Recap of the Warsaw Conference
February 28, 2019
Revival of the Lebanese Shiite Community and Hezbollah’s Beginnings (1982-1990)
March 6, 2019

Lebanon Report – February

Formation of Cabinet: Implications and Challenges

Following a nine-month deadlock, a new government was formed in the end of January 2019. The compromise reached grants representation to Sunni members of parliament who oppose Hariri and are allied to Hezbollah[1]. They are represented by Hassan Mrad who will attend the meetings of both the Sunni opposition bloc and the FPM. In turn, this prevented Bassil, the leader of the FPM, from solely controlling more than a third of cabinet ministers, at least in major decisions[2].

Breaking Hariri’s monopoly of Sunni representation in government was not the only gain for the party as it was able to do the same with Jumblatt’s Druze monopoly as well, personified by the Lebanese Democratic Party’s Saleh Gharib[3], Minister of State for Refugee Affairs. This goes along with its already present alliance with the Christian-majority FPM. Thus, Hezbollah now has loyal allies from all sects in government and enjoys a national support umbrella for its military arms.

An issue of contention was Hezbollah’s allocation of the Ministry of Health in spite of concerns from Western countries, especially the United States (US). Even though Hezbollah named a minister who is not a party member, US, UK, and Dutch aid to the health sector could be in question[4]. Reports have speculated that the party’s insistence on the Health Ministry is related to the financial challenges it faces amid sanctions against Iran[5]. Aside from having the fourth-largest budget of all ministries[6], it provides an alternative for the party to provide social services to its supporters[7].

With a growing debt of $84 billion equaling 155% of the Gross Domestic Product, unemployment rates of approximately 35%, heavy corruption, and weak infrastructure, the cabinet faces an uphill battle[8]. Parties in government hope that the CEDRE loans and investments, accompanied by economic and financial reforms, will bring about positive change to the economy. This is coupled with heavy pressure from the EU and France, the main loaners, for the implementation of such reforms[9]. Fears have been voiced about the impact of such reforms, labelled by critics as austerity measures, being harshest on the lower and middle class[10]. This comes at a time of public unrest as regular protests are being held in Beirut targeting socioeconomic demands[11].

In addition to the socioeconomic challenges, the cabinet is expected to be divided over the relations with the Assad regime and its role in refugee return (discussed in more detail in the final section). It is worth noting that the cabinet includes four women, the highest number in Lebanese history, and the first female Minister of Interior in the Arab World[12].

CEDRE Preparation in Full Swing

Following the formation of the new government, Prime Minister Hariri conducted a series of meetings with representatives of major CEDRE donors such as the European Union (EU)[13], France[14], and Arab, European, and international financial organizations, including the World Bank[15], during which they all stressed on the quick application of the agreed upon reforms.

Within the same spirit of pursuing such reforms, the Lebanese Forces Party is conducting a series of workshops, in cooperation with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) and the Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies (MEIRSS), to come up with recommendations for key issues facing the Lebanese state today such as financial reforms and the power sector. The workshops brought together local and international experts in the field and were attended by high ranking party members, ministers, and members of parliament.

Arab Summit

Lebanon hosted the Arab Summit in January 2019, but it was marred by several occurrences. Firstly, even though President Aoun insisted on hosting the summit as planned, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri stated his preference of its postponement due to the absence of a Lebanese government and Syria. Secondly, Berri, also the leader of the Amal Party, reignited the case of the 1978 Musa Sadr disappearance and accused the Libyan authorities of being uncooperative. Threats were made by Amal supporters if the Libyan delegation was to attend the summit, and Libyan flags were tore down in Beirut[16]. Even General Security, following reported pressure from Berri, issued a decision stating that they will not grant entry permits to the Libyan delegation, in spite of being officially invited by the Lebanese state[17]. All these factors led to the cancellation of Libya’s attendance. Thirdly, most heads of state did not attend except for Lebanon, the host state, Qatar, and Mauritania[18]. Fourthly, divisions over readmitting Syria into the Arab League caused some tensions between Arab countries wanting to immediately normalize relations with Assad and those who do not[19].

The weakness of the Lebanese state, subservience of security agencies to political factions, internal feuds for power, and political messages from regional powers clearly manifested themselves in the buildup to, and during, the summit. Amid the struggle for the FPM’s 11th minister in the not yet formed government at the time, Berri used the summit as a pressure tool against the President and the FPM. The pretexts used such as the absence of government and the Musa Sadr disappearance case were clearly part of an internal struggle for power, even if at the expense of Lebanon’s image abroad. It is important to note that the Libyan delegation headed by Gadhafi himself had participated in the 2002 Arab Summit held in Beirut. While Berri had some reservations, the summit went through as planned.[20] The internal use of such pretexts extended to external goals as well. This cloud of instability reflected the Assad regime’s gradual return of influence to the Lebanese scene. As talks of lifting Syria’s suspension from the Arab League intensified for a short period in January, especially after the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus, Assad’s allies in Lebanon pushed for its re-admittance before the summit took place in Beirut; however, US pressure on its regional allies reportedly halted this development until a political solution to the conflict has been reached.[21] On the other hand, the absence of Gulf States leadership, except Qatar, sends a direct political message of opposition to the growing Iranian influence in Lebanon. This stance might have changed after the formation of the new government with the soon-after visit of the Saudi Ambassador and Royal Court Envoy (discussed in more detail in the following section).

