Lebanon’s leaders are blithely taking the country toward the hegemony of Iran and Syria which will hasten the waning sympathy of the West toward Lebanon, argues Basem Shabb
Lebanon’s geopolitical importance to Western powers has been slowly eroding over the last several years. After Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, a long and sustained effort to support Lebanon economically and militarily has failed to produce tangible results. The economic situation is in dire straits and recent elections have solidified Hezbollah’s grip on Parliament. Iranian influence seems unopposed with Syrian allies emboldened as Bashar Assad emerges from a seven-year civil war secure in power. Lebanon’s loss of international standing and its deep drift into the Syrian-Iranian camp will have dire consequences on Lebanon as a prosperous and independent nation.
The repercussions of this geopolitical shift eastward are nothing short of catastrophic. As the US and the West see little hope of reversing this trend and no strategic interests in Lebanon that warrant action or major investment, Lebanon will fall under the influence of regional powers with little respect for its sovereignty, prosperity or liberal cultural heritage. Iran and Syria will be left unopposed in sharing hegemony over our country.
“The repercussions of this geopolitical shift eastward are nothing short of catastrophic”
Few Lebanese politicians recognize this scenario which takes the country back to the post-civil war era of the 1990s when Syria was given a free hand to control Lebanon until forced to relinquish its grip by the international community and the domestic Cedar revolution after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.
At fault is an overblown sense of importance and entitlement by Lebanese leaders that made it possible to ally themselves with Iran without losing Western support. It is no secret that US-Iranian detente under President Barack Obama, culminating in the JCPOA nuclear deal in 2015, has encouraged such double dealing. Lebanon was no longer a fault line.
Lebanese leaders do not recognize the change that has come about in Washington. Stability and security in Lebanon, they think, is a priority for western powers even though it nurtures Iranian hegemony. Collusion between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) will be tolerated, they believe. The Syrian civil war also fed into this narrative. Stability is desirable since Lebanon hosts Syrian refugees and is a partner in the war on terrorism. A breakdown in Lebanon could flood Europe with hundreds of thousands of refugees, a point often used by Lebanese officials to solicit European aid. The US and the EU, our leaders think, will have to support Lebanon no matter what.
Like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, where every day repeats itself no matter what, our leaders think they can conduct affairs without regard to changing conditions. Nowhere is this more evident than in conducting foreign affairs where hurling insults at foreign ambassadors, international aid agencies, and friendly countries, small and large, while expecting them to stay the course is seen as normal. The poor handling of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Lebanon, the first visit by a German leader in 120 years, stands out. Lebanon’s diplomatic isolation was most evident at this year’s United Nations General Assembly in New York where President Michel Aoun did not meet a single Western leader.
Unfortunately, this sense of entitlement among our politicians has also afflicted some government institutions such as the LAF. The LAF has enjoyed considerable support from the US but often has completely ignored serious US concerns, preferring instead to appease local players. A case in point was the invitation of the Russian ambassador to be the keynote speaker at a conference in May 2017 organized by Research and Strategic Studies Center, the LAF’s think-thank.
Notably, there were no American participants at the conference. Russia’s efforts to build a military partnership with the LAF has also alarmed US officials. And the LAF has yet to fulfill its obligation to deploy 15,000 troops into the southern Lebanon border district patrolled by the UN peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL.
With the Trump administration focused on curbing Iranian influence, Hezbollah has come under increasing pressure, as well as its Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement. During the 2006 conflict with Israel, Hezbollah stressed its independence from the Lebanese government, but now it seeks legitimacy to protect itself from looming sanctions. Targeting Hezbollah will now affect the state in which Hezbollah, with its allies, has a majority in parliament and soon in the government.
But the comfortable assumption of our leaders is that any targeting of Hezbollah will undermine stability which, being vital for the international community, will, therefore, discourage heavy-handed sanctions. While the EU might buy into this tactic, as many of its diplomats remain in contact with Hezbollah, it is more likely that the current US administration will not. One only need examine the withholding of US aid to the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA, the UN agency providing assistance to Palestinian refugees, to realize that stability is not the overriding consideration from Mr. Trump and his team.
With Lebanon fast becoming a US-Iranian fault line, like it was in the 1980s, mitigating factors such as confronting the Islamic State (ISIS) and hosting refugees have become less relevant. In fact, ISIS is no longer a credible threat in the Lebanese-Syrian border area. Ironically, as the LAF was about to deal the coup de grace to ISIS last August in its Dawn of the Jurd operation, Hezbollah secretly brokered a deal with the group which allowed the militants to escape Lebanon in exchange for revealing the location of the nine LAF soldiers they had abducted and murdered. The deal was most embarrassing to the LAF and exposed the limits of the Lebanese government’s authority. As for the Syrian refugee issue, Russian diplomacy has taken charge to the exclusion of the US and the EU, the main financial benefactors.
“It is increasingly apparent that no amount of economic or military aid can effectively reverse or curtail Hezbollah’s influence”
It is increasingly apparent that no amount of economic or military aid can effectively reverse or curtail Hezbollah’s influence. Nor can US or western aid insure them a seat at the table. The two main arguments given for continued aid, namely counterterrorism and Syrian refugees, have become less consequential to the donor countries and particularly to the US with the elimination of ISIS from Lebanese territory and the Russian takeover of Syrian refugee repatriation.
In the age of identity politics, the US finds itself in Lebanon dealing with a Shia community supportive of Hezbollah by and large and a Sunni community with a sizable majority distrustful and resentful of the US pro-Israeli position. The Levantine Christian community, much affected by attrition and persecution, is divided. A fairly large segment represented by President Michel Aoun is allied with Hezbollah, Iran, and to a lesser extent, Syria. It’s antipathy to the West is visceral and laced with conspiracy theories.
Thirteen years after Syria withdrew from Lebanon under US pressure, and despite massive US aid, Lebanon is drifting eastward.
The economic cost of Iranian hegemony has been crippling. The ascendency of Hezbollah has weakened commercial ties with the Gulf states as well as subjecting Lebanon to US sanctions. While many blame corruption and poor governance for Lebanon’s economic woes, few are willing to invoke the role of Hezbollah in alienating capital through direct aggression or intimidation.
The political cost for Lebanon will be even higher. Western relations had provided leverage against falling completely under the sway of regional zones of influence. But if the eastward drift is consolidated, it is likely that many of the freedoms currently enjoyed by Lebanese political parties, media, and educational institutions will be curtailed. Life under Syrian rule before 2005 is a stark reminder of the fate that awaits Lebanon should it continue on its present course. A resurgent Syria will probably try to fill the vacuum along with Iran. It may take decades to free Lebanon from such bondage.
The Lebanese government must change course, reassert more of its sovereignty, and strengthen ties with Western and other international powers. The LAF has to become assertive in projecting Lebanese sovereignty, particularly in the south. And Lebanese leaders must remember that Lebanon is an independent sovereign nation that must not fall prey to regional dictatorships. It is a long shot to hope for but the alternative is dismal.
Basem Shabb is a former member of the Lebanese parliament