Lebanon is fragile yet resilient
Beirut - Lebanon, once the most turbulent spot in the Arab world, has surprisingly remained relatively stable while war in neighbouring Syria rages on unabated and grows ever more complex.
Security and political “cover” from international and regional powers, coupled with a level of understanding among rival Lebanese parties, has prevented Syria’s war from engulfing Lebanon. That is expected to continue in 2016, while leaving Lebanon in the “intensive care unit” until there is an overall settlement in the region.
Lebanon has been functioning without a president since May 2014, a government that proved incapable of running the country’s affairs, an almost paralysed parliament and deteriorating economic and social conditions. Hosting more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees has exhausted its limited resources in the absence of proper international assistance.
It was not easy to deal with the implications of Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria to support President Bashar Assad’s regime and the subsequent terror attacks and suicide bombings claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadist groups, such as the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a local al-Qaeda affiliate; and Jabhat al- Nusra, the Syrian wing of al-Qaeda.
But Lebanon showed great resilience.
“Presently and for the past three or four years, we have been under a security and political cover by regional and international states for their own interests,” said Riad Tabbarah, a former Lebanese ambassador to the United States. “No one has an interest in the situation in Lebanon getting out of control, neither Iran, nor the US nor Saudi Arabia or any other effective powers. Their main concern is to have stability in Lebanon.”
It is perhaps fortunate then that nothing is likely to change in 2016, despite progress in bringing Syria’s rival parties to the negotiating table.
To Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, the balance of power inside Syria is not poised to “change dramatically neither for this or that side/party” and the Lebanese rival forces, divided over the Syrian conflict, are to maintain a minimum level of understanding to spare their country from reaching “the point of explosion”.
“Truly, I cannot see anything that would change this equation,” Sayigh said. “Of course, there is the socio-economic crisis, the problem of the weak institutions. All that is not encouraging and could pave the way for problems in the future.”
A glimpse of hope to end the country’s political paralysis came from Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who called for “a basket deal” to elect a new president, form a new government and reactivate the parliament — all based on the 1989 Taif accord that ended the country’s 1975-90 civil war.
Nasrallah practically dismissed — or at least shelved — a previous hint for revising the Taif sectarian power division in such a way that the Shias could have a bigger influence. He probably reached the conclusion that the Syrian crisis would take longer to solve and thus the importance of consolidating Lebanon’s internal dynamic had increased.
Saad Hariri, a former prime minister and leader of the Sunni Future Movement, was quick to respond to Nasrallah’s call by surprisingly proposing to elect Suleiman Frangieh — a close Hezbollah ally — as president but the effort hit a snag.
“If the international community, which often intervenes when stability in Lebanon is seriously threatened, pursues its efforts, I can expect the election of a president during the first quarter of next year,” Tabbarah said. “All want Lebanon to be on low fire while waiting for a comprehensive settlement in the region.”
Attention, however, remains focused on Hezbollah and whether it will start withdrawing its fighters from Syria.
“I can’t see that Hezbollah’s plan is [to achieve] a complete victory in Syria but rather to maintain its position in Lebanon and its relation with Iran,” Sayigh said. “It has been clear for a long time that the party is trying to limit its intervention [in Syria]. It wishes if there is a way out but this is not in its hands only. It depends on Assad and if he is ready for serious negotiations [to end the war]. It is clear he is not.”
Hezbollah is trying to “preserve the military balance” in the Syria war and thus “cannot withdraw and leave things as they are”, added Sayigh.
Being busy with the Syria war, Hezbollah has no interest in “opening a new front” with Israel.
“Hezbollah was in fact playing the role of strategic deterrence for Iran in Lebanon,” explained Sayigh. “After the [US-Iran] nuclear deal, this is no more a priority.”
With a strong currency and banking system as well as some $8 billion in remittances every year, Lebanon’s economy is not likely to collapse despite its numerous deficiencies, according to Tabbarah.
If things take a turn for the worst, Lebanon can always count on the world’s help to come to its rescue.