A Lebanese solution today or regional conflict tomorrow
Lebanon’s cedars resemble a sun-dried forest awaiting the spark: Escalating civil disorder, violence by armed factions, assassinations, state failure, financial collapse ... this is the same remorseless path into civil war that we passively watched Libya, Syria and Yemen pursue after 2011. Have we learned nothing?
Like Nero fiddling while Rome burns, Lebanon’s discredited political classes can proudly boast a year of wasted efforts toward forming a competent, technocratic government, each time predictably met with dogmatic refusals by Michel Aoun, Gebran Bassil and Hassan Nasrallah — who insist on flooding the administration with corrupt loyalists, while Lebanon implodes before our eyes.
Hence the outbreak of mass public support (and naked panic from Hezbollah) at Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai’s proposals for a new way forward in his speech last week to a large and diverse audience including Sunni, Shiite, Druze and Christian leaders. Nevertheless, Rai is being viciously denounced as a “traitor” by figures who long-ago sold their souls to Tehran, and whose obstructionism was denounced by the patriarch as a “coup against Lebanese society.”
Yet Rai’s proposals for “internationalizing” the situation will achieve nothing if the international community has no desire to get involved, or if France, America and Britain on one side, and Russia and China on the other, act to frustrate each other’s efforts.
Any meaningful action would require France and Russia to agree on a way forward, given their ability to compel Lebanese factions to cooperate. An overburdened Biden administration, an introverted UK, and a COVID-blitzed EU and China have scant appetite for prioritizing Lebanon — but would they rather grapple with a political crisis today, or another regionalized war tomorrow?
There is no viable path forward that Hezbollah would voluntarily agree to, because the international donors and GCC support required to salvage Lebanon would never countenance Hezbollah being a significant part of the administration. Hence the need for active Russian involvement in compelling Iran and Hezbollah to refrain from resorting to violence to sabotage such a route. Both Paris and Moscow have already demonstrated their desire to rescue Lebanon through diplomatic support for government formation efforts. But are they willing to do what it really takes to address this unraveling catastrophe?
In parallel with Rai’s call for internationalization, the other side of the coin is his insistence on Lebanon’s “neutrality” – i.e. the Lebanese state and its component factions not being on the payroll of any foreign power, whether Western states, Arab regimes, Russia or Iran. “Failure to respect neutrality is the sole cause of all the crises and wars that the country has gone through,” he argued in his speech last week. “There is no state with two powers within it, nor with two armies or two peoples.” Lebanon can never enjoy stability or tranquility without the full disarmament of all nonstate entities: Palestinians, Hezbollah, criminal gangs, extremists and political factions.
Amid Lebanon’s furiously escalating sectarian and factional tensions, a single incident risks triggering all-out conflict.
Given the patriarch’s powerful spiritual role, and the respect he also enjoys among non-Christians, he can play an immense role in breaking the political gridlock. We have seen a comparable role in Iraq from Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who intervened at critical junctures to force politicians to overcome their differences, and worked to obstruct Tehran’s schemes for dominating Iraq’s theological and political spheres. Pope Francis’ Iraq visit likewise has high ambitions for encouraging national unity and protection of minorities. I normally strongly oppose the interference of theocrats in politics — but what other options remain once politicians have repeatedly failed?
The patriarch’s intervention could be the final gasp for Lebanese and Middle Eastern Christianity: With each new bout of civil conflict the Christian population has plunged, as hundreds of thousands flee persecution and extremism. The self-serving, traitorous alliance with Hezbollah by Christian leaders like Aoun and Bassil has accelerated Lebanese Christianity’s demise. This represents a catastrophe for Christianity, but also a disaster for Lebanese and Middle Eastern diversity, as a bastion against Tehran’s intolerant, monolithic worldview.
Amid Lebanon’s furiously escalating sectarian and factional tensions, a single incident risks triggering all-out conflict. Lest we forget, the Lebanese civil war effectively erupted within a single day — April 13, 1975, known as Black Sunday. In a similar context of explosive inter-factional tensions, a drive-by church shooting triggered a retaliatory massacre against a busload of Palestinians. Hundreds were killed as clashes escalated throughout the following days.
For the world at large, this isn’t just about another civil war: Lebanon would be swamped with weapons as regional powers rush to back their favored factions, while the West and nearby states would be swamped with new influxes of refugees.
The collapse of Lebanon would suck in Israel as it sought to prevent Hezbollah consolidating its own terrorist state upon the smouldering ruins. America and the West would likewise be drawn in, anxious to protect their favored Israeli ally, faced with the existential threat of being encircled by anarchic failed statelets under Persian hegemony, populated by millions of starving, desperate, and war-ravaged citizens.
For the ayatollahs of Tehran, the nuclear issue, their enmity toward the West, Arab states and Israel, and their paramilitary encroachments in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, are one and the same conflict. A conflagration in Lebanon would put Iran’s paramilitary proxies in several states, armed to the teeth with medium-range missiles, on a war-footing — making the entire region a highly explosive powder keg.
Exactly a year ago, governments around the world acted several months too late because they lacked the foresight to comprehend how a virus in an obscure region of China could spread like wildfire, killing millions. Today, we are similarly just a couple of incidents away from Lebanon and the region being dragged back into devastating new rounds of conflict with profound global ramifications.
Patriarch Rai is wisely inviting the world to take decisive action now, in order to prevent such apocalyptic scenarios. Is anybody listening?
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.