Paris conference tries to help Lebanon after Hariri crisis
Beirut - Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri issued an international appeal intended to help the country through its present difficulties as it emerges from a highly unique political crisis.
The Paris conference, which addressed Lebanon’s “sovereignty, stability and security,” was opened December 8 by French President Emmanuel Macron, attended by Hariri and co-chaired by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed.
Also in attendance was US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who, after meeting with Hariri, spoke of the need to “encourage” Lebanese officialdom to “move more aggressively” against Hezbollah.
That is something easier said than done, considering that Hezbollah has the upper hand in Lebanese domestic politics. The group maintains direct control over two seats in government and 12 in parliament, in addition to controlling over double the number of affiliates, partners and proxies.
What observers are certain of is that Hezbollah has not been weakened or crushed by its open participation in the war in Syria and that its weapons arsenal remains intact. This means that, no matter how much money is pumped into the Lebanese Army, it will never match the might of Hezbollah.
The conference was not without precedent. In March 2014, the International Support Group for Lebanon staged a high-profile gathering in Paris aimed at elevating the country’s economic woes and obligations considering the mushrooming Syrian refugee crisis. It promised to support the country’s lagging political process and, again, bolster the Lebanese Army for it to meet — if not match — the capabilities of Hezbollah. French President Francois Hollande pledged 100 million euros ($117.5 million) to Lebanon and tried, with little luck, to ensure Lebanon’s neutrality in the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Sadly, none of the above was achieved. Syrian refugees kept pouring into Lebanon, especially the following year. The cost of feeding them, housing them, sending them to school and providing them with electricity and water was colossal for a country unable to satisfy its own citizens.
Consequently, in June 2014, the Support Group had a conference in Rome, this time to cement the international community’s commitments to the Lebanese Army. On that front, as well, nothing happened. Lebanon’s armed forces remain no match for Hezbollah.
It was only natural for Macron to open the most recent proceedings. The president assumed office last May, taking his time with domestic issues before getting worked up in complex foreign policy issues such as those involving the Middle East.
The crux of his country’s attention in the region, however, has always been Lebanon. A colony during 1920-43, Lebanon has occupied the agenda of every French leader since Raymond Poincare, who served as president from 1913- 20. The French helped set up Lebanon’s modern infrastructure and modern city planning. They introduced European institutions such as parliament and a constitution into Lebanese politics. They were committed to supporting Christian rights in Lebanon and providing support for the armed forces and were also involved in the country’s reconstruction after the 1975-90 civil war.
While Macron was settling into the Elysee Palace, Lebanon was going through a political earthquake. Making use of France’s absence, Riyadh is said to have asked its proxy in Lebanese politics, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, to step down in early November. It toyed with the idea of imposing crippling banking sanctions on the country. There was speculation about an Israeli military intervention that would have destroyed Hezbollah — and the entire country along with it.
Hariri’s resignation announcement November 4 plunged Lebanon into the unknown, threatening the short-term political future of Lebanese Sunnis and possibly serving as a blessing in disguise for his opponents to overrun the state. Macron considered the resignation a very bad move — with horrible consequences, especially that it triggered speculation that Hariri himself was being “held against his will” in Saudi Arabia amid a crackdown on powerful emirs carried out by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.
Two weeks into the resignation, Macron invited Hariri to Paris and lunched with the Lebanese prime minister and his family. He spoke on the phone with Lebanese President Michel Aoun and brokered Hariri’s safe return to Beirut and the withdrawal of his resignation.
Aoun promised to lead a national dialogue conference in Beirut and, in return, Macron said he would call on the International Support Group to meet in Paris and help Lebanon.
It is far from clear what the Paris conference would achieve for Lebanon. If Hezbollah does not quit the scene or is disarmed, Saudi Arabia would never walk away, nor would it let its Lebanese allies do so. The same applies to Iran, which always points fingers at Saudi proxies in Lebanese domestics.
Bolstering the Lebanese economy would be painfully difficult. Who in the international community would invest in a country torn apart by internal conflict and co-ruled by a non-state player?
The only thing that Paris could achieve is to maintain the status quo — keep all sides satisfied, content and quiet to avoid plunging the country into more chaos while waiting for a regional settlement to mature, which would enforce a long-term solution, or truce, in Lebanon.