Beirut summit will only further pull Lebanon to the abyss

Lebanon under Saad Hariri is no longer the appealing post-war success story that owes its resurgence to the Arabs but merely a willing hostage of Iran and its militia.
Sunday 13/01/2019
Poor prognosis. Lebanese President Michel Aoun (R) speaks with Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, last December.  (AP)
Poor prognosis. Lebanese President Michel Aoun (R) speaks with Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, last December. (AP)

The last time Beirut hosted a regional Arab summit, Lebanon and perhaps the world were totally different. In 2002, Lebanon was a quasi-Syrian protectorate with a political system subservient to the Assad regime.

More important, the US-led invasion of Iraq had not yet occurred and Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were still at bay and forbidden from meddling in the affairs of many Arab countries.

Seventeen years ago, the summit was a testament of Arab support for Lebanon and its government under Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a larger-than-life figure who protected Lebanon and its economy from both internal and regional turmoil.

As it stands, however, the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit, later this month in Beirut, rather than strengthening Lebanon’s position vis-a-vis its Arab neighbours, will further expose it to the many regional schisms that Lebanon’s political establishment neither has the acumen nor the will to navigate.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Hezbollah’s main Christian ally, is adamant for the summit to take place on time because it projects him as a true statesman and conceals the fact that the country’s governance structure is in shambles.

Joining him in the desire to see the summit through is Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, whose inability to form a government has been made even harder by Aoun’s party’s unrealistic demands for government portfolios.

Equally, Hezbollah is working to impose its own terms on Hariri, who, over the years, has made many concessions to both Syria and Iran, ones that have made him a collaborator in the eyes of some Arab Gulf countries.

Mistakenly, both Aoun and Hariri see the summit as an occasion to lobby the Arab world, mainly the oil-rich Gulf countries, to bail out Lebanon and its unsalvageable economy and, just as it did on numerous other occasions, to rebuild the country’s barely existent infrastructure.

However, if the Beirut summit does take place, it will only confirm a few essential facts that the Lebanese refuse to acknowledge or even contemplate.

For any of the Arab monarchs or even for their crown princes to make the trip to Beirut and to offer anything beyond token support, the Lebanese government must unequivocally prove its friendship and camaraderie to its Arab guests. This might prove an extremely difficult undertaking because the Lebanese government has failed time and again to curb the influence of Hezbollah over the state and prevent it from doing Iran’s bidding in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and beyond.

Consequently, Lebanon under Saad Hariri is no longer the appealing post-war success story that owes its resurgence to the Arabs but merely a willing hostage of Iran and its militia.

Equally, this summit will antagonise and further radicalise the Syrian-Iranian axis, which looks at the event as an opportunity to flex its muscles and gloat about its so-called victories in the region.

Above all, Iran wants to return Syria to the Arab League, ending a suspension of its membership since 2011. Yet this bullish wishful thinking is insufficient to end Syria’s Arab isolation because it requires the consensus of all 21 members of the Arab League for Bashar Assad to make his Beirut trip.

Iran’s and Syria’s local allies, chiefly among them Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law and political heir, have been openly lobbying for Assad’s return by claiming that such a measure would be within Lebanon’s economic interests.

Bassil’s simplistic yet sinister logic exposes the crux of Lebanon’s problems: The country’s political elite believe they can play both sides of the regional conflicts and get away with it.

The Beirut summit might appear to be a much-needed economic lifeline to Lebanon; however, the Lebanese would be better to wave off this perilous chance, which will only be a disappointment to all sides involved but more so to the Lebanese who are looking at a no-win situation at best, a scenario that can only pull the country further into the political abyss.

14