Too bad the crystal ball on Lebanon’s future has darkened due to a lack of reliable data. There is simply too much conflicting information on what will transpire in 2019. What is clear, however, is that Lebanon will know no sustainable peace whether domestic or regional, unless the current order is dramatically restructured, a remote likelihood as the political culture of Lebanon mitigates against progress if it entails restructuring the political and economic souk that characterizes its norms.
For months we have watched as the competition among Lebanon’s internal players, abetted by their foreign patrons, has ensured that no government is formed that does not reflect Hezbollah’s dominance of the political process. This does not have to be the situation but Hezbollah’s alliance with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) insulates it from any effective counterweight to its prominent role. It seems that President Aoun and the party are struggling for fresh air on this issue with continuing maneuvers that have yet to bring an end to the unyielding stalemate over the allocation of ministerial posts.
Taken together with ominous warnings from internal and external sources, including experts, foreign governments, and international agencies, regarding Lebanon’s economic malaise and the threats of losing pledges made for the country’s reconstruction in exchange for essential reforms, Lebanon’s future seems more dire than when it had a government of sorts in place a decade ago.
President Trump’s announcement of imminent US troop withdrawal from Syria further complicates Lebanon’s scenario as there does not seem to have been any consideration of the fallout to US friends in Jordan and Lebanon, especially minority communities of Christians and others who are caught between relying on existing regimes for their survival and an uncertain future. It would be an interesting statistic to see how many Lebanese have acquired foreign residences in the last year on a monthly basis as an indicator of public confidence.
What is the latest wisdom on the US withdrawal?
The torrent of information pro and con regarding the US withdrawal can yield useful perspectives while Israel rails about incursions on its northern border, Iran deliberates on its next moves in Syria, and the Syria-Russia axis moves against the remaining opposition, with the reluctant assistance of US-trained Kurds fighting ISIS remnants. Useful because the debate helps illuminate perceptions of what US strategic interests are in the region while defending or dismantling the decision. It appears that as we move in time away from the actual announcement, there are more expressions of “so what?” than continuing doomsday predictions.
Here are some of the more interesting assessments. Foreign Policy was one of the first ‘so what’ sources in noting that “Many observers have been quick to see the redeployment as a loss for the United States and a big win for Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, or whomever, and to assume that some or all of these actors will quickly consolidate a lot of valuable influence in Syria. Maybe so, but Syria isn’t much of a prize at this point and may even be something of a liability. It was always a weak state, and its economy and infrastructure have been severely damaged by a punishing civil war. Instead of being a major strategic asset, Syria is more likely to turn into a costly quagmire for the supposed victors.”
On the other hand, The Atlantic represents those who see a net loss for the US both in the region and globally. “Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, concurrently with his intention to drastically reduce the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan and the likely soon-to-be-announced further drawdown of U.S. personnel in Iraq, has made mincemeat of the administration’s efforts to contain Iran. If you add up who wins locally by this decision (the clerical regime in Iran, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite radicals, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) and who loses (Jordan, Israel, the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arabs, everyone in Lebanon resisting Hezbollah, the vast majority of the Iraqi Shia, the Gulf States), it becomes clear that the interests of the United States have been routed.”
Yet others are a bit more sanguine, arguing that cutting our losses was better than an unsustainable, unclear policy. As the National Review put it, “There are always costs to abandoning a bad investment. And yet these costs are preferable to an endless, ever-evolving mission that has no popular support or mandate. What critics of withdrawal refuse to do is describe the actual sustainable ends they want to achieve with America’s military in Syria.”
This is a refrain that has gathered more steam in the past week as pundits moved beyond Trump’s statement to analyzing the actual impact on the US and US foreign policy, In the Washington Post, a contributor noted “But Trump’s decision didn’t cause the US to lose in Syria. For all practical purposes, Syria was already lost. Much like his predecessor, Trump’s decision is motivated by a calculation that the US can’t alter the military or political balance in Syria that has long favored Russia and Iran. To achieve their ends, Russia and Iran have been more willing to devote resources toward keeping Assad afloat than the US has been prepared to either remove him from power or stand behind the assorted elements in Syria who’ve tried and so far failed to overthrow him.”
In the context of the broader region, there are those who see a victory for Iran and others who see Syria as both a millstone around the mullahs’ collective necks and a not-so-great bargain for Russia. In looking at possible benefits to the US, The Hill pointed out that “While the Russian-Turkish-Iranian alliance has solidified Assad’s hold on power in Damascus, the American withdrawal establishes Iran as the major power in the Middle East. Nicholas Heras, the Center for a New American Security’s Middle East fellow, characterized the new balance of power as providing Iran with “solid control over the entire arc of the Levant from Baghdad to Beirut…President Trump wants regional powers to take America’s place in Syria, but he appears to have paved the road for Iran and Russia to fill the vacuum.”
The expected benefits to Iran and others are challenged in an article that appeared in Lobelog.com. “Arguably, the US should never have deployed troops to Syria. No vital American national interest was ever at stake in the outcome. What happens in Syria is far more vital to Turkey, next door; to Russia, with its long-standing strategic presence on the country; to Iraq, seeking a more stable and less violent neighbor; to Bashir al-Assad, whose regime survival depended on military action; to the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), which hoped to establish a caliphate based in eastern Syria; and to Iran, whose influence in the region continues to grow.”
The article maintains that “US troops made and continue to make almost no difference in Syria. They did not deter Turkey from intervention, nor would they deter Turkey from striking at the Kurds. The US troops were inconsequential to the Russians, who had a bigger stake in a military intervention and carried it out, undeterred by Washington. US forces never played a role in the outcome of the civil war, now virtually won by Bashar al-Assad with Russian and Iranian help. They played no role in deterring the Iranians from supporting Assad and extending Iranian influence. Arguably, only in arming, training, and supporting the Kurds against IS did US forces matter.”
Finally, but certainly not the last word, is the challenge to US foreign policy as to what’s next. Without a clear regional strategy except ‘let someone else do it,’ and ‘don’t send us the bill,’ there is no certainty of what matters to the US at this time, as some even question its commitment to Israel. It has been reported that Trump has given Netanyahu the go-ahead to punish Iran and its surrogates to protect its security but there has been no definitive word beyond statements after the Bibi-Pompeo meetings.
As an Arab News posting summarized it, “As the United States withdraws, Assad’s allies Russia and Iran have shown no sign of leaving. Russia sees longtime ally Syria as a strategic asset in its quest to restore a global role, while Iran’s Shiite clerical state sees a religious imperative in fighting Sunni hard-liners and protecting President Bashar Assad, a member of the heterodox Alawite sect.”
I will continue to monitor the collective reporting wisdom to glean a possible US strategy beyond an “America First “ policy that leaves our allies in the area and in Europe wondering how to protect their interests. With Russia now the paramount power-broker in the region and the increased vulnerability of long-time friends Jordan and Lebanon, the future is quite muddled and dangerous.