27.10.2020 Author: Henry Kamens

French Initiative in Lebanon: But Who Wants it to Work?


The French like to make demands. They are now making the formation of a new government in Lebanon a requirement for the promise of financial assistance, in what has become known as “the French Initiative.”

As the expression goes, the “road to hell is paved with good intentions.” In this case, not even good intentions are proving to be enough, due to the inability to form a new government acceptable to a wide range of stakeholders.

There is much history as to why Lebanon cannot provide effective government, and the Beirut Fertiliser Explosion was a wakeup call of the list of governmental failures. The country is founded on religious and cultural difference, and its system is one of “tribes and bribes” – a network of political patronage which dominates political culture. But that is the short version, as much more is involved.

In short, Lebanon presently has a dysfunctional system, and one which, if not impossible, is yet unwilling to be reformed. Others, outsiders, see no utility in that, but are not actually interested in reforms which work, merely ones which make them look good on paper, but keep all the problems in place.

For those outside the loop, the blowing up of the Beirut Port was a wakeup call which pushed an already fledgling country to the edge. The blast exposed all the fault lines and unexploded landmines in the political landscape, and what Lebanese society has been living with for most of living memory.

But the state was failing dismally even before it had to deal with the aftermath of the ammonium nitrate bomb, which was actually fertilizer stored in a warehouse. A German documentary on DW is especially revealing. It says of the 250,000 Syrian refugees living in Beirut, most of them in the port’s immediate vicinity:

Many of them have lost what little they had, especially hope. Lebanon has become a proverbial “no-man’s land” in a very rough neighbourhood, caught between Israel and Syria, and proxy sponsors, with Saudi Arabia always willing to meddle.

How did we get here?

Lebanon is not a Nation State, with a shared sense of identity and religion or common culture. As discussed in a recent NEO article, the country is made up 18 different religious sects. Each knows its place, and each member of each group knows the opportunities available to them. Any action is closely linked to various networks of political and financial patronage which have endured from generation to generation.

Each group and network looks after its own, providing them with jobs and a share in the political “pork barrel.” At present the system is very inefficient, unfunded, corrupt and incompetent, and that is just part of the problem. Outsiders coming in with a cut-and-paste mentality, wanting to apply political and economic shock in record time, also know perfectly well they are doing more harm than good by this, but have bosses and egos back home to answer to.

It is the conventional wisdom of these outsiders to blame everything on the political structure of the country, i.e., Lebanon’s confessional system. But this is the same system which once made Lebanon the Las Vegas of the Middle East, the most stable and desirable of destinations in the region. There is no going back to the old distribution of power between confessional groups, as the country can’t live with it anymore, but there is no intrinsic reason to believe that a new one won’t also work, if allowed to.

Religions are not just worship – they are embedded in all aspects of human experience. This is why the confessional system is still there.

Johan Galtung’s articulation of the typologies of violence and peace, and how religion always functions in the service of both cultural violence and cultural peace, are apposite in the situation in Lebanon. Not in Galtung’s own terms, as a means of explaining away lack of human agency in explaining why bad things happen, but as recognition that if you are going to do anything, you have to use the tools at your disposal, religious and cultural identity being major ones.

Where the Spies Are?

I always think of Beirut in terms of the experience of David Niven as Dr Jason Love, an accidental spy who ended up finishing a job for British intelligence after a real agent got killed. With its history of externally sponsored puppets who eventually refuse to screw the system against their own countrymen, Lebanon has seen more of its fair share of that in real life.

Niven is sent to Lebanon to try to learn what urgent information the agent there had uncovered before he was bumped off by the Russians – and is obliged to pick up where he left off. It is hardly surprising that this is common in both overt politics and covert espionage in Lebanon, being situated as it is between enemies and competing global interests.

All this has created a deep crisis which the French initiative is seen as the last chance to save Lebanon from. Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt recently said, echoing a warning from Paris, that the country risks disappearing without reform.

But still there is an impasse, and so would there be anywhere – the idea of the former colonial master coming in and sorting you out is bound to be resisted by any Lebanese politician in the longer term. The presence of Syrian troops and Israeli spies remains a big issue, and then there is the matter of the Iran-backed Hezbollah, designated a terrorist organisation by the US but forming a mainstream political party in Lebanon.

There are so many competing interests and factions that outside intervention has become the default notion, not in terms of force but to bring management and some semblance of normalcy. However, it is that same outside intervention which has helped create the present crisis, and any one solution would disadvantage other outside agents. It would not be politically or economically expedient for foreign intelligence services, who achieve what they want by maintaining instability.

