Failure to Launch: The Inability of Catalysts to Alter Political Arrangements in Lebanon and Syria

Sara Kayyali, Human Rights Watch

Large-scale public health crises, mass protests, and conflict can often rupture governments’ social contract with their citizens.  In much of the world, these events have created space to alter existing power dynamics and renegotiate the social contract. Yet in the Arab region, while such catalysts have generated the instability that is usually a precursor to change, they have failed to fuel sufficient momentum to transform the status quo.

Instead, Arab states that have experienced conflict or crisis are effectively deadlocked in a ‘frozen conflict,’ or permanent instability where the population is experiencing enduring and overlapping insecurities.[1] This includes the loss of life and liberty, the inability to achieve an adequate standard of living and persisting physical and mental violence that arises from conflict, with no resolution in sight.

This paper examines the factors that led to the failure of the aforementioned catalysts to alter political arrangements in two countries in the Arab world; Syria and Lebanon. Despite experiencing some of the most profound system shocks in the region, including country-wide conflict and violence (in Syria), mass protests, economic crisis, and the Covid-19 pandemic, citizens demanding change in Lebanon and Syria have been unable to achieve a transition to a new political arrangement. I argue that this is largely due to three factors: 1) the insulation of state elites from the negative impacts of the crises, leaving those holding power without a strong incentive for accepting meaningful change; 2), the inability of affected populations to access or influence decision-making processes, and 3) the reluctance of foreign actors to use their leverage to break the deadlock in favor of a new rights-respecting political arrangement.

The tension between the catalysts that should have triggered a political transition and the factors that have ensured that the transition remains incomplete are critical for the endurance of the frozen conflict. As such, unravelling that tension also holds the key for resolving the conflict.



For populist authoritarian Arab governments that emerged in the 1960-70s, such as in Syria, a social contract guaranteeing socioeconomic entitlements such as free education and health, subsidies for food and fuel, and jobs in the public sector in return for political acquiescence contributed significantly to the persistence of authoritarianism.[2]

However, as neo-liberal economic liberalization took hold in Syria, the declining value of the socioeconomic entitlements, coupled with an increase in cronyism, perceptions of corruption, and a decline in the standard of living generated pressure for renegotiating the contract.[3] This pressure exploded in 2011 when Syrians took to the streets in massive demonstrations, inspired by the protests elsewhere in the region.[4] Tens of thousands of peaceful protestors across the country demanded the fall of the Syrian ‘regime’ – the Baathist state in place since 1963.

Pro-government security forces and affiliated militias responded with a brutal crackdown. They detained, extrajudicially executed, and tortured thousands of peaceful protestors, many of whom died in detention or remain missing.[5] The state’s unrelentingly violent response transformed the uprisings into a militarized conflict involving more than a dozen armed factions, in some cases backed by regional and/or international actors, including the Islamic State, anti-government groups, and Kurdish-led forces.[6] Almost a decade later, over 400,000 people have lost their lives, close to 12 million have been displaced, and over a third of Syria’s infrastructure have been destroyed.[7] The country is currently experiencing an unprecedented economic crisis, as well as the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the last decade, Syria has experienced a confluence of factors that could have altered the political arrangement. Yet, despite superficial changes in the composition and approach of the Syrian government, the political arrangement in Syria remains the same authoritarian, repressive system.


In Lebanon, contrary to the populist authoritarian welfare system that prevails in the Arab region, a power-sharing sectarian system that was weak in providing social welfare has prevailed.  The civil war of 1975-1990 led to the sectarian-based model, as did the Taif Agreement of 1989, which ended the war and entrenched Lebanon’s ethnoreligious sects and interests in the state’s elected parliament, executive branch and bureaucracy.[8]

Successive Lebanese governments have failed to provide their citizens with the most basic services. Instead, access to services is predicated on residents’ support of and loyalty towards the various sects/political parties, which control access to services both inside and outside the government’s influence, institutionalizing a corrupt-sectarian system.[9]

On October 17, 2019, thousands of people took to the streets to protest the government’s imposition of new taxes including on gasoline and the messaging application, WhatsApp.[10] The protests turned into a countrywide, cross-sectarian movement against the political establishment.[11] The chant “Killun Ya’ni Killun – All Means All” was a call for removing and holding to account all political parties.

