Lebanon’s Other Problem: Neutrality in Regional Affairs

Amidst the terrible news out of Lebanon about a collapsed economy, malfunctioning political system, and great social stress, the country is once again faced with a delicate decision about its identity and foreign policy, issues that were assumed to have been settled at independence in 1943. This reevaluation has become more urgent as Hezbollah forces the government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab in a new direction that ties Lebanon’s fate to that of Syria and Iran, distances the country from the wider Arab world, and limits its relations with western countries. Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai of the Maronite Church––the largest Christian denomination in Lebanon––recently decried the policies of Hezbollah and its ally, President Michel Aoun (also a Maronite), and called for reaffirming Lebanon’s neutrality in regional affairs. Long considered a conciliator between different Maronite-based political factions, Rai’s call for safeguarding Lebanon’s neutrality has elicited both criticism and accolades. At the same time, however, it opened the door to heated discussions about the future of the country just as its government fails to address the current internal political and socioeconomic catastrophe.

A Hybrid Identity

Lebanon’s political leaders had agreed in 1943 on a formulation of a hybrid identity for Lebanon that satisfied its sectarian communities and combined its overall Arab character with a license to look westward. In doing so, they appeared to have secured the population’s belief in—and allegiance to—the entity that was created in 1920 by France, the mandatory power. Greater Lebanon had become a separate polity from its Syrian and Arab hinterland with the blessing of a newly created League of Nations, controlled then by France (which was considered the Maronites’ historical protector) and Great Britain, France’s partner in the eastern Mediterranean after the First World War.

At independence in 1943, and to assuage both Christians’ and Muslims’ concerns, a National Pact between sectarian elites assured the Lebanese of continued open relations with the West while preserving their perceived, real, and deep connection to the wider Arab world. They also devised a political formula that ostensibly satisfied all sectarian groups and assured their participation in developing and strengthening the consociational arrangement that organized relations among state organs and between these and the constituent communities of the country. Principally, the presidency was allocated to the Maronite Christians, the prime minister’s position to the Sunni Muslims, and the speakership of parliament to the Shia Muslims. The pact was reaffirmed in the Taif Agreement of 1989 that marked the end of the civil war and chartered the Second Lebanese Republic, though it readjusted the sectarian allocations by granting the Muslims equality with Christians in terms of representation and power in state institutions.

Today, the national pact is again under strenuous pressure that is alarming the wary eyes of the heirs of Lebanon’s founders and raising questions about the country’s identity.

This formula was exposed to many serious challenges in the country’s history, most specifically the civil disorder in 1958, a series of crises in the 1960s and 1970s, and the civil war of 1975-1990. Today, the pact is again under strenuous pressure that is alarming the wary eyes of the heirs of Lebanon’s founders and raising questions about the country’s identity. While the original sectarian balance in the three top positions is being preserved, adherents to the old formulation disapprove of the radical change that Hezbollah is effecting in the general direction of the country. The debate in Beirut today is no longer about Lebanon’s hybrid western-Arab identity; rather, it is about Hezbollah’s choice to make the country walk in the footsteps of Syria and the Islamic Republic of Iran and join their so-called “axis of resistance.” Such a choice pushes Lebanon away from both its Arab identity and its place in the western-oriented group of nations.

Hezbollah’s Clear Preferences

Choosing a foreign orientation that dovetails with Iran’s policies is calamitous news to many in Lebanon who, for years, have decried the positions and policy choices of Hezbollah and its leaders. In a public admission in 2016, Hezbollah’s Nasrallah minced no words discussing his party’s full dependence on Iran. In September 2019, the Lebanese became more apprehensive when Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah declared that his organization is loyal to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and will be part of Iran’s defense, should the Islamic Republic be attacked. Following the killing of Quds Force Commander General Qassem Soleimani in January by the American military, Nasrallah also promised to retaliate against American forces and to work to end their presence in the region. That Hezbollah chose to declare allegiance to a foreign leader is a dangerous––some may say treasonous––development; moreover, it exposes the entire country to detrimental outcomes.

Just as the US Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act went into effect in June, Nasrallah urged the Lebanese government to start importing Iranian fuel, foodstuffs, and goods to skirt American sanctions. If implemented, this would threaten any chances of recovery the country may have, considering the leverage the United States wields on international lending institutions. Since 2014, Iran has been trying to supply the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) with weapons, ostensibly to fight terrorists. In 2019, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif renewed the offer, which Hezbollah naturally welcomed. If accepted, such an offer would result in at least a cutoff of US aid to the Lebanese army, estimated to have reached some $1.7 billion since 2006; it would also mean a radical change in the LAF’s military doctrine and esprit de corps. This reorientation of foreign policy preferences comes as the Party of God increases its control over the Lebanese polity and as Lebanon finds itself without options to address its deep political and socioeconomic problems.

The effort to tie Lebanon’s fate and policy with Iran includes a clear attempt to open Lebanon up to full diplomatic relations with the Syrian government, after Hezbollah’s involvement in the Assad regime’s war against the opposition since 2012. 

