Global Battle for Control Over a Devastated Lebanon Has Begun

France, the United States and Turkey have all gotten involved, while Saudi Arabia and Iran have so far sat on the sidelines

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale visits Beirut after the port explosion, August 13, 2020.
U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale visits Beirut after the port explosion, August 13, 2020. Credit: POOL/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A cordial yet tense reception awaited David Hale, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, when he landed in Beirut on Thursday. Hale is no stranger to Lebanon or the Middle East. In previous stints, he was the American ambassador to Lebanon, the head of the Israel, Egypt and Levant desk at the State Department and special envoy, between 2011 and 2013, to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

He came to a battered Lebanon and a shattered Beirut now not only to assess the extent of the damage following the massive explosion at the Beirut port on August 4, but to try to find a political solution that would permit Lebanon to extricate itself from its political and economic crisis and to examine options for American involvement on these two fronts.

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It is doubtful that Washington, which abandoned Syria back at the beginning of the civilian rebellion there and has been looking on from the sidelines at developments in Libya, will shift gears now and enthusiastically get involved in the black hole that is Lebanon, particularly in the run-up to a U.S. presidential election. Nevertheless, it doesn’t look like the United States would want to at least miss out on the chance to steamroll Iran or Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based Shi’ite militia movement.

The political elites in Lebanon, which over the years have dragged the country into the swamp of corruption and the political crises it has faced ever since the civil war ended there in 1989, are far from blameless. They are now gearing up for the possibility that Lebanon could become an international wrestling ring over control and influence there, a battle that could undermine the elites’ status and control of the country’s affairs.

The competition among powers from the outside began the day after the explosion with the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron, who toured the wrecked port with Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab and promised to send some $30 million in urgent aid. France, which is considered Lebanon’s diplomatic patron due to historical ties dating from the French conquest of the country and the mandate that it received to govern Lebanon under agreements that ended World War I, wants to establish “a new political order” there.

French President Emmanuel Macron waves as he visits a devastated street of Beirut, August 6, 2020.Credit: POOL New/Reuters

Apparently what this means is a temporary government of technocrats that would replace the government headed by Diab, who resigned last week. The first task of such a government would be to hold a general election that would produce an uncorrupt, representative, professional and transparent government.

But France, which convened a conference of donor countries and obtained $300 million in pledges for humanitarian assistance to Lebanon, has faced competition. A day after Macron’s visit, a new player appeared on the Lebanese scene. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dispatched his vice president, Fuat Oktay, along with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to get a foot in the door. Oktay rushed in with an offer of Turkish humanitarian assistance and put the Turkish port of Mersin at Lebanon’s disposal while the port of Beirut is out of action.

The Lebanese government expressed its gratitude for the Turkish offer, which has engendered bitter dispute because it appears to be an attempt to exploit Lebanon’s distress to divert Mediterranean trade from the Beirut port to Turkey.

French President Emmanuel Macron visits the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut, August 6, 2020. Credit: POOL New//Reuters

Lebanese pundits are already pointing out the mirror image that is developing between the situations in Lebanon and Libya, where Turkey, in addition to Qatar, is fighting alongside the government against separatist Gen. Khalifa Hifter, with the aim of pushing Egypt, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, France and Russia out of Libya.

Even before the explosion in the port, Turkey was in the crosshairs of Lebanese politicians over its involvement in Tripoli, the Lebanese city that shares its name with the Libyan capital and which has a Sunni Muslim majority. The Turks have been blamed for being behind restive anti-government demonstrations there.

This new move by Turkey has naturally also aroused anxiety in Egypt and France, which are allied in the Libyan arena. Within two days, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry showed up in Beirut to express Egypt’s “solidarity over the disaster that has befallen Lebanon” and, while he happened to be there, to attempt to ensure that Lebanon doesn’t become a Turkish outpost.

Saudi and Iranian leeriness

In normal times, one would have expected that the Saudi Arabians would also show up in Lebanon, but this time, they remained ensconced in their desert kingdom. The Saudis are not offering aid and prior to the explosion had trimmed the staff at their embassy in Beirut.

This week prominent Saudi columnist Khaled al-Sulaiman wrote the following in the Okaz daily: “Saudi Arabia will not continue to pay Hezbollah’s bills. The Lebanese must take responsibility upon themselves for their country just as the international community must take responsibility for the damage Hezbollah has caused inside Lebanon and in the entire region... It is untenable for Saudi Arabia to pay billions of dollars to Lebanon in the morning and in the evening be subjected to curses and taunts on its television networks.”

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who forced former Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri to resign in 2017, might have several new considerations on his mind – for instance, standing in Turkey’s way or helping the United States fund the rehabilitation of Lebanon, if indeed a new government is established there that Washington is satisfied with.