Lebanon quickly devolved into a dire economic crisis, with the Lebanese pound losing value and informal capital controls preventing Lebanese from accessing their money.[12] In January 2020, a supposedly technocratic government took the place of the government formerly led by Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who resigned in October.[13] The new government failed to respond to protestors’ demands and the socioeconomic situation continued to deteriorate.[14] Covid-19 has exacerbated existing frustrations.[15]

On August 4, a massive explosion in the port of Beirut killed at least 190 people and left 300,000 without shelter.[16] It also caused more than $3.8 billion in physical damages.[17] While the public, analysts, and activists pointed the finger at the existing political system as a root cause of these crises, the opportunities begotten by protests, economic crisis, and explosion are not leading to meaningful change in the political arrangement.[18]

Three primary factors contributed to the failure of both Syria and Lebanon to complete political transitions.

  1. Insulation of state elites from the negative impact of the crises

Politically relevant elites are actors who, by virtue of their strategic locations in pivotal organizations and movements, can affect political outcomes regularly and substantially, regardless of whether they are political or economic elites.[19]

In social movements, differing incentives and preferences among elites open opportunities for social entities to support change by forming coalitions with reforming elites.[20] If elites are at risk of losing power, they may acquiesce to widening their coalition and bringing in other actors. They may also agree to accept reforms. Hence, large-scale popular discontent, economic crises, war, and other catalysts may destabilize elites enough to adopt measures that lead to reform or wholesale renegotiation of the political arrangement. However, when faced with a significant threat of losing power, elites with opposing class and ethnic backgrounds may come together against the population, and resist renegotiating the political arrangement.[21] In both Syria and Lebanon, elites were largely insulated from the economic and political consequences of the catalysts.   Instead, elites have proven to be highly adaptable and unified in protecting their strategic advantage, while maintaining the fundamental character of the political arrangement.

A decade of war has not diminished the influence of Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle. Protests and the militarized conflict initially signaled a heavy cost for political elites, peaking symbolically and literally with a July 2012 explosion in Damascus that killed senior members of the ruling inner circle.[22] Soon after, however, the government recovered and adapted, structuring security and economic incentives to bring in new elites but unified them centrally around the state in a manner that maintains the character of the regime itself, including by allowing them to profit from the ongoing conflict. [23] Hence, despite the conflict altering the composition of the network of elites that the Assad clan has surrounded itself with,[24] they remain the same in that they maintain and protect the fundamental character of the political arrangement and have not experienced the divisions that are a precursor for necessary reforms.  The international community’s attempts to hold elites accountable have failed to affect officials at the heart of the Syrian political arrangement. Targeted sanctions against elites have failed partly due to elites’ ability to evade sanctions, and because they profited from the war.[25] The Syrian government’s resilience has also meant that the immediate domestic consequences of defection for members of the elites are direr than the long-term threat of potential international accountability. The recent clash between Assad and Rami Makhlouf, the president’s cousin and long-time ally, provides evidence for this. Despite being under robust international sanctions, Makhlouf remained in the state’s inner circle until the government demanded that he and other elites pay large amounts of taxes to support the government.[26] Makhlouf’s refusal set him apart and resulted in a rift among the country’s elites. But the rift was temporary; the government quickly appointed his brother to take over his contracts, maintaining ties with the larger Makhlouf clan and limiting Rami Makhlouf’s influence.[27]

In Lebanon, the existence of a party-cartel system ensures by design that political elites are insulated from accountability by mass mobilization.[28] As different sects are guaranteed representation in the existing power-sharing agreement, there are no incentives for elites to reform policies or take meaningful action. While the protests in Lebanon led to the resignation of two governments, the replacements’ selection remained an elite-driven, sectarian formula, under which prime ministers belonged to or were sponsored by the same political elite, and thus beholden to the same conditions that prevented them from adopting necessary reforms.[29]

