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Lebanon is at a crossroads in the Middle East, between Israel and Syria, Sunnis and Shias, close to Turkey and bordering the Mediterranean. The sudden resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri in November 2017 and his subsequent withdrawal of that resignation drew attention to this small country, caught up in the increasingly sharp confrontation between Sunnis and Shias, led by Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively, in the region.

The biggest reason for Lebanon’s importance to that struggle is the existence of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite militia that is more powerful than the Lebanese Army. Particularly since the 2006 conflict with Israel, Hezbollah, the Party of God, has become Iran’s most important partner in projecting power throughout the region. It decided in 2013 to throw its weight behind the Assad Government in Syria, along with Iran and Russia, ensuring its survival. A Sunni regime in Syria could have spelt the end for Hezbollah, as it relies on Syria for support and as a conduit for Iranian weapons and money. Participation in the Syrian conflict changed Hezbollah’s image from a champion of Arabs against Israel to a supporter of Iran against Sunnis, however. Hezbollah has helped the Houthi rebellion against the internationally-recognised Government of Yemen, too.

Lebanon’s delicate politics rest on a power sharing deal agreed in 1989. The presidency goes to a Christian, the position of Speaker in the Parliament goes to a Shiite, and that of Prime Minister goes to a Sunni.

The election in May 2018 increased the influence of Hezbollah somewhat. The new government has not been formed yet, with negotiations still in progress over distribution of cabinet posts. The US has reportedly warned Beirut against putting a Hezbollah politician in charge of the health ministry, as it would be a significant step up from the ministerial posts it has held before. The US deems Hezbollah a terrorist organisation.

Political violence has been widespread in Lebanon even after the fragile peace and power-sharing arrangements set up in 1989. Bombings and assassinations of public figures have been blamed on many different domestic groups, and Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Israel are all variously accused of being ultimately behind the violence. A United Nations Special Tribunal set up to investigate the assassination of Rafiq Harir, a former Prime Minister and father of the present Prime Minister, has issued indictments against four supporters of Hezbollah; they are being tried in their absence.

Because of its location and its confessional mix, Lebanon is caught up in the Middle East’s struggles. Recently, it has been the Sunni/Shia split that has come to the fore, and Lebanon has been destabilised by the Syrian civil war. Lebanon is home to about a million registered Syrian refugees and many more unregistered. Very few have gone home to Syria, and the Syrian Government is resisting taking Sunni refugees back, particularly those of fighting age. This poses a threat to Lebanon’s delicate political balance. The likelihood of violence between Lebanese and Syrian refugees is increasing.

The Lebanese economy depends on services, particularly tourism and banking. It has been adversely affected by the long civil war in the 70s and 80s and the Syria conflict, and the Government is hamstrung by having to service its debt burden. Analysts warn of the possibility of a financial crisis, particularly if Gulf monarchies reduce their support.

There may be oil and gas under Lebanese territorial waters in the Mediterranean, but if there is, it will be a long time before the public feels the benefit.

The UK has provided £466 million to help Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the Lebanese host communities, and has supported the Lebanese military in the context of the Syria conflict.

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