Misreading Lebanon’s future

Some Lebanese leaders naively rush to Damascus without regard for the prevailing international mood or direction.
Sunday 12/08/2018
Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri (C-R) meets with Russia’s special presidential envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev (2nd L) at his house in downtown Beirut, on July 26. (AP)
Turbulent juncture. Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri (C-R) meets with Russia’s special presidential envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev (2nd L) at his house in downtown Beirut, on July 26. (AP)

If it is clear that external forces are casting a heavy shadow on negotiations for a new government in Lebanon, it doesn’t necessarily mean those forces are directly intervening in the discussions about the quota system being used in the same way Damascus did when it had a grip on Lebanon.

Politicians in Lebanon practise politics according to what they make out of the developments in the region and internationally. Their understanding, however, is often clouded with wishful thinking that produces ready-made recipes they try to impose on this side or the other.

In the end, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri gets mixed views containing judicious and intemperate aspects. This is essentially why it is impossible for him to form a government in the present circumstances.

Hariri’s “steadfastness” in the face of pressure appears to be based on his awareness that the local political factors are affected by external developments, whether close by and in the short term in Syria or in Iran.

Some in Lebanon say US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has revamped the Middle East, overturning the model prevailing in the region since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979.

For them, the United States’ imposition of sanctions on Iran will change the latter’s role in Middle Eastern countries. Therefore, the process of forming a government in Lebanon should consider the debilitation of Iranian influence in the Middle East and that the pro-Iranian coalition in decision-making circles will not make up for this loss.

This is not mere conjecture. Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani had given some time ago his take on the results of the Lebanese legislative elections, stating that Hezbollah and its allies had secured 74 out of 128 seats of the Lebanese parliament.

Soleimani’s reading suggests that Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s parliamentary bloc, led by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, should be seen as part of Hezbollah’s overall legislative share. The line of conduct that Bassil has adopted, with full backing from Aoun, suggests that adhering to Soleimani’s reading is the cipher to the terms and conditions imposed on Hariri in exchange for supporting his suggested cabinet formations.

Aoun and Bassil are demanding a reduction of the ministerial portfolios allocated to the Lebanese Forces, preventing Druze leader Walid Jumblatt from assuming exclusive representation of the Druze in the new government and infiltrating the Sunni ministerial quota with pro-Hezbollah Sunni ministers. These demands reflect Soleimani’s readings and aim at making Lebanon part of Tehran’s sphere of influence.

To get an idea of how anxious the March 8 Alliance camp, led by Hezbollah, is to take shortcuts and quickly impose a de facto reality on the March 14 Alliance camp, all one has to do is look at the feverish campaign by Hezbollah to have Lebanon normalise relations with Damascus.

The impending political deadlock is justified by two contradictory readings. The first reading sees Trump as a harbinger of a new Middle East that would undo Iranian influence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

The second sees in Russian President Vladimir Putin the sign of Syria’s impending fall within the Russian sphere of influence, an event that would rehabilitate Syrian President Bashar Assad and his regime and transform Lebanon into a Moscow satellite. This scenario feeds a nostalgic yearning in Lebanon for a renewed Damascene patronage over Beirut with solid connections inside Lebanon.

The first predicament in Lebanon is that this small country is attempting to anticipate outcomes that even the big boys have not reached. The problem relates to the fact that the Lebanese regard themselves as a mainstay in international politics. They refuse to accept they have no weight or effect in the greater picture.

Even though Washington and the European Union do not admit any political reality in Syria as valid without attaining an international consensus first, some Lebanese leaders naively rush to Damascus without regard for the prevailing international mood or direction.

Those counting on changes against Iran are relying on Trump’s hawkish policies, which would severely punish Iran. At the same time, the US president surprised the world with his willingness to engage in a no-strings-attached meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rohani.

However, Trump’s decisions to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with Iran and to reimpose sanctions were motivated entirely by American interests. Accordingly, any new agreement with Tehran would consider US interests first and Israeli interests second as they relate to Syria. Lebanese interests are the least of their concerns.

It was the interests of Washington and Israel that gave the green light to the late Syrian President Hafez Assad to invade Lebanon in 1976. So, the famous Syrian “guardianship” over Lebanon began when Washington deemed it fit and ended when it saw otherwise.

Still, the firm belief in “major forthcoming changes” in the region is based on the illusion that the United States would be keen to give Lebanon special attention and consider it as one of the cornerstones of American interests in the region.

The Pentagon is still providing the Lebanese military with armament, despite reports, mainly Israeli, of Hezbollah’s infiltration of the Lebanese military. The fact that the world agreed during the recent Rome conference to support the Lebanese Army reflects the international community’s belief in the importance of the role of the Lebanese state and its army following the waning of Iranian influence in the region.

Hezbollah sees this as well and is working along two parallel lines: not to publicly obstruct the government’s formation but hide behind its allies working to that end. Simultaneously, it is endeavouring to secure a comfortable share for itself and its allies in the next cabinet and relieve itself of the heavy burden of liberating the Palestinian territories and slaying the Great Satan.