Further, while the economic crisis meant that millions of Lebanese were at risk of going hungry and unable to access their life savings due to informal capital controls, the elite maintained the ability to access and spend their money.[30] Economically insulated, elites were unable to agree on reforms that would allow the International Monetary Fund to bail the country out, particularly as some of the proposed reforms would have affected their assets.[31]

  1. Access of affected population to decision-making

If affected populations had genuine access to decision-making, it would result in a more equitable political arrangement leading to better public policies.[32] If political arrangements fail to provide the affected public with the ability to influence decisions, the public may amass decision-making leverage through processes outside traditional political institutions, such as protests and strikes.[33] However, when elites co-opt the system  to serve their own purposes and maintain their ability to perpetuate themselves, coupled with the failure of the government to create space for affected populations to make demands, their avenues to effect meaningful change are limited.

Lebanon has a civil society capable of responding to affected populations’ needs, but they have no role in political decision-making.[34] Even when civil society attempted to participate in traditional political institutions, as the Beirut Madinati collective did by participating in the 2016 Beirut municipal elections, they were met with strong opposition from institutionalized parties that led to their overall defeat.[35] Following this effort, parliament passed a law that gave newer parties a disadvantage in elections, and further supported an already uneven playing field. With the sectarian parties co-opting provision of services to ensure their political survival, the affected populations are left incapable of using elections to hold politicians accountable, demand change, or signal policy preferences.

In the aftermath of the Beirut explosion, civil society groups led the crisis response, highlighting the stark absence of the state.[36] In that sense, civil society, largely representing and responding to the demands of affected populations, was able to mobilize effectively. Structurally however, civil society organizations do not have the requisite capacity or status to take on larger roles or responsibilities, which are maintained formally within the remit of the state and the recognized political bodies.  This creates a cyclical difficulty, in which the population makes clear and action-oriented demands, but there is no credible route for them to effect meaningful systemic change.

Similarly, in Syria, a conflict sparked by massive peaceful protests across Syrian territory failed to create space for affected populations to contribute to political decision-making. The political opposition that was formed following the protests quickly became fragmented and devolved into an ineffective body designed to represent the interests of financial backers rather than affected populations.[37] The UN-led political process introduced participatory pathways for women and civil society, but participants indicated that they were symbolic at best.[38] Despite lip service paid to the release of peaceful detainees, the political opposition did not include them on prisoner exchange lists, but prioritized anti-government fighters and individuals whose families could pay to have included on the lists. This led to a dissonance between grassroots movements of the families of the detained and missing and their ‘representation’ in the so-called peace process.[39]

In government-held areas, multiple cabinet reshuffles and parliamentary elections failed to widen the circle of those influencing decision-making. Instead, the government used these processes to reward loyalists and marginalize the opposition.[40] Other avenues for the participation of affected populations have been stymied, with the government almost completely co-opting civil society in government-held areas.[41] Even where other groups manage to control territory, such as in northeast Syria, the lack of international recognition and marginalization in political negotiations has left them unable to meaningfully effect political change.[42]

The lack of space for the public to meaningfully affect decision-making could be offset by the involvement of international actors, who may be able to elevate the preferences of affected populations to policy decisions and to create an incentive for their adoption by domestic institutions. However, the intervention by international actors has been largely misplaced.

  1. Failure of foreign actors to intervene to resolve longstanding insecurities

External influence has long played a role in state-society relations in the Middle East, through financial, technical and military means.[43] Syria and Lebanon are no exception. Despite its permanence, international intervention in all its forms has rarely resulted in resolving the enduring insecurities that are felt by populations in the region.

Military intervention, foreign aid, and technical assistance have done little to alter political arrangements to resolve existing regional insecurities and support affected populations in realizing their rights or achieving the ‘good life.’ In large part, this can be attributed to the divergence of objectives held by multiple international actors and the affected population. International actors sought to protect their own interests, only contributing to the protection of the population where those objectives aligned.[44] In some cases, as mentioned above, affected populations were also unable to make their demands legible to the international community. This resulted either in ineffective interventions or in ones that amplified and introduced new insecurities for the population.

