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Redirecting Lebanon’s Compass Precedes the Govt and Initiatives

Redirecting Lebanon’s Compass Precedes the Govt and Initiatives

Monday, 19 July, 2021 - 12:00

Will Saad Hariri’s stepping down from forming a Lebanese government nine months after being designated exacerbate the Lebanese crisis further, or will it have no effect? If he had been able to form a new government, would it have been anything more than a dose of oxygen that prolongs Lebanon’s decline as it awaits regional developments, most of which are hypothetical?

In truth, it is difficult to believe that the formation of a government is the remedy for what Lebanon is going through and the state it finds itself in on all levels. It is also difficult to believe that central regional and international states that enjoy cordial relations with Lebanon, like France, the United States, Britain, Egypt and others in the region, are convinced of this and that they are genuinely striving to resolve the crisis at the roots, not just “treating wounds.” It is also difficult to believe in the “extraordinary” ability to obstruct and confront these countries’ initiatives after they were dropped on the authorities in Lebanon.

The decision to step down despite all the support that Hariri received perhaps reveals that Lebanon is suffering from an intractable disease that makes it impossible to reach effective, sustainable and balanced solutions without significant obstacles, and indicates that those major countries are either unable or unwilling to overcome these impediments or both.

The attempt to compel Saudi Arabia to re-engage with Lebanon and play an active role is the most prominent aspect of the international chatter about Lebanon. It started with the meeting in Bkirki to celebrate the one-hundred-year-old relationship between the Kingdom and the Maronite Patriarchate, which was followed by the US and French ambassadors’ visits to Saudi Arabia to go over the meeting in Rome that brought together the French, US and Saudi ambassadors. In turn, this was followed by the Saudi ambassador’s visit to Maarab, where he met the head of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, after having met with the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture of Beirut and Mount Lebanon in Beirut.

This movement affirmed the divergence between the Saudi assessment of the Lebanese crisis and those of the US and France. The objectives they seek to realize do not differ; rather, the divergence is in their assessments of the root of the crisis, its core and the order of priorities for arriving at a successful resolution to it. It seems that Hariri’s decision to step down proved that the Saudi assessment is clearer and more correct.

Washington and Paris are aware of the gravity that Lebanon’s collapse has reached, and they are striving to mitigate it through humanitarian aid first and financial and economic aid second. The pathway to receiving this aid is the formation of a government that breathes some life into Lebanon until the internal affairs and developments in the region crystalize. They are also aware, with no illusions or ambiguity, that Hezbollah’s dominance, and behind it, its sponsor Iran, over the country is the root cause of the country’s afflictions and that they have failed to address this problem, or, to put it bluntly, they are unwilling to confront it, at least at this stage.

France has economic ties with Iran, and it is not ready, at the moment, to sacrifice these ties. It is pinning its hopes on the ongoing negotiations in Vienna and playing a prominent role in the attempt to bring Washington back to the nuclear deal. For this reason, any confrontation with Iran or any of its vassals in the region is not on the French radar. Indeed, the opposite is happening, Paris is trying to fortify its ties with them, and the head of Loyalty to Resistance parliamentary bloc Mohammad Raad’s statements on the Al-Nour radio station - one of the rare occasions on which he has spoken publicly recently - about the party’s warm relations with France seemed to allude to ongoing communication between his party and the French, allusions that were confirmed by the French Presidential Envoy Patrick Durrell’s “friendly” visit to Raad.

As for the US, there are two reasons that it does not want its confrontation with Hezbollah to go beyond sanctions. The first is the Vienna negotiations; so long as they are ongoing, it will be difficult for the US to confront its Iranian sponsor. The second is that this stance comes within the framework of a more general US policy to withdraw from the region, and the most eloquent and recent manifestation of this policy is the decision to pull out from Afghanistan. As long as confronting Hezbollah and its sponsor Tehran is shelved, attempts to salvage the situation will be limited to painkillers, bandages and the sparse provision of aid aimed at containing the ongoing collapse’s repercussions; they will not deal the core of the problem, Hezbollah’s control of Lebanese decision-making and its dominance over the entire country.

With that, Paris and Washington are trying to bring balance back the Lebanese scene, and they believe, rightfully, that this can only happen once Saudi Arabia comes back and gets involved in Lebanon, an involvement that would provide the Sunni cover required for a new solid government and would support the Sunnis in Lebanon especially and the anti-Iranian axis, in all its sects, more broadly. It would also lessen the Sunni-Christian tensions that Hezbollah, along with its ally the Free Patriotic Movement, are inflaming. Of course, it would also provide much-need financial and economic support.

However, the Saudi position differs from the French and American positions. It considers that seeking short-term solutions is no longer useful, that such solutions would be nothing but ticking time bombs. Providing cover for the incoming government and trying to solve the problem through the provision of humanitarian aid and an economic and financial lifeline would only serve Hezbollah and would therefore not solve the problem. Indeed, it would prolong and exacerbate it.

Since the 1990s, the West’s approach to the Lebanese crisis has been founded on a formula of temporary solutions, securing financial and economic support from the Gulf and leaving the axis of Syria and Iran to manage politics. Put straightforwardly, the Kingdom refuses to act on the basis of this formula, and, in this context, we can understand that its position on Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s appointment is not personal and does not hinge on a whim. The problem is not with Hariri but with any figure tasked with maintaining the political status quo, that is, Iranian hegemony.

Briefly, the Kingdom, from now on, does not want to provide cover for the Iranian role in Lebanon, and it does not forget that some Lebanese stabbed it in the back, like when Hariri and some of his allies concluded the presidential settlement in 2016. In addition, the Kingdom is busy with bigger regional problems that threaten its national security, while Lebanon lost its place in the pecking order due to Syrian hegemony over the country, its Iranian dimension, its domestic turbulence and the recklessness of its politicians.

In the end, we have to admit that the international and regional concern for Lebanon is far more potent than the internal players’ role and that this is a central pillar of the crisis. The Lebanese are preoccupied with either distributing roles, being appointed to positions or striking deals, implementing imagined and unrealistic solutions that are totally removed from the reality in the country, or they overlook the central problem, that the state has been hijacked by Hezbollah.

The last point is particularly useful for explaining Riyadh’s stance and its reluctance to become more involved in Lebanon than it has been recently, despite the significance of this recent involvement. Indeed, it was particularly significant for containing the dispute being cooked up between Sunnis and Christians through attempts at making changes to the Taif Agreement and the obtuse rhetoric about restoring Christians rights and president of the republic’s prerogative, all of which ultimately benefit the Iranian axis, providing it with artificial and bloated Christian cover.

Neither Hariri’ return to power nor his decision to step down, nor the question of whether the government is formed or not, nor implementation of reforms or the abstention from doing so would provide the desired solution so long as Iran dominates the state, infringes on the country’s sovereignty and controls its decision-making. What is required is an effort to redirect the regional and international compass, first by recognizing the reality on the ground, a task demanded first and foremost of Christian leaders. Second, the obvious must be affirmed; no adequate solutions can be realized without a balanced partnership with all Muslims, especially Sunnis, who have become the bearers of the slogan, “Lebanon first.”

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