Since Michael Hudson penned his opus on Lebanon, “The Precarious Republic,” I have been addicted to looking behind the curtain to try and understand goings-on in that sliver of a country, endowed with incredible beauty, and multiples of people who claim it as home. The book was written in 1968, that’s 50 years ago, yet the core facts resonate today – Lebanon is a multi-sectarian home to affinity groups that lack a central defining identity as Lebanese without adding a hyphen for their sect, tribe, or religion.
When I first went to Lebanon in the early 70s, this was apparent in the Palestinian, Armenian, Syrian, and other peoples one routinely met in the cabarets and alleyways of Beirut. The World Lebanese Cultural Union was pushing to have Lebanese abroad included in the political life of the country, and Israel routinely bombed “guerilla” havens to remind the country that it had an obligation to protect Israel’s border. Newspapers flourished, each subsidized by a regional power broker or a local one with enough money to literally give away their opinions. It was heady and crazy at the same time. The seeds sowed for Lebanon’s coming traumas were real, constant, and obvious to anyone who took the time to push past the reality show and ask “what’s next?”
Well, it’s show time…Lebanon is deep in crisis, with deepening domestic fault lines being exacerbated, as usual, by external actors who think that Lebanon is the school playground for beating on rival gangs.
The Prime Minister resigning as a “hard shock” to the nation; the Maronite Patriarch visiting the King of Saudi Arabia; Hezbollah’s Secretary-General appealing for calm; the President calling on the PM for clarity; and conspiracy theories and realpolitik crashing headlong into the Mediterranean, only to end up floating on the polluted shoreline. What are we to think, what are we to hope about resolving this latest mess before Lebanon is caught between the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Israel vise or the Saudi Arabia-Israel-Hezbollah-Iran conundrum?
First reality check, While Hezbollah and Lebanon may be relatively easy to attack, the consequences to regional stability are quite complex. The resulting high number of civilian casualties, widespread destruction of infrastructure, and deterioration of the Lebanese central government’s authority will actually exacerbate threats to Israel’s security, further destabilize the region, and leave the main protagonists, Syria and Iran, backed by Russia, unscathed.
Israel may thunder all its wants at Lebanon for its legitimate as well as its contrived agenda, the bottom line is the same – Lebanon cannot change its internal reality, it is in an impossible situation. Hezbollah outguns the LAF but doesn’t want another civil war, since that would distract from its self-defined role as a defender of Lebanon’s territorial integrity. Israel’s war messages give Hezbollah greater credibility in the minds of the local Lebanese and Arab people.
Second reality check, Hezbollah has to decide, is its future in a multi-confessional Lebanon or is it truly an Iranian proxy that will allow hundreds, perhaps thousands of Shia and other Lebanese to die for Iran? The Saudi distemper towards Hezbollah corresponds to Hezbollah’s disregard for solidly endorsing a policy of disassociation from regional conflicts. It is time for the party of God to calculate where it should be placing its bets and realize that it has a very good deal in Lebanon but only if it is committed to the country’s independence and territorial integrity.
If war comes, the likely humanitarian crisis, which has already resulted in Lebanon hosting 1.5 million Syrian refugees in addition to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, Iraqis, and others in the country, will add large numbers of internally displaced Lebanese to the mix, resulting in a fragile state teetering on becoming a failed state…just what the region doesn’t need.
As the Saudi-Lebanon drama continues, we will look ahead in the next blog as what a failed state in Lebanon would mean, for all the players.