In Syria for example, the duality of Western countries’ provision of billions of dollars in aid to a system that diverts money to human rights abusers while concurrently imposing sanctions and funding accountability efforts has contributed to the government’s survival; and does little to alleviate the key insecurities that Syrians experience as a result of the government’s actions even while exorcising it internationally.[45] Meanwhile, Russia and Iran’s have intervened militarily and diplomatically on behalf of the Syrian government. The intervention was effective in the sense that it successfully used military power and subverted political processes and international fora to protect the Syrian government and their regional interests. However, the intervention failed at resolving the insecurities experienced by the population; the country remains beset with crises, marginalized internationally and with no improvement in the situation of the affected population, as evidenced by the major human rights abuses that continue unabated.

In Lebanon, following the protests and the explosion, there were clear demands for the international community to intervene on behalf of the population to hold the political elite accountable and empower civil society to undertake reforms.[46] President Emmanuel Macron of France, the most prominent international leader to engage, with two visits in less than a month, indicated he was pressuring the government to restart negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, which the government had stalled, and appoint a credible prime minister.[47]

Lebanese authorities responded by appointing Mustapha Adib, who is closely affiliated with Lebanon’s entrenched political elites. Those involved in the uprisings indicate that they consider him another version of former Prime Minister Diab, selected to further elites’ interests.[48] On September 26, Adib resigned, further cementing the failure of France to pressure domestic elites into meaningful reforms.

Meanwhile, the UN has mobilized to address the humanitarian fallout of the explosion without attempting to engage on political reforms.[49] The failure of both the UN and states to mobilize to resolve the crisis and resulting insecurities signals a need for more decisive action that strikes at the core of the existing political arrangement, yet none of these actors are incentivized to expend the political and economic will necessary to do so, despite the success of the population at making their demands legible to the international community.

Foreign intervention plays an undeniable role in Middle East affairs and one unlikely to disappear soon. For such intervention to be effective at resolving enduring insecurities and avoid the costs and failures of prior interventions, it needs to respond to demands on the ground and follow through on commitments to bring about needed change.


The factors identified as central to the failure of Lebanon and Syria to complete their political transitions reinforce each other, and ensure that both countries continue to experience a frozen conflict The adherence of international actors to political elites that have lost legitimacy lessens their effectiveness in supporting affected populations to alter political arrangements. Hence, the IMF’s inability to force much-needed economic reforms in Lebanon, and the UN underwriting the survival of a repressive regime and allowing fundamental principles of international law to wither away with impunity in Syria.

In understanding the frozen conflict as the result of these factors being fundamentally in tension with the catalysts for political change, it becomes clear that a reconfiguration of how these factors reinforce one another is necessary for its resolution. Hence, a meaningful intervention would start by focusing on responding and adapting to the demands of the affected population and creating avenues for them to genuinely contribute to decision-making.


[1] Samer Abboud, “Crisis Ecologies, Regional Circuits, and Enduring Insecurities in the MENA,” Project on Middle East Political Science, forthcoming.

[2] Raymond Hinnebusch, “Authoritarian persistence, democratization theory and the Middle East: An overview and critique,” Democratization 13, no.3 (2006): 373-395

[3] Steven Heydemann, “Rethinking Social Contracts in the MENA Region: Economic Governance, Contingent Citizenship, and State-Society Relations after the Arab Uprisings,” World Development 135 (2020)

[4] Human Rights Watch, “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror: Crimes Against Humanity by Syrian Security Forces,”, Human Rights Watch, June 1, 2011,

[5] Human Rights Watch, “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror.”

[6] Sara Kayyali, “Syria: World Report 2019,” Human Rights Watch, January 2019,

[7] Kayyali, “Syria: World Report 2019”

[8] Karam Karam, “The Taif Agreement,” Accord Issue 24, July 2012

[9] Melani Claire Cammett, “Partisan Activism and Access to Welfare in Lebanon.” Studies in comparative international development vol. 46, no. 1 (2011): 70-97.