The aloofness of Sunni Saudi Arabia to events in Lebanon can be understood in the context of its disappointment that Shi’ite Hezbollah is a key component of the Lebanese leadership, but more surprising is the conduct of Iran, which is Shi’ite. The Iranians have in fact declared that they would help Lebanon as much as they can, but their response is in stark contrast to the tens of billions of dollars that they poured into the country following the second Lebanon war.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani adjusts his face mask in a meeting of the national headquarters of the fight against the COVID-19, Tehran, July 18, 2020Credit: AP

This time Iran is making do with modest assistance. Iran is mired in its own economic crisis. The country’s leadership is facing domestic criticism and political battles in advance of next year’s presidential election. And then above all, there is the uncertainty over what the next Lebanese government will look like. All of this, for the movement, is making the Iranians leery of Lebanon.

Along with all of this, the criticism that Hezbollah has faced in Lebanon, with pictures of Nasrallah being set on fire, and the campaign that he will have to wage to maintain his status and political power make clear the limitations of Iran’s involvement.

When it comes to Hezbollah, Iran is taking a lower profile so as not to look like it is trying to take over Lebanon. Tehran has apparently learned its lesson from Iraq, after demonstrators in the streets of Iraq demanded that Iranian involvement in the country be rooted out, that Iraq’s economic dependence on Iran end and that a stop be put to the operations of Shi’ite militias.

In the atmosphere that has developed in Lebanon since the explosion, any connection, even just declarative, between a Lebanese government and Iran would be as flammable as ammonium nitrate.

On Wednesday, the French president had a telephone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rohani and made it clear to the Iranian leader that France is opposed to any external involvement in the formation of the new Lebanese government. In other words, Iran needs to keep its hands out of the Lebanese political cauldron. According to the newspaper Al-Ahbar, which is close to Hezbollah, Iran informed France that “any solution acceptable to Hezbollah is acceptable to us, and France should be conducting its relations with the Lebanese leadership and not with Iran.”

A huge question mark

Indeed, there is a huge question mark hovering over the tangle of international plans and considerations when it comes to the kind of new government that will be established in Lebanon. The immediate dilemma regarding the establishment, prior to elections, of an interim government, is between the option of a government of professional, independent ministers who are not dependent on the patronage of any party or religious denomination or the option of a “national unity government.”

National unity is a code name for a government with representation from all the denominations, including Hezbollah. That would mean the continuation of the existing system in which the power centers are controlled by the old elites.

France is aiming for a government of national consensus, which as opposed to a national unity government means a government that the public would support and not necessarily one consisting of representatives of all the denominations. For its part, the United States is demanding a neutral, independent government of experts – without Hezbollah. Naturally Hezbollah is opposed to such a suggestion, and if it becomes a reality, the group could find itself excluded from positions of power.

Amid the speculation, Saad al-Hariri’s name is again surfacing as a candidate for prime minister, this time as one whom France is prepared to support “if he wins the backing of the public and the political factions.” Hariri is playing hard to get and says he is prepared to take up the position on the condition that Hezbollah is not in the government.

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri speaks during an address to the nation, in Beirut, October 18, 2019.Credit: Hassan Ammar / AP

The same holds true of Gebran Bassil, the president’s son-in-law and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, one of the key players in Hariri’s resignation. Hariri is demanding extensive authority to form a government as he sees fit, as well as Saudi Arabia’s blessing.

At first glance, they appear to be impossible conditions, particularly when it comes to the status of Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it will not support any government in which Hezbollah is a partner, while Hezbollah will not let Hariri select his ministers without its approval. It’s worth mentioning that in the past, Hezbollah supported Hariri’s appointment and now too is willing to support his candidacy because, despite the rivalry between them, the two factions have managed to maintain political dialogue and come to understandings about the status of Hezbollah, including above all, heading off any discussion of disarming the Shi’ite militia group.

But these positions, Hariri’s and Hezbollah’s, could very well change dramatically this month if the international Special Tribunal for Lebanon finds Hezbollah operatives guilty of the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri, Saad’s father, who also served as prime minister.

Successful use of the Lebanese loom that is supposed to weave together the next government is just the opening act, after which it will be necessary to prepare for parliamentary elections. At that stage, another battle of titans can be expected between supporters of changes to the election law and those who insist on maintaining the current system.

And all this is without taking into account the opinion on “the street.” People there are demanding that those in charge be put on trial and that an international committee of inquiry be established to find out who was responsible for the explosion in the port. There are also demands for the dissolution of parliament and compensation for property damage and to those who lost relatives in the blast.

This time it appears that the protest movements, which succeeded in toppling the previous government as well as Diab’s, will not permit the barons with the money and political power to close deals behind their backs and at their expense. Too many citizens no longer have anything left to lose.

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