Rush of International Powers to Lebanon

Following the formation of the new government, Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister, Mohammed Jawad Zarif, met with Prime Minister Hariri and voiced Tehran’s willingness to offer both technical and military assistance to Lebanon. This echoed statements made by Hezbollah Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, on the benefits of cooperating with Iran in the military, electricity, transportation, and medical sectors[22]. Significantly, the military support offered to the Lebanese Army is air defense systems, a red line from the US because of the conflict with Israel[23]. Such offers of economic and military cooperation are seen as an Iranian attempt to counter its isolation amid rising US pressure[24].

Hours after, the Saudi Ambassador in Lebanon, Walid al-Bukhari, and Saudi Royal Court Envoy, Nizar al-Aloula, met with Prime Minister Hariri and announced lifting the travel ban of Saudi nationals to Lebanon, citing the improvement of the security situation in the country, as well as the formation of a committee to develop bilateral relations. The lifting of the ban is expected to be followed by similar steps by the Arab Gulf states[25]. As Iranian influence in Lebanon reaches new highs, whether Saudi Arabia is serious in proving itself a worthy rival remains to be seen. Some indicators of such shift would include the reactivation of the $4B security assistance package, investment in the Lebanese treasury bonds, and substantial provision of aid/loans[26].

Representative visits from regional powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar were not the only sign of noticeable international attention. This extended to visits from US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale[27], acting United States assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs David Satterfield[28], Assistant of US Treasury Secretary for Counterterrorism Financing Marechal Billingeslea[29], Arab League Secretary-General Ahmad Aboul Gheit[30], High Representative/Vice-President of the EU Federica Mogherini[31], French diplomat in charge of the CEDRE process Pierre Duquesne[32], German Vice Foreign Minister Niels Annen, and expected visits from French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo[33]. The high level visits from major countries indicate various interests such as CEDRE loans, reforms, the role of Hezbollah, and a struggle for influence…

A Push for De-Facto Normalization of Relations with Assad?

Three days after parliament gave confidence to the new government, the new Minister of State for Refugee Affairs, Saleh al-Gharib, visited Syria and met with Syrian Minister of Local Administration and Environment to discuss the return of Syrian refugees[34]. The move caused heavy controversy as it was not approved by the cabinet, and the majority of officials were not aware of its scheduling[35]. After returning to Beirut, Gharib met with President Aoun and Prime Minister Hariri to brief them about the trip. While the minister’s office stated that Hariri was notified of the trip beforehand, Hariri’s office has neither confirmed nor denied the matter. This could indicate an implicit agreement between Hariri and Aoun to increase coordination with the Assad regime to ease the return of refugees. Research experts on the topic, such as Dr. Nasser Yassin the Director of Research at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, have stated that the Assad regime is actually discouraging their return[36]. A variety of reasons are attributed for this discouragement such as demographic change based on sectarian affiliation and political opposition. Whether an increase in coordination with the Assad regime will facilitate safe refugee returns or is part of a blackmail tactic for increased legitimization remains to be seen.

Another incident regarding the same issue occurred with Elias Bou Saab, Minister of Defense, who stated at an international security conference in Munich that the Turkish presence in Northern Syria is illegitimate and an occupation while stressing the necessity of including the Syrian government in any political solution. He later added during an interview that any minister in the government is free to visit Damascus. Similar to Gharib, he held a meeting with Hariri following the criticism he received from anti-Assad parties in government[37]. Both these events were subject to a heated debate in the cabinet meeting that followed and led to intense disagreements which ended only after President Aoun’s intervention stating the inability of Lebanon to withstand this number of refugees and his awareness of what needs to be done[38]. While this temporarily halted the fiery debate over relations with Assad, the President’s stance is supportive of Gharib in its essence. The statements of the two ministers as well as the President indicate the continued push for renormalizing relations with Assad to theoretically speed up the process of refugee return. The tensions witnessed during the past week are expected to increase in the near future as the issue picks up pace.

[1] El Deeb, S. (2019, January 31). Lebanon Announces the Formation of a New Government After 9-Month Deadlock. Retrieved from Time:

[2] Al Akhbar (2019, January 30) Balanced Compromises Quickens Formation of Government, Hurdles being Solved, and Final Touches on Portfolio Distribution. Retrieved from National News Agency:

[3] The Daily Star (2019, January 31). Lebanon Announces New Govt after more than 8 Months of Deadlock. Retrieved from The Daily Star:

[4] Haboush, J. (2019, January 31). New Govt will appease West, preserve aid. Retrieved from The Daily Star:

[5] Ghaddar, H. (2018, October 19). Why Does Hezbollah Want Lebanon’s Health Ministry. Retrieved from The Washington Institute:

[6] Reuters (2019, January 31). Lebanon Forms New Government After 9 Months of Deadlock. Retrieved from New York Times:

