Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was all smiles after his talks in Paris on December 8th. The same Hariri who had resigned on November 5th, saying his life was in danger , had been confirmed in post by Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, and French President Emanual Macron, who had led the effort to persuade him to stay on. He was also told that a conference would be held next year in Belgium to find ways to help Lebanon deal with its refugee crisis, which is one of the few migrations to actually deserve that much-overused title.
Like all Lebanese politicians, Hariri depends for his political and physical life on an external partner, in his case Saudi Arabia. The Hariri government has committed itself to the important policy of “disassociation”, i.e., not taking sides in the Syrian conflict which has created so many refugees, and by extension all the other conflicts in the region. This is an important step forward in re-establishing Lebanon as a truly independent state, responsible for its own security, making its own decisions, putting Lebanon rather than any of its constituent communities first.
The international support Hariri received seemed at first to indicate that the rest of the world wants that outcome. The problem is that disassociation means something very different to the West than it does to Lebanon or the regional states. For them, it means removing Hezbollah from the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, thus removing an inconvenience for themselves. This would also reduce Iran’s influence in these conflicts, and give Western countries a carrot they can offer to its rival Turkey – they will kick Iran out of places Turkey wants to dominate if Ankara comes closer to the Western position, instead of becoming increasingly independent in order to stake its claim to regional hegemony.
For many decades Lebanon kept out of all the many regional conflicts, and prospered. Since the Israelis invaded to remove Hezbollah, and the Syrians came as peacekeepers and overstayed their welcome, it has been a proxy battleground for all the conflicts countries are unwilling to enter into openly. Hariri’s father, also a Prime Minister, was assassinated as part of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has to be fought in Lebanon because both sides are strong enough to win an open war against the other but not if the West intervenes, which would happen if direct conflict broke out.
So while Hariri has every reason to make his version of disassociation work, his new protectors in the West have no real wish to see it. They have effectively given him two options: either remain the site of proxy wars so we don’t have to get involved in real ones, or replace one lot of foreign interference with another.
In the first option, Lebanon will be given time and space to sort out its problems provided it doesn’t really do that. In the second, it will be the West who decides who sponsors who: the Saudis, Iran and Israel will be themselves controlled by Western powers to impose their own solutions on Lebanon, which will have increasingly little to do with the concerns of the local population.
When Hariri resigned Iran called it a Saudi stunt, and suggested the Saudis had written his resignation statement for him. So what do we call all these weasel words from the international community about supporting Lebanon now? Between a rock and a hard place, Hariri’s main policy is dead in the water. Yet again, a country with problems has turned to the West to help it, only to find that those who are supposed to be its greatest friends are worse than its enemies.
If the West actually wanted to help any country resolve its refugee problems it would do two things. Firstly, it would commit to getting out of conflicts likely to create refugees, or ending those which have begun to do so and then getting out. Secondly, it would develop a comprehensive international resettlement programme involving all nations, rather than leaving individual border authorities to interpret international and national laws as they liked, on any given day, merely to encourage the idea that refugee equals problem.
The West is always complaining about being engulfed by a “migrant crisis” whilst ignoring the fact that most refugees and displaced persons are in third world countries. The huge influx of Syrian conflict victims into Lebanon is merely the latest in a series of such mass migrations, which dwarf those into places like Turkey, the ones the West are always complaining about. It cannot provide meaningful practical support for Lebanon to address this problem without implicating itself in creating these refugees and lying about the relative numbers, so Hariri is unlikely to get more than a few well-publicised camps out of this promise.
Nor is Hariri likely to see any “investment in Lebanon”. If more money does come, it cannot be targeted at business and infrastructure, as this would merely give the warring external powers more to fight over. In order to achieve anything the investment would have to be in political institutions which would make the need for external funding unnecessary. These could be a more powerful state funding mechanism, as most countries have, or direct donations to the respective parties to bring them into the democratic fold.
But any such investment would come with the usual strings attached. While Syria invades with troops, the West will invade with finance. One form of foreign domination will be replaced with another, as energy resources and effective political power will be shared out between Western donors, even if acting through regional proxies, rather than conflicting regional states.
Confirming Hariri in post means extending the already unhealthy relationship between the West and his Saudi sponsors, who are technically under an arms embargo but not when those arms are used to further Western interests in Yemen and elsewhere. If this move is aimed at Hezbollah, Iran will doubtless react by encouraging it to either opt out of democratic politics or to destroy the new “Zionist democracy” from within. Neither option would be acceptable to Lebanon, but would be seen in the West as a necessary price to pay for establishing a greater presence there and increasing the demonisation of Iran.
Our problem is your problem
The Lebanese government has done its best to keep its country out of the larger machinations surrounding the Syrian conflict. It is arguable that only a country with the traditions of Lebanon, both sectarian and inclusive, could have brought Hezbollah into the political fold to any extent at all. It was the West which wanted to end those traditions by removing the confessional system, until the Lebanese themselves confirmed revised versions of it in the Taif and Doha Agreements, in spite of all they had been through which others blamed on that system.
