michael Suleiman, “The Role of Political Parties in a Confessional Democracy,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 3, 1967; Ralph E. Crow, “Religious Sectarianism in the Lebanese Political System,” Journal of Politics, Vol. 24, No. 3, 1962, pp. 489-520; Malcom Kerr, “Political Decision-Making in a Confessional Democracy,” in Leonard Binder (ed.), Politics in Lebanon, Wiley and Sons, New York, 1966, pp.187-212; Farid el Khazen, “Political Parties in Postwar Lebanon: Parties in Search of Partisans,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 57, No. 4, 2003, pp.
605-624; Paul Salem, “The Future of Lebanon,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 6, 2006, pp. 13-22; and, Arda Arsenian Ekmeji, Confessionalism and Electoral Reform in Lebanon, Aspen Institute, July 2012.
As one academic author put it in the 1960s, “While it is an exaggeration to hold that all things political in Lebanon are fundamentally religious, it is nevertheless true that any explanation of Lebanese politics will be incomplete unless the role of religious attitudes and organizations are taken into account.” Crow, op. cit.
Hezbollah politicians won 10 seats out of 128 in parliament in the 2009 national elections and held two cabinet seats in the 2011 cabinet: Minister of State for Administrative Reform Mohammed Fnaysh and Minister of Agriculture Hussein al Hajj Hassan. The U.S. government holds Hezbollah responsible for a number of kidnappings and highprofile terrorist attacks on U.S., European, and Israeli interests over the last 30 years.
Source: Prepared by Amber Hope Wilhelm, Graphics Specialist, Congressional Research Service.
The consistent defining characteristic of U.S. policy during the Bush and Obama Administrations has been an effort to weaken Syrian and Iranian influence in Lebanon. Parallel U.S. concerns focus on corruption, the weakness of democratic institutions, the future of Palestinian refugees, and the presence of Sunni extremist groups. The latter threat was illustrated by the Lebanese Armed Forces’ (LAF’s) 2007 confrontation with the Sunni extremist group Fatah al Islam, which resulted in the destruction of much of the Nahr al Bared Palestinian refugee camp. The threat continues to be reflected in some Lebanese Sunnis’ support for extremist groups that are fighting in Syria and in the recent campaign of anti-Hezbollah bombings and sectarian attacks in Lebanon.
While some Sunni extremist groups appear to have grown in strength since 2012, Hezbollah remains the most prominent, capable, and dangerous U.S. adversary in Lebanon.
Congress has appropriated over $1 billion in assistance (see Table 2) for Lebanon since the end of the 34-day Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006 to strengthen Lebanese security forces and promote economic growth. Some Members of Congress have expressed support for the goals and concerns outlined by Bush and Obama Administration officials since 2006, but periodically have questioned the advisability of continuing to invest U.S. assistance funds, particularly at times when the political coalition that includes Hezbollah has controlled the Lebanese cabinet.
U.S. engagement nominally seeks to support the development of neutral national institutions and to drive change that will allow Lebanon’s 4.4 million citizens to prosper, enjoy security, and embrace non-sectarian multiparty democracy. In practice, U.S. policymakers have sought to walk a line between maintaining a neutral posture and marginalizing those in Lebanon who are hostile to the United States, its interests, and its allies. Some Lebanese—particularly Hezbollah supporters and others who reject calls for non-state actors to disarm—have decried U.S. policy as self-interested intervention in the zero-sum games of Lebanese and regional politics. Other Lebanese welcome U.S. support, whether as a means of fulfilling shared goals of empowering neutral national institutions or as a means to isolate their domestic political rivals. Some groups’ views of U.S. involvement fluctuate with regional circumstances and their personal fortunes.
The challenges Lebanon presents to U.S. Figure 2. Location of Palestinian Refugee policymakers, with its internal schisms and Camps in Lebanon divisive regional dynamics, are not new. After Lebanon emerged from French control as an independent state in the 1940s, the United States moved to bolster parties and leaders that offered reliable support for U.S. Cold War interests.4 The influx of Palestinian refugees to Lebanon following Arab-Israeli wars in 1948 and 1967 further complicated the regional and domestic scenes, just as an influx of close to one million Syrian refugees has done since 2011.
Palestinian refugee camps (Figure 2) became strongholds for the Palestine Liberation Organization, staging areas for cross-border fedayeen terrorist attacks inside Israel, and ultimately targets for Israeli military retaliation. In recent years, some of these camps have become safe havens for transnational Sunni extremist groups.
The United States intervened militarily in Lebanon in 1958 in response to fears of the overthrow of the pro-U.S.