Lebanon feels the brunt of rising regional tensions

Sunday 23/07/2017
Two faces of the same coin. A Hezbollah supporter carries a picture of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at an event marking Resistance and Liberation Day in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, last May. (Reuters)

When relations between leading Arab countries grow stormy, few feel the gusts as sharply as the Lebanese. Given its unique make-up, many of Beirut’s domestic players rely upon the patronage of at least one regional power and splits between them rarely augur well for Lebanon’s internal harmony.

The reality is that Lebanon’s political identity and its often-conflicted relationship with the region have long been a source of tension. During the 1950s, culminating in the 1956 Suez Crisis, Lebanon’s political factions were forced to weather the ideological storms of Nasser­ism. Inevitably, political crisis and, in 1958, armed conflict followed. During the 1970s, the Palestinian involvement in Lebanon, along with the increased militancy of the country’s parties convulsed the domestic political scene, again resulting in protracted civil strife.

The increasing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah sponsor Iran, on the one hand, and the inter-Gulf crisis on the other have revived heated discussions among the Lebanese regarding what official position their state should assume with regard to its regional partners.

Hezbollah, one of the strongest factions in Lebanon, is deeply affiliated with Tehran. It has fiercely criticised Saudi Arabia, which is regarded by numerous Lebanese parties, including that of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, as a staunch supporter of Lebanon.

Curiously enough, during the latest political storm to engulf the Gulf, Hezbollah, in line with its Iranian sponsors, elected to defend Qatar after years of bitterly accusing it of supporting the opposition groups the Army of God is engaged against in Syria. Similarly, Turkey, which in Syria has been at odds with Iran, Russia and the Damascus regime, has been at pains to distance itself from Riyadh and support Doha.

Needless to say, the balance of power throughout the region is undergoing an unprecedented period of flux, as alliances that will likely define the nature of relations and conflicts in the near future are experiencing dramatic change.

However, for Lebanon, the dilemma is more immediate. As the Gulf rift continues, the country’s freedom to shift and adapt its foreign policy according to circumstances, long a mainstay of Lebanon’s survival, is being squeezed by the intransigence of its warring regional neighbours.

Moreover, should the rift between Qatar and its rivals continue unaddressed, an empty space within the oil rich countries will lie open, one that the Gulf’s own powerful rivals, Iran and Turkey, would be happy to fill. Unfortunately, there is no reason to suppose that reconciliation may occur soon.

Since the Arab League was formed in 1945, unity on a variety of issues has proved elusive. There has never been any consen­sus reached on how to tackle the imposition of Israel on Palestinian territory. Neither have many of the Arab League members established lasting economic ties with each other.

Additional external pressure comes on Lebanon over its relations with its closest historical neighbour, Syria. For years, Lebanon has been home to 1.5 million of Syria’s refugees, yet it has failed to reach any kind of consensus as to what it should do with them or what its relations should be with their country of origin. The presence of such a large number of refugees among an indigenous population of 4 million has placed incredible strains on its economy and infrastructure. However, despite urgent calls to engage with the regime in Damascus, relations remain frozen and Lebanon’s open-door policy remains as it has been since the outbreak of hostilities in 2011.

Lebanon has set out impressive ambitions for itself, ones appar­ently encapsulated within its adoption of a new system of proportional representation. However, as long as it continues to be mired within the present concerns of its neighbours and sponsors, its future remains uncertain.