[7] Supra note 5

[8] Supra note 1

[9] The Daily Star (2019, February 7) EU Ambassadors Urge Hariri to Start Reforms Immediately. Retrieved from The Daily Star:

[10] Azhari, T. (2019, February 6) Younger Lebanese Mobilize on Economy. Retrieved from The Daily Star:

[11] The Daily Star (2019, February 18) No Confidence Protest Held in Beirut Against New Govt. Retrieved from The Daily Star:

[12] Supra note 1

[13] The Daily Star (2019, February 7) EU Ambassadors Urge Hariri to Start Reforms Immediately. Retrieved from The Daily Star:

[14] The Daily Star (2019, February 10) France Follows up on Lebanon’s Reforms Pledged at CEDRE. Retrieved from The Daily Star:

[15] The Daily Star (2019, February 19) Hariri Tackles CEDRE in First Meeting after Confidence Vote. Retrieved from The Daily Star:

[16] Mroue, B. & Karam, Z. (2019, January 15) Beirut Summit Highlights Divisions, Turmoil in Lebanon. Retrieved from ABC News:; Francis, E. & Mcdowall, A. (2019, January 18) Divisions Overshadow Lebanon’s Arab Summit as Few Leaders Come to Beirut. Retrieved from Reuters:

[17] Fawaz, E. (2019, January 29) Derailing the Arab Economic Summit in Beirut (Ifshal al-Kemma al-Arabiyya al-Ektisadiyya fi Bayrut). Retrieved from Al Majalla:إفشال-القمة-القمة-العربية-الاقتصادية-في-لبنان

[18] Middle East Monitor (2019, January 21) Arab Economic Summit Concludes in Beirut. Retrieved from the Middle East Monitor:

[19] Francis, E. & Mcdowall, A. (2019, January 18) Divisions Overshadow Lebanon’s Arab Summit as Few Leaders Come to Beirut. Retrieved from Reuters:; Khodr, Z. (2019, January 18) Lebanon Summit Reveals Arab Divisions over Syria, Iran. Retrieved from Al Jazeera:

[20] Fleihan, K. & Nasser, C. (2002, January 15) Beirut Affirms Gadhafi is Welcome at Arab Summit. Retrieved from The Daily Star:

[21] Ghantous, G. & Georgy, M. (2019, February 18) US Pressing Gulf States to Keep Syria Isolated. Retrieved from Reuters:

[22] Karam, Z. (2019, February 10) Iran FM Extends Support for New Lebanese Government. Retrieved from the Washington Post:; Middle East Monitor (2019, February 10) Iran Awaits Lebanese Desire to Accept its Military Aid. Retrieved from Middle East Monitor:

[23] Khatib, L. (2019, February 14) Saudi-Iranian Rivalry over Lebanon is Far from Over. Retrieved from Middle East Eye:

[24] Rose, S. (2019, February 12) Riyadh and Tehran Fight for Influence in Lebanon. Retrieved from The National:

[25] Dakroub, H. (2019, February 14) Riyadh Throws Open Door for Gulf Tourism to Lebanon. Retrieved from The Daily Star:

[26] Supra note 23

[27] NNA (2019, January 14) Hariri Meets Hale. Retrieved from National News Agency:

[28] The Daily Star (2019, March 5) Satterfield Praises Lebanon’s Efforts to Fight Corruption. Retrieved from The Daily Star:

[29] Al Jomhouriya (2019, January 29) Monitors of US Treasury in Beirut to Implement Sanctions. Retrieved from Lebanese Forces Website:

[30] The Daily Star (2019, February 8) Arab League Secretary General To Visit Beirut Monday. Retrieved from The Daily Star:

[31] EU External Action (2019, February 2) High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini concludes a visit to Lebanon. Retrieved from European Union External Action:

[32] Ouazzani, K. (2019, March 4) Duquesne: The 2019 budget must be adopted before the end of March. Rertrieved from L’Orient Le Jour:

[33] Al Jomhouriya (2019, March 5) Satterfield in Beirut to Prepare for Pompeo. Retrieved from Lebanon 24:ساترفيلد-في-بيروت-تمهيداً-لزيارة-بومبيو

[34] Naharnet Newsdesk (2019, February 18) Gharib Pleased after Syria Visit over Refugees. Retrieved from Naharnet:

[35] Naharnet Newsdesk (2019, February 19) Gharib’s Visit to Syria Stirring Disapproval. Retrieved from Naharnet:

[36] Azhari, T. (2019, February 20) Refugee Returns Thrust Syria Ties Issue to Fore. Retrieved from The Daily Star:

[37] The Daily Star (2019, February 20) Bou Saab Defends Comments on Syria Visits and Ties. Retrieved from The Daily Star:; Naharnet Newsdesk (2019, February 20) Strong Lebanon Says Bou Saab, Gharib Have Not Breached Govt Solidarity. Retrieved from Naharnet:

[38] Haboush, J. (2019, February 22) Aoun Ends Cabinet Session after Syria Debate. Retrieved from The Daily Star: