Lebanon and Syria’s futures intertwined

Lebanon and Syria’s futures intertwined
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Lebanon and Syria’s futures intertwined

By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz

On October 17, 2019 the Lebanon erupted into a nationwide uprising demanding the dismantling of a corrupt and sectarian political system. Responding to unprecedented street protests, Saad Hariri resigned immediately. A new cabinet was formed by Hassan Diab, an academic with a limited background in public office.

Diab served for eight months but failed to make progress in improving the economy or introducing political reforms. On August 4, 2020, a devastating explosion in Beirut’s port killed two hundred people and destroyed a large part of the capital. Diab resigned a few days later.

Following this disaster, a former ambassador to Germany, Mustafa Adib, tried to form a new government, but he also failed.  Acknowledging the realities of a nation hostage to a political class devoid of guilt or shame, Adib withdrew.

Lebanon Prime Minister Saad Hariri

Lebanon Prime Minister Saad Hariri

Lebanon, the former “Switzerland of the Middle East”, is now a failed state. Hopes for serious reforms are diminishing by the day. After eighteen months of political unraveling, Lebanon has reached the boiling point. Irreversible events and outcomes make it very hard for the Lebanese to put their country back together: toxic sectarian power sharing, political class dominated by civil war personalities, bank closures, sharp currency devaluation, severe restrictions on personal bank accounts, rampant unemployment, 55% poverty rate, a rising pandemic, a devastating port explosion and two parallel maritime border disputes – with Israel and Syria.

This week, two of this country’s leaders are expected to visit French President Macron to discuss how France could help in the formation of a new Lebanese government, which is several months overdue. Macron has visited this Eastern Mediterranean country twice to settle power-sharing squabbles, but with no success. The world is tired of Lebanon’s fratricidal politics, while the country’s integrity is spiraling downward.   

To survive, this nation’s political class must be routed if total transformation of governance is to take place. It is therefore astonishing that President Michel Aoun and Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri have not yet considered resignation. For too long, these two powerful leaders have been watching the country go through self-inflicted asphyxiation. More surprising is the hesitation of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri to exit the political arena. With full determination, he expects to form the next cabinet, after having at the start of the crisis. What is harder to believe is that Hariri’s opponents, as well as his allies, anticipate his return to power, and soon. Lebanon’s President Aoun holds central bank responsible for financial crisis | Al Arabiya English

It is a shame that we continue to assume that a desperate nation must live with hopeless leadership.

A bit of history shows the importance of the French role in the region. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after its defeat in the First World War, France was mandated by the League of Nations to “prepare” Lebanon and Syria for independence. The United Kingdom was mandated to run the affairs of other areas in the region. For four centuries of Ottoman rule Mount Lebanon was an integral part of what was known as the Region of Syria. By arbitrary restructuring of borders, the French Mandate managed to detach Lebanon from Syria to forge a Christian-dominated Grand Liban in 1920. With military force and diplomatic maneuvering, Lebanon has been artificially severed from its neighborhood by colonial intervention. Since the Mandate, France has tried to save Lebanon from a perpetual existential crisis. https://www.juancole.com/2005/03/lebanon-realignment-and-syria-it-is.html

Separated from Syria, Lebanon has struggled to survive for over a century. Accordingly, it makes sense to assume that a slow and phased partnership between Lebanon and Syria could eventually lead to a single strategic Arab state. That said, a partially occupied and divided Syria could prove to be a problematic team player – for a weakened and culturally divided Lebanon. The social and ideological problems which pollute Beirut politics today are also active in Damascus. A modest first step in this process of cooperation would be the opening of economic exchange.

To be clear, many in Lebanon have for a long time viewed the Syrian regime as a root-cause of instability in Lebanon and the entire region. For those Lebanese and for the Syrian opposition, any talk of cooperation with President Assad’s team is a non-starter.

The current dialogue – which has just started to make sense – between Washington and Tehran, if successful, would greatly improve Syria’s relations in the region. However, if Washington and Tehran fail to resolve their differences (over the “nuclear deal,”and regional – intervention), Syria and Lebanon will move even further apart, and the price will be calamitous for all parties.  Rouhani Says Vienna Talks Open ‘New Chapter’ — Naharnet

Lebanon has reached the boiling point, but its political leaders have nearly lost the capacity to acknowledge their obscene failure.  The situation in Syria is not better. Could these two closely related Arab states gradually find common ground in their search for a better future? If, and when, Syria moves toward a democratic political transition, one could look for parallel changes in Lebanon’s prospects. 

For the short term, Lebanon must form a strong and credible government soon. This is a tall order, but the alternatives are dark. A Hariri-led cabinet would extend the agony and delay the solution.

The idea of future integration of Lebanon with Syria is not a matter of dilution of sovereignty of either party, but a natural step of renewal and state building.

Ghassan Rubeiz


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