A US delegation is headed for Lebanon this week in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion and the resignation of prime minister Hassan Diab and will push for politicians to form an independent government to address short and medium-term crises.
The team will be led by US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, who previously served as ambassador to Lebanon.
The resignation of Mr Diab's government did not come as a surprise to US officials who have been monitoring the situation on the ground in Beirut and co-ordinating with the French government since last Tuesday, an official told The National.
While President Donald Trump’s administration had a lukewarm relationship with the Diab government during its 202 days in power, the official said it did not lobby for the resignation, even after the explosion. Washington, they said, did not want to rock the boat during a pandemic and as the Lebanese capital comes to grips with the blast’s devastation, the biggest since the civil war that ended in 1990.
Mr Hale is expected in Lebanon towards the end of the week, they said. A complete schedule of his visit has not been finalised yet, but talks are expected to begin on Friday. He will be accompanied by White House and other lower-ranking State Department officials, the official said.
The formation of the new government will be a top item on the agenda for the visit but other issues that have seen a diplomatic opening in the last week will be discussed, experts say.
“The renewal of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), the demarcation of the maritime border with Israel, international investigation of the explosion, economic reforms and a clear political process on the heels of the cabinet resignation should be discussed,” Randa Slim, a senior fellow and Director of Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Programme at the Middle East Institute, said.
The Unifil mandate is due for renewal in August and both the United States and Israel favour stricter enforcement to block alleged arms smuggling to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
But the issue of demarcation of the Lebanese maritime border with Israel is one item that could see diplomatic movement in the aftermath of the explosion and that the US delegation is expected to pursue vigorously during the visit.
In a call on Friday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun discussed the maritime border with President Trump and said he “hoped that the US can help resolve the standoff”. The issue has persisted for over a decade, without direct contact between Israel and Lebanon and objections to concessions from both sides. But recent attempts to search for oil and gas off the Lebanese coast has put the issue back on the table.
“I expect the US delegation to seize on Mr Aoun’s words and push the negotiations to a conclusion,” Ms Slim said.
While the issue largely boils down to complex maritime disputes and previous diplomatic mistakes, both Hezbollah and Speaker of the House Nabih Berri have long pushed against demarcation or concessions as a way to continue the state of hostility with Israel.
Mr Hale’s tallest order would be helping with the new government consultations and pushing for economic reforms that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has requested.
The country is facing its worst economic crisis and the international community has prioritised reforms to the public sectors before any bailout package.
“The US has both carrots and sticks it can deploy to change the ruling class’s incentive structure,” argued Ms Slim. The carrots are in the form of assistance, and the sticks could mean more sanctions on Lebanese officials blocking these reforms.
Key US demands include transparency measures at the ports of entry, reforming the electricity and water sectors in Lebanon, digitising payments and cracking down on illicit activity through monitoring systems at the airport and the ports.
Mr Hale may not face the welcome he would like. Last December, a two-hour meeting with former foreign minister Gebran Bassil was slammed by civil society and anti-government protesters. The administration is seeking better optics on this visit as it pushes for an independent government that would seek to meet the demands of civil society groups.
“The US has significant leverage but not enough diplomatic bandwidth, particularly during an election year, to shepherd Lebanon through a historic transition,” said Firas Maksad, a professor at George Washington University. Another meeting between Mr Bassil and Mr Hale would be ill-advised, he said, adding the US is better off “supporting the French initiative while targeting Lebanon's most corrupt leaders with sanctions.” France is seeking a new political pact for Lebanon that would address corruption and accountability.
“Lebanon of the future entails administrative decentralisation, structural reforms and real progress towards implementing constitutional requirements to gradually dismantle the institutions of sectarianism,” Mr Maksad said.
The US is also expected to send more humanitarian assistance to non-governmental organisations and UN programmes in Lebanon as a way of circumventing aid ending up directly with the government. But Washington will keep supporting the Lebanese Army for the time being, the official said.
The issue of Hezbollah’s arms and influence is the elephant in the room for the US administration, but it’s not one that Mr Hale is expected to address on this visit. US Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker is due to make another visit to Beirut at the end of the month and continue these discussions.