I met the school teachers, businessmen, doctors, and lawyers around a dining room table in a non-descript apartment building in Tripoli, Lebanon, about a mile from the old city’s famous souk. When I came, they were arguing among themselves about politics, and when I left the arguments continued. There was only one item upon which they agreed: corruption. “We need an MBS solution,” one man quipped, referring to Saudi Crown Prince’s imprisonment of Saudi elites in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton hotel. There, security agents loyal to Muhammad Bin Salman reportedly tortured and beat them until they agreed to expose and return much of their wealth to the Saudi Treasury.
Across the country, in a municipal office in the shadow of Mount Hermon, I heard the same sentiment from mayors from several small towns. Salafis made the same argument in the northern al-’Akkar district. So too did Shi’ites in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. High in the mountains, Christians readily agreed.
While Congress debates military assistance and foreign aid to Lebanon in the context of ensuring it does not benefit Hezbollah, in reality, Hezbollah is just one symptom of a broader disease: Endemic corruption permeates every aspect of Lebanon’s broader governance. Over the past decade, the United States has provided Lebanon over $4 billion. Hezbollah has diverted some of that money, but much of it has lined the pockets of Lebanese elites. Lebanon as a state, however, has little to show for it.
The fact that Hezbollah is not alone in its corruption does not absolve it: The group is a designated terror group for a reason. Most Lebanese—even many Shi’ites—recognize that Hezbollah is malignant to Lebanon’s sovereignty. It has drawn Lebanon into repeated conflicts which have cost Lebanese billions of dollars. The August 2020 port explosion was the last straw for many Lebanese. Regardless if an Israeli air strike triggered the initial fire (as most Lebanese believe) and whether or not the ammonium nitrate stored at the Beirut Port was meant for bombs, Hezbollah’s management of the port was criminally negligent. That the group then obstructed rescue efforts until it could sanitize the area of incriminating evidence essentially confirmed Hezbollah’s guilt. While some Shi’ites maintain the fiction that Hezbollah is a “resistance” movement, the fact that the group deployed to Syria on Iran’s orders belies any notion that it fights for Lebanese sovereignty. With 4,000 of its members dead inside Syria and subsidies from Iran in short supply, the Hezbollah is hemorrhaging support.
Hatred of Hezbollah, however, does not absolve the other elites. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s brother is vice president of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, the body through which much foreign aid is channeled. The president of the Council’s board acts as a proxy for Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and other board members are close to President Michel Aoun and leading Druze politician Walid Jumblatt. Together, these politicians’ representatives split the contracts among contractors whom they effectively control. The Council for Development and Reconstruction board also share contracting awards with other politicians not represented on the board such as Samir Geagea, executive chairman of the Lebanese Forces, and Druze leader Talal Arslan. Each establishment politician has an interest in not rocking the boat or engaging in any real reform.
Lebanese single out Nabih Berri’s second wife Randa for special opprobrium. “Madam Berri,” as they explain, owns contracting companies that get a large share of contracts whose cost is inflated to up to four times their true values. Take, for example, the central square in the southern port city of Tyre. Tyre is a UNESCO world heritage site due to its Phoenician, Roman, and Crusader heritage. Berri received a contract without competition to develop its central park. Rather than plant grass and trees, she paved the square over with concrete lit by dozens of light posts, two of the construction items that bring the highest commissions. Locals say she profited greatly, but in doing so, blighted one of the Middle East’s prettiest towns. She also controls numerous non-governmental organizations involved with health, social services, and education. These in turn receive further donor funding entering Lebanon.
As I traveled across Lebanon, my questions to civil society activists and lower-ranking municipal workers was the same: How can the international community help Lebanon without having its money stolen or doing more harm than good? Would it be better to cut-off all aid given the endemic corruption? How should sanctioning occur?
There was surprising consistency in their answers: Lebanese advised against cutting assistance completely fearing that Hezbollah was best positioned to take advantage of such a vacuum. While there should be no tolerance of aid leaking to Hezbollah, there also needs to be recognition that cutting off Lebanon completely would throw the baby out with the bathwater. Lebanese are probably correct that the best sanctions would be comprehensive, targeting the entirety of the elite political class. While the Trump administration and former Assistant Treasury Secretary Marshall Billingslea were correct to increase sanctions on Lebanese figures, by doing so sporadically, they undercut effectiveness by allowing potential targets to prepare.
Local mayors say that they can utilize assistance for specific projects and could hide corruption since they live among their constituents. They warn, however, that if donors channel money through the Council for Development and Reconstruction or give money in any amount that involves permitting from ministries in Beirut, then the political elites will steal the money. While Congress may talk about assistance to Lebanon in terms of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, the reality is that only microloans dispensed directly to municipalities will have any effect. This will require embassy officials to cutout the Beirut middleman and will force diplomats out of the isolated U.S. embassy compound.
Hezbollah is more engrained and tougher to address. While many diplomats promote the Lebanese Armed Forces, it is difficult to trust its leadership. There are two explanations as to the lack of candor from its commander Joseph Aoun about the threat Hezbollah poses: The first is that he knows that infiltration, even within his own headquarters, has reached such an extent that he cannot speak freely. The second is ambition: Almost all Lebanese presidents rose from the command of the Lebanese Armed Forces and Aoun believes that, given Hezbollah’s power, he must make a devil’s bargain rather than confront the group.
The question then becomes how the West can weaken Hezbollah so that internal Lebanese political calculations change. Sanction may go after Hezbollah banking, but the group has established ways around this. In Beirut’s southern suburbs as well as other Hezbollah strongholds around the country, ATMs are springing up sponsored by one of Hezbollah’s financial institutions. Customers sell Hezbollah their gold and, in exchange, get credit on a debit card they can use. The scheme allows Hezbollah to bypass sanctions while laundering gold in Turkey, sub-Saharan Africa, and perhaps even Europe.
Hezbollah also gains funds through its control of the Port of Beirut and Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport. If the United States and international community wants to dry up Hezbollah resources, it should target both. It might set up an inspection regime in Cyprus for port traffic into Beirut, much as the United Nations first coordinated inspections at four regional ports for goods destined for Hodeidah, Yemen are first inspected in Djibouti.
Sanctioning the international airport is long overdue. Rather than set up an inspection regime abroad in a manner that could undercut civilian air travel, the international community might simply demand the shift of civilian operations from Beirut to Kleiat Airport, near Tripoli. Kleiat has an almost 10,000-foot runway, only slightly smaller than Beirut’s but able to accommodate most civilian traffic. While Hezbollah would still siphon-off some funds via its members in various ministries, different regional demography would make difficult Hezbollah’s co-option or domination of rank-and-file employees. A military airstrip in Rayak could handle smaller regional traffic.
Lebanon’s status quo is unsustainable. Hezbollah might be a cancer within the Lebanese state, but chemotherapy is not enough, for Lebanon simultaneously suffers from heart disease and a host of other ailments, each of which needs treatment. While some maximalists might argue Hezbollah’s influence mandates an all-or-nothing approach, the reality is that walking away from Lebanon alongside ending the maximum pressure campaign on Iran, could be the two greatest gifts Joe Biden could give the group.
There are ways to help Lebanon without undermining the fight against Hezbollah or fueling the country’s dysfunctional corruption: it is time for the State Department, the Western aid community, and the International Monetary Fund to stop measuring effectiveness by money allocated. One million dollars well spent at the local level solely by local authorities would be far more effective than $100 million channeled through Beirut. It is not yet too late, but either cutting off Lebanon or pumping money into a system without first tackling Hezbollah and the political elites’ ability to embezzle it will lead to disaster.