In the light of this, it is equally likely that the West-Saudi Arabia relationship was responsible for Hariri’s original resignation, rather than it being a Saudi initiative or his own idea. The most visible example of external interference in Lebanon is the continued presence of the Syrian army there, even though troops were supposed to withdraw in 2005. This presence should be untenable for purely Syrian reasons, as the West is doing all it can to overthrow Assad. But Syria can still maintain a significant armed presence in Lebanon in spite of that conflict, an ongoing embarrassment which is little reported in the West for exactly this reason.
If Lebanon isn’t working, the West can attack these Syrian troops there with impunity. Removing them would partly achieve the goal of “re-Lebanising” the country, but also leave Hezbollah itself, the local force regarded as terrorist by the West, as its de facto successor. If the West didn’t want that, it would have moved in long ago in another anti-terrorism operation. Removing Syrian troops would make Hezbollah’s armed resistance to Israel an armed resistance to Lebanon itself, but that would give the West further excuses to do what it wanted politically without actually helping anyone on the ground.
Two camps, no solution
If the attempt to prop up the current Lebanese government had been well-intentioned, it would have been part of a larger programme of de-escalating conflict in the Middle East. However Hariri’s Paris summit came two days after Donald Trump set back community relations in the Middle East by approximately 800 years, by declaring that he would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Are we to believe that Trump did not know the reaction this move would generate? Violent protests have erupted throughout the Arab world, and beyond, at this act of hubris. Yes, it was one of Trump’s campaign promises. But it puts the US firmly on one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and puts every step it takes in the region under question – what does the US really want, if it so blatantly sides with one conflict party and antagonises the other?
Lebanon was reoriented towards the Arab world, as its ethnic makeup suggests it would always have been, in the Taif Agreement. It may be able to disassociate itself from an internal conflict in Syria, but not an Arab-Israeli one, particularly when Israel still celebrates devastating large chunks of Beirut in retaliation for Palestinian terror.
Lebanon has predictably called for sanctions against the US over the move, a call which few will listen to but everyone will hear. No one will sanction the US for the sake of Lebanon, but they will see that Lebanon is in line with majority Arab opinion. This will provoke the usual competition about who the true representatives of that opinion are, and how the rest should relate to them.
With the Arab world supporting Assad in Syria, and Hezbollah having always done so, Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem is likely to strengthen rather than weaken Syria’s hold over Lebanon. This again indicates that a proxy war against Hezbollah/Iran is what the West has in mind, a war which would result in either Western defeat, and with it the defeat of Lebanon as a viable entity, or a new Lebanon in which Western powers exploit the political system just as Middle Eastern ones do now.
Furthermore, such a conflict would further marginalise Lebanon’s once-dominant Maronite Christian community. This naturally looks more towards the West than the Muslim communities do, but its influence has been progressively eroded with Western help. The fact that the President of Lebanon must be Maronite, but the present one is nevertheless allied with Hezbollah, tells its own story.
Any solution to Lebanon’s conflicts, both internal and externally sponsored, must involve the Maronites, but they seem to be the last in the queue for consideration, despite the fact they are not currently fighting anyone. They would have nothing to lose by accepting external help to state their own case, and their future will depend on how acceptable that external helper is to the new Western, rather than Arab or Iranian, power brokers.
State in name
Proxy wars in Lebanon suit the West as well as the combatants. The Iranian reaction to Hariri’s original resignation suggested that direct conflict was now more likely. As Iran is still a Western pariah, the West would have had to get involved. Hariri has been persuaded to stay not for “the stability of Lebanon”, a stability which was the envy of its neighbours before the West refused to allow it to conduct its affairs in a different way. It is about the stability of the West and the Arab world, at the expense of Lebanon, the convenient sacrificial lamb.
Lebanon can no longer hope to disassociate itself from what others want to do in Syria or anywhere else. On balance, Lebanese prefer a national government of any complexion to direct foreign rule, even if foreign rule is described as “peacekeeping” or “protection from invasion”. But they will only have their own government for as long as it suits the West to allow the country to be dominated by either the same proxy conflicts it is trying to rid itself of, or Western sponsors who merely seek to change the terms of those conflicts.
Left to its own devices, Lebanon could resolve many of the problems in the Middle East. Before the civil war it did so on a daily basis, by doing things its own way and prospering. Changes were needed from time to time, but the system itself encouraged those changes. Only when Lebanon’s neighbours were encouraged to fight proxy conflicts there to prevent things getting worse between themselves did the country descend into violence. Even then, this soon transformed into what sort of independent Lebanon a consensus wanted, not which foreign sponsor should have the upper hand.
The West has tolerated the extension of that violence, in various guises, until now, to prevent Lebanon demonstrating how wrong the West is. Now it has taken its government hostage just when it is determined to implement a policy which will do that, if it succeeds. Did that happen by chance? The Lebanese government is being supported to help destroy Lebanon, and there is little its people can do about it until the West overreaches itself in this attempt.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.