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Iran’s Lebanon: At Last the Christian Cover is Off

Iran’s Lebanon: At Last the Christian Cover is Off

Thursday, 8 April, 2021 - 04:15

"It is better to arrive late than never" has been the best comment I read on social media on the Easter speech delivered by the Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai.

This speech came while his candid accusations of Hezbollah in a video call were still reverberating. In that video call, Rai criticized the pro-Iran militia for imposing its hegemony on Lebanon, paralyzing its institutions, disabling its government, and pushing the bankrupt, and almost starving country in regional wars, without consulting its people or its political and religious leaders.

The difference, however, between the Easter speech and the video call – made with US-based Christian bishops - is that the former was made directly, and officially, to the Lebanese people in a highly symbolic Christian occasion against a background of horrible collapse and desperation.

Even more significantly, the Patriarch’s frank and carefully worded speech came after two consecutive speeches by Hezbollah’s Sec-Gen Hassan Nasrallah. What Nasrallah said leaves no doubt as to who wields the real and absolute power in a country whose political institutions have become a façade, its judiciary a waste of time, and its economy a lifeless corpse. Indeed, Nasrallah’s speeches, given in a ‘hectoring’ commanding tone, threw off reservations and crossed the Rubicon while Lebanon remains without a cabinet, suffering acute living conditions, and ravaged by Covid-19.

The Patriarch’s call for Lebanon’s neutrality and an international conference to deal with its problems has been a qualitative shift, that brought back the memories of his predecessor Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir's tough stances against the Damascus regime and the Syrian-Lebanese security apparatus that was de facto running Lebanon until February 2005. Sfeir’s courageous opposition reached the stage of refusing to welcome Pope John Paul II when the pontiff visited Syria in May 2001.

On the other hand, just like Patriarch Sfeir, who refused to bring down the then president Emile Lahoud after the ‘2005 Pro-Independence Uprising’ in the aftermath of Rafic Harari’s assassination, Rai adamantly opposed bringing down President Michel Aoun or calling for his resignation.

Obviously, the ‘special regard’ felt towards the presidency and its political symbolism to Lebanon’s Christians, and specifically the Maronites, was behind the two patriarchs’ decisions; although, they were both damaging to the solidarity of the protesting Lebanese from all sects.

The refusal to depose Lahoud confused the ‘2005 Uprising’, and facilitated the infiltration by a ‘fifth column’ that eventually turned against it. Likewise, rejecting the opposition’s demand for Aoun abdication aborted the ‘October 2019 Uprising’, weakened it, and allowed several ‘fifth columns’ to intimidate and divide it led by Hezbollah; in addition to Covid-19 whose terrible effects curtailed well-organized mass action, despite the equally terrible conditions that had justified the uprising in the first place.

As far as Rai is concerned, many have been openly critical of what they regarded as his Christian political ‘cover’ to Aoun, despite the latter’s alliance with Hezbollah. The days have long passed when Aoun claimed that he was ‘the father of (the anti-Hezbollah) UN resolution’ and the US Congress ‘Syria Accountability Act’ as he became Hezbollah’s presidential candidate and the ally of the Iranian influence in Lebanon. Furthermore, Aoun has also become a close ally and associate of Bashar al-Assad’s regime after the Syrian Revolt since 2011.

What further strengthened the impression of Rai's tacit support of Aoun policies was the Patriarch's negative position towards the Syrian Revolt, his expressed doubts about Assad’s opponents, and his warnings against replacing the regime “because any alternative will be worse”. These thoughts were expressed to international circles during the Patriarch’s first visit to France after the Revolt.

Soon afterward, as we know, the real revolutionaries in Syria were besieged and systematically weakened; as regional and international powers strived to hijack and abort the revolution. Some regional players decided to ride the wave of popular discontent, and divert the demands to become vehicles to their ideological agenda; while their regional opponents embarked on confronting the people’s demands with its armed sectarian militias, originally ‘ideologized’ by the mission of ‘exporting the (Iranian) Revolution’.

As for the major international powers, despite the problem of refugees and immigration, they seemed happy that what began as a popular revolution was being transformed into a civil war. Indeed, they waited until the emergence of ISIS provided them with the excuse to keep a regime that has long performed the dual regional tasks of being a ‘mail box’ (between major players) and ‘border guard’ (for Israel).

Thus, after the forced retreat of the Syrian Revolution’s moderate (liberals and progressives) militia organizations fighting under Islamist banners dominated the scene, through the Astana ‘deal’ between Russia, Iran, and Turkey. This is when many Lebanese thought that Patriarch Rai may have been right all along. This impression, however, was always nurtured by pro-Iran security organizations dominant in Lebanon, which were ‘fabricating’ and sponsoring selectively labeled ‘extremist’ groups; just as similar groups were ‘fabricated’ and sponsored inside Syria.

In other words, Iran’s security and military presence managed to redefine ‘extremism’ and give it a single ‘sectarian identity’. So while some extremists were venerated, others from a different sect were demonized after being created, or at least aided and abetted, to be exploited in the future as ‘bogeymen’ along ISIS-lines; which was a very rewarding venture in both Syria and Iraq.

This is exactly what we saw during Barack Obama’s presidency – and somehow even under Donald Trump –, when Washington declared that its main enemy in the Middle East was ISIS; even if this meant reaching deals with Iran, and turning a blind eye to its aggression and regional expansionism.

What has actually happened in Lebanon - and I dare say has been high in Patriarch Rai’s mind – is the political and economic collapse of Lebanon, the perennial soft belly of the Arab Levant. The religiously and confessionally diverse, nationally fragile, culturally rich, and immigration-prone Lebanon may have reached the end of the road.

This is why it is not possible anymore to keep quiet about a regional and sectarian armed ‘occupation’ that is negating the Lebanese state, destroy the economy, and change the demographic nature of the country.

This is exactly the essence of the Patriarch’s message.

Past experiences have shown that Lebanon was not qualified, during ‘the Cold War’ to the ‘Arab Hanoi’; and current realities show that it is unqualified, neither today nor tomorrow to be - in its present demographic fabric - part of the Vali-e-Faqih state and its chief port on the Mediterranean.

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