Is it too late to save Lebanon?

There are solutions out there, but the UN Security Council needs to come together

French diplomacy has once again adopted a failed policy of rehabilitation, thereby taking Lebanon closer to the abyss.

For one, securing short-term aid for Lebanon and imposing superficial sanctions are of little value. More importantly, French President Emmanuel Macron has been complicit in deflating popular anger following last year’s Beirut Port explosion, when he parachuted into Beirut and issued empty promises of accountability. He did that while seemingly cutting deals with the very same Lebanese politicians who needed to be held accountable for doing nothing about the storage of explosive ammonium nitrate in a civilian port, close to people’s homes, in what was truly a crime against humanity.

Mr Macron became ever more confident regarding Lebanon when US President Joe Biden entrusted him with the country's dossier so that Washington could focus on its talks with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Today, both Mr Macron and Mr Biden have effectively harmed the country by rehabilitating a tyrannical political class and further entrenching Iranian proxy Hezbollah. And as an outcome of their actions, they have indirectly obstructed the delivery of justice.

Russia and China, Iran’s so-called allies, should not be reassured by Tehran’s grip over the affairs of a sovereign country, in the name of stability. Indeed, the continued assault on Lebanon’s independence, its resources, and its basic commodities through the flagrant smuggling of goods into Syria will not save the latter from economic collapse. Given Lebanon’s continued slide, Moscow should think profoundly about the fate of its investments in Syria. Beijing, too, must rethink its warming ties with Tehran, which bases its doctrine on expanding its influence into Arab states and undermining their sovereignty. Lebanon happens to be one such example.

It is fair to say that others should not be blamed for one’s own problems. Many Lebanese politicians, and their die-hard supporters, have compromised their country’s sovereignty and contributed to its collapse. The rot is a chronic home-grown disease.

On the one hand, therefore, it may be best for the world to wash its hands clean of this failed state, in the hope that its people and leaders will wake up to the necessity of genuine reform. Perhaps this is the bitter medicine Lebanon needs, instead of sedatives and an even greater reliance on other nations bailing it out, and on a misguided belief that the country, its people, and its system are always above accountability. On the other hand, the Lebanese have already paid a heavy price, first for their recklessness and subservience, then for their defiance.

When the people rose up against the political class in 2005, they succeeded in toppling the government and forcing the Syrian army to end its occupation of the country. They succeeded in launching a process of accountability and international justice, when the system of oppression moved to suppress their uprising through a wave of assassinations, including that of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

The international investigation first proceeded along a professional path. But the political considerations of the UN Security Council’s permanent members ended up obstructing the investigation, thereby giving a boost of confidence to those responsible, who then proceeded to assassinate the most incorruptible of people.

The Lebanese people’s fear of a civil war such as the one between 1975 and 1990 has also held them back from going all out in confronting the political class. This explains the subservience to the politicians and the status quo, despite its bitterness. However, this should not be a justification for their surrender or for demanding that foreign powers come to Lebanon's rescue.

Of course, some of the foreign powers are partly responsible for what is happening to this beautiful country. Over the years, Lebanon has been a target for Syria, Iran, Israel and Iraq’s Baathist Party. It was also a playground for American, British and Russian intelligence agents.

The Lebanese used to consider France, their former colonial power, their “loving mother”. But over the years, weak leadership in Paris has done little to help. Today, it is engaged in empty showmanship when it comes to dealing with Lebanon. Bargains of all kinds have not only enabled the likes of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement to extract concessions, such as being guaranteed total control of the finance ministry, but also forced former prime minister Saad Hariri to resign, even as he attempted to put together a functioning government.

Paris and Washington, meanwhile, must stop invoking toothless sanctions and, instead, persuade all western governments – led by Switzerland, in whose banks many of Lebanon’s corrupt politicians have parked their fortunes – to freeze the assets of all those who have looted the country.

No country by itself can change the rules of the game. And so, a sovereign and stable Lebanon will need not only new rules, but also a number of collective international guarantees.

The Lebanese used to consider France their “loving mother”. But over the years, weak leadership in Paris has done little to help

As mentioned in a report released by a strategic task force in Moscow last year, there should be a guarantee that no threat emerges from Lebanon’s territories to other countries, while placing curbs on Hezbollah to end its interference in Lebanon's decision-making process and eliminating its appropriation of the state’s powers. Second, Lebanon should become a sovereign player with a role in working towards regional security, which seems impossible if it should rely on local players unable and unwilling to foster stability there, led by those who are against eliminating foreign interference in state institutions – meaning Iran. Indeed, Tehran is opposed to Lebanese sovereignty and has helped reduce it to a failed state.

Regarding the issue of Iran and Israel using Lebanon as a stage to settle their scores, there is a responsibility on the shoulders of the international community, especially the permanent members of the Security Council. In fact, therein lies the importance of the external keys by which to rescue Lebanon from its current predicament. As, for instance, Russia seeks to stabilise the Syrian-Israeli-Lebanese triangle, it should adopt a more robust policy vis-a-vis Iran and Israel. An appreciation in Moscow of the probability that a full-blown Lebanese crisis can hamper its own interests in Syria will help.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, has to shoulder some of the responsibility. Washington must understand that more than anyone else, it can influence the regional behaviour of both Iran and Israel.

Published: August 8th 2021, 5:00 AM
Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National