[10] For coverage of the Lebanon protests: “Lebanon Protests: All the Latest Updates,” Al Jazeera, October 21, 2019,; see also: Mara Mordecai, “Protests in Lebanon Highlight Ubiquity of WhatsApp, Dissatisfaction with Government,” Pew Research Center, August 14, 2020,

[11] Fares Halabi, “From ‘Overthrowing the Regime’ to ‘All Means All’: An Analysis of the Lebanonisation of Arab Spring Rhetoric,” Arab Reform Initiative, June 22, 2020,

[12] Fadi Hasan, “Understanding the Lebanese Financial Crisis,” FT Alphaville, Financial Times, December 18, 2019,

[13] Chloe Cornish, “Lebanon Forms Government of Technocrats to Confront Crises,” Financial Times, January 21, 2020,

[14] Layal Abou Rahal, “Hassan Diab, Lebanon’s Fallen ‘Technocrat’ Premier,” Agence France Press, August 10, 2020,

[15] See e.g.: Martin Patience, “Coronavirus: Lebanon’s Woes Worsen as Country Pushed to the Brink,” BBC News, May 27, 2020,

[16]  “Beirut Explosion: What We Know So Far,” BBC News, August 11, 2020,

[17] “Beirut Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment (RDNA) – August 2020,” World Bank, September 4, 2020,—august-2020.

[18] Timour Azhari, “Beirut Blast: Tracing the Explosives That Tore the Capital Apart,” Lebanon News,Al Jazeera, August 5, 2020,; See, for example: “Lebanon: Why the Country Is in Crisis,” BBC News, August 5, 2020,

[19] Volker Perthes, Arab Elites: Negotiating the Politics of Change (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2004).

[20] Larry Diamond et al., “Reconsidering the Transition Paradigm,” Journal of Democracy 25, no. 1 (2014):  86-100,; Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: from the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy (Peterborough, England: Royal National Institute of Blind People, 2017).

[21] Dan Slater, Ordering Power: Contentious Politics and Authoritarian Leviathans in Southeast Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

[22] Neil Macfarquhar, “Syrian Rebels Land Deadly Blow to Assad’s Inner Circle,” The New York Times, July 18, 2012,

[23] Nour Samaha, “The People Getting Rich Off the War in Syria,” The Atlantic, , March 6, 2017,; “Syria’s War Profiteers,” Financial Times, October 18, 2019,; Asser Khattab, “The Men Making a Fortune from Syria’s War,” Financial Times, October 3, 2019,; Steven Heydemann and Reinoud Leenders, eds., Middle East Authoritarianisms: Governance, Contestation, and Regime Resilience in Syria and Iran (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2013).

[24] Ammar Shamaileh, “This Critical Juncture: Elite Competition in a Receding Civil War.” Project on Middle East Political Science, forthcoming.

[25] Eli Moskowitz, “Assad’s Cousin Says Offshore Companies Helped Regime Evade Sanctions,” OCCRP, July 28, 2020,

[26] “Assad Cousin Makhlouf Refuses Syrian Government Demand to Resign from Telecoms Empire,” France 24, May 17, 2020,; Suleiman Al-Khalidi et al., “Special Report: A Collapsing Economy and a Family Feud Pile Pressure on Syria’s Assad,” Reuters,(August 13, 2020,

[27] “Syrian Govt Grants Duty Free Contracts to Rami Makhlouf’s Brother,” Asharq al-Awsat,September 5, 2020,

[28] Christiana Parreira, “Another Unity Government Won’t Solve Lebanon’s Crisis,” Monkey Cage, the Washington Post,, August 20, 2020,; For more on party-cartel systems and design: Dan Slaterand Erica Simmons. “Coping by Colluding: Political Uncertainty and Promiscuous Powersharing in Indonesia and Bolivia.” Comparative Political Studies 46, no. 11 (November 2013): 1366–93.