Perhaps one of the most stable periods in recent Lebanese history was when Syria was basically in control for the twenty years ending in 2005, before a new wave of meddling sent it spiraling out of control. Syrian troops were invited into Lebanon during the civil war and stayed for two decades. Even in 1991, Lebanon and Syria signed the Treaty of Brotherhood and Co-operation, which recognised the dominant role of Syria.

But those days are long gone, as they would inevitably be when you are talking about another sovereign country with an entrenched political culture of its own. The Syrians, or any other player, have as much chance of remoulding Lebanon in their own image as the US has of reshaping the politics of neighbouring Canada or Mexico into Democrats versus Republicans.

French President Emmanuel Macron said in late September that “he would not give up on an initiative to save Lebanon from collapse, but he was “ashamed” of the country’s leaders and would raise the pressure on them to change course.” In reality however that will always mean dividing the cake between different the sects, and then trying to eat it too.

At present Shia political forces, mainly Hezbollah and the Amal Movement insist on choosing a Shia figure for finance minister, and this is opposed by many of the country’s politicians and religious figures. But this dispute would dwarf into insignificance compared to a suggestion that the Falange (Maronites) would gain greater influence – and that is who the French are associated with, rightly or wrongly, by public and propagandists.

No Repeal

There is also still the matter of a financial lifeline to pay the bills, not only in light of the bomb blast but because the economy is a wreck, the government is dysfunctional and the populace is being driven into abject poverty.

The region hardly needs more poverty and destabilisation, but it benefits some close neighbours in the short term, especially those close to Israel. What solution is offered will depend on what is considered a terrorist organisation, and what political strings can be attached to make it look like the sponsors of these organisations are really opposed to them.

The US does not want a solution to Lebanon’s problems because it does not want a country with a stable economic system on the border with Syria. Stable economics would bring political stability, and therefore empower the natives at the expense of the US – the US doesn’t object to dictatorships per se, despite its professed democratic values, but because they are generally stable, and thus able to speak and act for themselves with less fear of the consequences.

Therefore even if Hezbollah laid down all its arms tomorrow (not likely, but stranger things have happened) the US would insist it was terrorist in order to present itself as the “peaceful, democratic” option. The French initiative does not prop up Hezbollah, but flies in the face of what the US thinks of as its interests simply because it is a potential solution, not because it is the wrong solution.

Hezbollah enjoys a parliamentary majority in Lebanon, and has some Christian and “legitimist” support. Whether you agree with Hezbollah or not, this situation has prevented Lebanon imploding so far, much to the annoyance of Israel, which has always used the country as a terrorist base of its own, whilst bombing and denouncing it for “harbouring” other terrorists.

The US would therefore probably be better served trying to back either the French Initiative, or another international solution which might actually work, i.e. which respects the peculiarities of Lebanon’s system and makes them function in a more transparent and efficient way. The first sign of government collapse would push Iran closer to what remains of the government, and unless that government is swiftly overthrown this will build even greater support for Hezbollah, both domestically and in the international community.

The US cannot show Lebanon a way out of the abyss without providing the services Hezbollah is providing, whether or not they are in government. It should know this, having lived through Prohibition.

The result of that high-minded but ill-thought out venture was that criminal organisations provided not only alcohol, but other things people wanted, and took over neighbourhoods they often still run today. By the time Congress addressed the problem, the damage had been done. No solution, and further disruption, would mean not only Lebanon fails as a state.

Cookies Not Being Cut

However, there is little evidence that the United States has either the capacity or the resolve to lead an international solution to the problems of Lebanon. Instead, it seems to be allowing adversaries of many stripes to advance their interests in the country, in an attempt to find as many other people as possible to blame, who it can then buy off by blaming the Lebanese themselves for everything.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are always ready to jump in. Some pundits know what is on the cards, but who is listening?

As described in The Hill, both the current impasse and any alteration to it give Hezbollah (and by extension, Iran) a freer hand in the south of the country. This makes Israel more vulnerable, and proxy wars between Gulf Arab and Iranian clients in Lebanon cannot be discounted. Consequently tensions in the wider Persian Gulf would be raised, and these would spill back into Lebanon itself.

At one time, great powers used to resolve conflicts in other countries by taking them over and making them part of large empires. Nowadays they do the opposite – chopping countries up into supposedly autochthonous new states in the name of “self-determination,” as in former Yugoslavia, South Sudan, Bangladesh etcetera.

Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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