Marc Morrison is Deputy Director at the Conservative Middle East Council.
As we know in the UK, it’s hard enough managing the security of your borders when you’re an island. Imagine, then, that you were bordered to your south by a country that invaded you as recently as in 1982, and to your longest eastern and northern borders, by a country all but destroyed by a seven-year-long civil war.
That is the reality for the Republic of Lebanon, a country of a little over 10,000 square kilometres in size, sandwiched on the eastern Mediterranean, with Israel to its south and Syria to its north and east.
Until only recently, the border between Lebanon and Syria carved out after the First World War stayed more or less continuously porous. And to Lebanon’s great credit, the movement of people remained unrestricted at the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011, so that refugees could flee Bashar Assad’s tyranny and take sanctuary in the country.
However, when some 700 Islamist insurgents from Syria charged out of the mountains and stormed Arsal, a Sunni town 124 kilometres north-east of Beirut, during the summer of 2014, it became clear that security control of the border needed to be established. Several Lebanese soldiers were killed, including a battalion commander and his deputy, and poorly-protected positions were over-run before control over the town was eventually wrestled back.
To prevent the Syrian war from spilling over into Lebanese territory in this way, Lebanon turned to the UK and the British Army for support. The UK stepped up, and signed a joint undertaking to assist the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in securing the Lebanon-Syria border.
Last week, I travelled to Lebanon and learned – during meetings with Lebanon’s Armed Forces Commander, Joseph Aoun, and Chris Rampling, the UK’s new Ambassador to the country – about how the partnership has progressed with great success.
Within the framework of the integrated land border control project, funded to the tune of £63 million so far by British authorities, a series of 30 foot fortified watchtowers – based on the “Sangars” once used in Northern Ireland and later in Iraq and Afghanistan – have been built along the Lebanon-Syria border. Thousands of Lebanese troops have been trained and equipped through the project – our ambassador, recently congratulated the 10,000th solider trained by the UK at a ceremony at the Lebanese Army’s Special Forces School in Hamat.
Remarkably, it is estimated that more than 80 per cent of the Syria-Lebanon frontier is now secure. This is the consequence of an ongoing UK-Lebanon partnership, with the aim being to complete the construction of 75 watchtowers, and secure the entirety of the border next year.
However, while Lebanon might now be much better positioned to control it border security, the internal stability of the country looks more uncertain. The civil war in Syria has fuelled sectarian tensions in Lebanon, which has a large Sunni and Shia Muslim population, and a variety of Christian denominations. And while the Lebanese people have shown striking generosity in welcoming Syrian refugees, they are struggling to cope.
More than 1.5. million people have taken shelter in Lebanon since 2011. In a country with a population of four and a half million, that is the equivalent of 20 million people landing in Britain in less than four years. The unprecedented influx has overwhelmed Lebanon’s water and electricity supplies, increased rents and depressed the economy (at 152 per cent, Lebanon’s nominal debt to GDP is the third-highest in the world. Unemployment stands at 29 per cent , pushing host communities to breaking point.
To safeguard against reaching such a point – which would have regional security implications that don’t bear thinking about – Lebanon needs international support to turn its economy around. Economic stability, as Lebanon’s Foreign Minister observed during one meeting I attended, is the greatest guard there is against terrorism.
During other meetings with Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Speaker and President, all three men stressed – and political consensus is often rare in Lebanon – how much they would welcome working with the UK to encourage investment in Lebanon’s economy.
Members of the Chamber of Commerce in Beirut clearly felt that, historically, British officials haven’t been forthcoming enough in engaging with the Chamber and Lebanese businesses. Unlike the French, Chinese and Germans, who they said visit almost weekly – which was puzzling to hear. Indeed, unusually for a middle eastern country, Lebanon does not have an appointed UK trade envoy. So while Britain is working closely with the Lebanese Armed Forces to bolster the country’s security at its borders, co-operation at an economic level seems to be lagging behind.
In recent weeks, it has been reported that discussions have taken place in Whitehall as to whether to proscribe Hezbollah’s political wing as a terrorist organisation (the Government proscribed its military wing in 2008). However, taking this step could inadvertently backfire and play into Hezbollah’s hands.
Hezbollah is part of Lebanon’s social and political fabric, so proscribing the political wing would, very likely, just encourage endless government paralysis in the country, and lead to added economic deterioration and the very conditions that feed Hezbollah’s support: it wins hearts and minds through the services and handouts it provides to the population.
Already, it is only just now, six months after parliamentary elections were held in May, that it is starting to look as though Lebanese politicians will agree on a new power-sharing agreement. Even opponents of Hezbollah, who I was able to meet during my visit, are wary of the idea of proscription and the disruption it would cause.
It is prosperity, stability and good governance that will weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon. And, for this reason, that Britain should consider putting the same energy and focus engaging with Lebanon economically, as it has militarily. This is something our new ambassador understands, but he needs greater support.
There are potentially plentiful opportunities for British companies to do business in the country – in infrastructure, transport, oil and gas – and ministers should be looking at ways to navigate the politics and pave the way for collaboration on this level. Appointing a UK trade envoy would be a good place to start.