[29] See for example, Diab’s resignation speech and general impressions of him: “Lebanon President Accepts Gov’t Resignation after Beirut Blast,” Al Jazeera,August 10, 2020, See also, on Mustapha Adib: Timour Azhari, “Mustapha Adib on Course to Be Designated Lebanon PM,” Lebanon News, Al Jazeera, August 30, 2020),

[30] On risk of starvation in Lebanon: Abbie Cheeseman, “’People Will Die within Months’: Lebanon Heads for Famine as Pandemic Accelerates Hunger,” The Telegraph, June 30, 2020,;  Elites ability to access their money:

Chloe Cornish, “Bankers ‘Smuggled’ $6bn out of Lebanon, Says Ex-Finance Chief,” Financial Times, July 13, 2020,; Jeff Vasishta, “Jennifer Lawrence Takes Titanic Loss on Manhattan Penthouse,” Variety, August 4, 2020,

[31]Chloe Cornish, “Lebanon Gripped by Prime Minister’s Feud with Bank Governor,” Financial Times, May 3, 2020,; Samia Nakhoul, “Lebanon’s IMF Rescue Plan Fails to Set Reform Roadmap,” Reuters, May 18, 2020,

[32] Russell J. Dalton, The Participation Gap: Social Status and Political Inequality (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2017); Larry Bartels, “Political Inequality in Affluent Democracies: The Social Welfare Deficit,” Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions #5-2017, (March 2017)

[33] Charles Tilly and Sidney G. Tarrow, Contentious Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[34] For a good overview of Lebanese civil society, and challenges they face please see: David Schenker, “Lebanon’s [Un]Civil Society,” Beyond Islamists and Autocrats Essay Series, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 2016,

[35] Timothy Louthan, “From Garbage to Green Space: The Rise of Beirut Madinati,” New Perspectives in Foreign Policy 13, Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 6,  2017,

[36] Kareem Chehayeb and Abby Sewell, “Local Groups Step up to Lead Beirut Blast Response,” The New Humanitarian, August 19, 2020,

[37] Amr Sarraj and Philip Hoffman, “The Syrian Political Opposition’s Path to Irrelevance,” in Contentious Politics in the Syrian Conflict: Opposition, Representation, and Resistance, ed. Maha Yahya.Carnegie Middle East Center, May 2020,

[38] Interview with participants in the Civil Society Support Room, January 2020; Interview with participants in theWomen’s Advisory Board, November 2019

[39] Interviews with relatives of detained activists and peaceful protesters, August – September 2019

[40] See e.g.: “Syria Forms New Government, Keeps Top Ministers,” Reuters , June 23, 2012,;Ziad Haydar, “Syria’s New Cabinet Lacks ‘Any Trace of Opposition’,” Al-Monitor, April 11, 2018,; “Syria: Assad’s Baath Party Wins Majority in Parliamentary Polls,” Al Jazeera, July 22, 2020, among others.

[41] Sara Kayyali, “Rigging the System,” Human Rights Watch, June 28, 2019,

[42] Ghadi Sari “Kurdish Self-governance in Syria: Survival and Ambition,” Chatham House, September 2016; “Syria’s Kurds protest exclusion from constitutional committee,” Agence France Press, October 2, 2019

[43] Sarah Sunn Bush, “Varieties of International Influence and the Middle East.” PS: Political Science & Politics 50, no. 3 (2017): 668–71. doi:10.1017/S1049096517000361.

[44] For a discussion of the ‘radically different security and insecurity referents’ held by the different securitizing actors in Syria, please refer to Abboud, “Crisis Ecologies”

[45] On humanitarian funding and aid diversion: Kayyali, “Rigging the System”.

[46] This was a key demand in the protests and congregations around Macron’s arrival in Beirut and the protests that followed the Beirut blast. See, e.g.: Alasdair Sandford, “Beirut Blast: Macron Pledges Aid as Protests Erupt in Lebanon,” EuroNews, August 7, 2020,

[47] Rym Momtaz, “Emmanuel Macron’s big Beirut challenge,” Politico, August 31, 2020,

[48] See, for example: “Mustapha Adib, Lebanon’s New PM-Designate,” France 24, August 31, 2020,

[49] “UN and Partners Launch $565 Million Appeal for Lebanon,” United Nations, August 14, 2020,