The effort to tie Lebanon’s fate and policy with Iran includes a clear attempt to open Lebanon up to full diplomatic relations with the Syrian government, after Hezbollah’s involvement in the Assad regime’s war against the opposition since 2012. To be sure, the party recently retrieved the bodies of seven of its fighters who were killed in action in Syria in 2013, and one of its cadres was recently killed in an Israeli air attack near Damascus. In 2017, and in a departure from Lebanon’s adherence to Arab League decisions on isolating the Syrian regime, government ministers from Hezbollah and fellow Shia Amal Movement caused a government crisis when they announced their intention to travel to Damascus as representatives of the government. In 2012, then-Lebanese President Michel Suleiman had convened a national dialogue in which Hezbollah participated to discuss, among other things, ways to keep Lebanon uninvolved in Syria’s civil war. Participants signed what came to be known as the Baabda Declaration, which spelled the principles of a policy of dissociation from Syrian affairs. Nothing came of the declaration because Hezbollah only increased its involvement in the Syrian crisis.

Hezbollah has also maintained a robust smuggling network across the Lebanese-Syrian border to transport food, fuel, and medical supplies. Recently, the party boasted about the asphalt paving of an illegal dirt road between the two countries which skirts security watchtowers built by the British military for use by the Lebanese army. This smuggling network has become essential for the party’s operations in Syria, especially after the implementation of the Caesar Act, which Nasrallah says is intended to starve both Lebanon and Syria.

Fears about Neutrality

The abandonment of the 2012 dissociation policy and the deeper embrace of Iran and Syria have raised fears among religious and political forces who are intent on maintaining Lebanon’s neutrality in the battle for power and national identity in Syria. Patriarch Rai’s admonition about neutrality to Hezbollah and its allies was also meant to preserve Lebanon’s relations with the larger Arab world, especially the Gulf countries that employ many Lebanese. His emphasis has also been to link the lack of neutrality with problems of poverty in Lebanon, a clear reference to the idea of decreasing economic reliance on the Gulf to help address Lebanon’s troubles today. Religious leaders of other Christian denominations seconded his call. A prominent Shia religious leader at odds with Hezbollah and with a large following, Sayyed Ali El-Amine, provided crucial non-Christian-affiliated backing as political leaders opposed to the party voiced their support. Practically, it is Hezbollah and its allies that are chipping away at the country’s nonalignment in regional affairs to the detriment of Lebanon’s relations with both the Arab world and the West.

Patriarch Rai’s admonition about neutrality to Hezbollah and its allies was also meant to preserve Lebanon’s relations with the larger Arab world, especially the Gulf countries that employ many Lebanese. 

Hezbollah’s pivotal role in Lebanon’s politics as it was increasing its intervention in Syria has caused a severe response from the Gulf Arab countries that, for decades, had been the country’s financial backers. In a recent article, Maha Yahya briefly detailed how Saudi Arabia and other states in the Gulf Cooperation Council have withdrawn their support since 2016, following the weakening of their traditional allies in the country and Hezbollah’s success in pushing it in Iran’s direction. At present, such distancing from the Gulf states is making the economic and social situation in Lebanon doubly dangerous as the government’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund about a rescue package have run into insurmountable obstacles. Such a failure is attributable to the reluctance of Lebanon’s decision-makers––all of whom are Hezbollah allies––to quickly implement desperately needed reforms.

Risking relations with western countries, Lebanon today is toying with the idea of opening up on China, a prospect against which the United States warns. China appears eager to undertake infrastructure projects, such as a railroad and power system, and to invest large sums of money, in effect playing a major role in the country’s recovery and future. Hassan Nasrallah also touted the call for relations with China, just as Iran is negotiating long-term economic cooperation with the eastern power. To Nasrallah, a rewarding relationship with China—or Russia, for that matter—is preferable to ties with western powers such as the United States and France. To many others in Lebanon, however, especially Christians and many Muslims, it is the end of a long association with a cultural, political, and economic bloc that has given the country its unique identity and orientation.

It Is Up to the Lebanese

It may be hard to expect that either the Arab world, especially the countries of the Gulf, or Lebanon’s old western partners are busy devising creative ways to reverse Lebanon’s slide toward an unusual and costly policy choice. The Arab world suffers from myriad conflicts and economic troubles to seem interested, while the Gulf ails from disunity and lack of cohesive policies––domestic, regional, or global. The West is facing its own crisis of identity as its democratic politics are subjected to the onslaught of rising authoritarian tendencies, especially in the United States.

Moreover, both the Arab world and the West are occupied with addressing the deleterious social and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic that limit their room for action. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon them not to completely abandon Lebanon but to be ready to help those forces inside the country that are still loyal to the Lebanese republic’s original philosophy of mixing Arabism with western liberalism. Perhaps the August 3rd resignation of Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti, while late, will send a message that even those personalities who joined a government appointed and supported by Hezbollah, but who still consider Lebanon “radiant in its Arab environment,” as he said in his resignation letter, could help correct the great wrongs committed in the name of the country.

It is more urgent for Lebanese society––as the actor most affected by Hezbollah’s actions––to renew its far-reaching and essential popular activism, which was manifested in demonstrations and protests toward the end of 2019. 

But it is more urgent for Lebanese society––as the actor most affected by Hezbollah’s actions––to renew its far-reaching and essential popular activism, which was manifested in demonstrations and protests toward the end of 2019. Hezbollah then was, and now remains, among the political forces that opposed social activism, correctly understanding it as a threat to its dominant role in the Lebanese polity. The popular demands of ending corruption, reforming Lebanon’s political and economic system, and allowing more democratic practices can again be revived with a public program carried forward by dedicated civil society organizations, democracy advocates and activists, students, vocal labor unions, and others. Indeed, no outside power, actor, or influencer will be able to help Lebanon avoid the dangerous path that the Party of God has so enthusiastically chosen for the country.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here