Lebanon, as a nation, was destined for conflict since its creation in November 1943 by the French colonial power. To this day, it remains a client state with several competing foreign powers trying to exploit the country’s social, political and economic systems for their benefit. The current socio-economic crisis has clearly exposed the inadequacies of Lebanon’s political set-up while on the other hand creating rivalry between foreign powers competing for further influence.
In order to make sense of the current crisis and its trajectory, it is vital to understand Lebanon’s history. The Lebanese government is divided into three factions. The prime minister is a Sunni, whom the US influences via its client state of Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has enjoyed cordial political and economic relationships with the Hariri family since 1992, which it uses to contain Iran’s influence within Lebanon.
Can Lebanon Overcome Its Sectarian Political Order?
The parliament is predominantly Shia, controlled by Iran via its proxy, Hezbollah, a militant group designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Europe and the Arab League. The president is a Maronite Christian. The Maronite faction falls under the French influence since France placed the Maronites in power after independence in 1943. Over the years, however, the United States has been able to exercise its influence on the Maronites by limiting French control.
In January 1976, Syria intervened in the Lebanese Civil War following the appeals by the Maronite-dominated government. When the war ended in 1989, the dismantlement of the Christian militias led to a decrease of French influence, while Hezbollah continued to maintain its possession of arms. Most importantly, the intervention was supported by the US, with Syria assisting in safeguarding Washington’s interests. As declassified documents reveal, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger openly supported the Syrian intervention.
In one meeting, Kissinger said: “We must go back to Assad [Hafez Assad, father of current president, Bashar al-Assad] … ask him what he is up to and if we agree with him, we will do our best to help him … But warn him what he does must be done without the use of Syrian regular forces. I want to make it clear that a Syrian defeat in Lebanon would be a disaster.”
Syria’s occupation of Lebanon greatly helped the US to undermine French influence. Consequently, the Taif Agreement that ended the war in 1989 stripped most of the power away from the Maronites and boosted the power base of the Sunni faction in government. Since Saudi Arabia maintains cordial relations with the Sunni bloc, the US can easily leverage its influence within Lebanon via its surrogate in Riyadh because the US, alongside Syria, was discreetly involved in shaping the Taif Agreement.
It is worth noting that Syria and the US share over 70% of common interests in the region, with Washington benefiting the most out of its relationship with Damascus. The common interests between the two revolve around achieving peace, fighting terrorism and preserving a unified Iraq. Since the 1970s, the Syrian regime has squarely been in the American camp, contrary to those who mistakenly believed it was pro-Soviet. The reality dictates that Syria has constantly aided US interests in Lebanon and across the region.
Syria, along with Egypt, maintains Israel’s security and tacitly consents to its existence. Also, over the years, both Hafez and Bashar al-Assad have acquiesced to the loss of the Golan heights in 1967 to strengthen the regime’s survival and to change the public’s negative opinion regarding Israel’s existence. Even in the ongoing Syrian Civil War, the US wants to maintain the Assad regime in power through utilizing other players like Russia and Turkey to provide the regime with support.
More importantly, Syrian presence in Lebanon resulted in bolstering the Shia faction of the Lebanese government due to the close relationship between Tehran and Damascus. Hence, Syria’s presence created a genial atmosphere for Iranian influence, which led to the formation of Hezbollah in 1985. This indicates that not only did the US try to curtail French influence in Lebanon and simultaneously exert its own hegemony, but that it also tacitly consented to the formation of Hezbollah, which has helped the US keep Israel in check and prevent it from becoming too powerful. Washington’s goal is to secure and maintain its interests in the region, and in doing so, it will not let any power, Arab or Israeli, jeopardize American interests.
Furthermore, Hezbollah has continued to exist in Lebanon. Despite a recent standoff with Tehran, Washington finds it useful to make the neighboring states more dependent on the US for their security in the face of a perceived Iranian threat. Israel sees Hezbollah as a security threat, which is why it maintains its dependency on US military aid, which benefits Washington. As James Sinkinson writes for the Jewish News Syndicate, “Every penny of the quarter-billion-dollar U.S. annual contribution to Lebanon ends up supporting Hezbollah terrorists, Iranian imperialism and military threats to Israel.” At the end of the day, rhetoric and written statements do not necessarily reflect reality.
In April 2005, when France entered Lebanon, the situation significantly changed. The French efforts led to UN Resolution 1595 to remove the Syrian troops from the country after the assassination of President Rafik al-Hariri. Due to the French condemnation of Syria’s crimes in Lebanon, the US had little choice but to side with France. This enabled Washington to safeguard its reputation, playing a double game by joining French efforts to roll back the Syrian presence. With its objective of stripping away excess power from the Maronites and shifting it to the Sunni faction achieved, Washington didn’t see any further use for maintaining Syrian troops in Lebanon.
Scramble for Influence
The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which the US is using to force Iran to stop its malign activities in the region and to agree to a new nuclear deal on Washington’s terms, has also hurt Lebanon. Since US sanctions are being levied on Lebanese banks that are affiliated with Iran’s proxy Hezbollah, this has caused a further shortage of dollars as foreign investors lost confidence in Lebanese banks. Consequently, the sanctions have created favorable conditions for the US.
Earlier this year, then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab initiated a request for a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). IMF loans come with stringent conditions related to structural adjustments, deliberate devaluation against the dollar, privatization and selling off state assets to private corporations. All these reforms would benefit the United States since it represents the largest voting bloc and provides most of the IMF’s financial contributions. Moreover, the IMF has played an important role in maintaining the US dollar’s primacy around the globe.
Even despite the calamitous circumstances the Lebanese people currently find themselves in, the IMF recently stated that it is ready to provide a loan, but on condition that the country’s institutions must cooperate and implement reforms. A senior US official stated that the country’s political and economic reforms must take place, and transparency must be established — otherwise there will be no bailout. But this statement is duplicitous, as it is the foreign powers dominating the IMF that are liable for the dire straits that Lebanon finds itself in today. The ultimate blame, however, goes to the local politicians who continue to welcome such reforms that will never solve the country’s crisis.
The catastrophic explosion at the port of Beirut on August 4 that devastated the capital has provided foreign powers like France and the US with a pretext to intervene to protect and expand their influence within Lebanon. The fact that French President Emmanuel Macron rushed to Lebanon even before the embers had settled and the dead were buried exemplifies his fears of possible US intrusion. Since France is suffering from major domestic problems of its own, including the disruptive yellow vest movement and the shrinking of the French economy for three consecutive quarters, it makes no strategic sense for Macron to be in Lebanon when his country is struggling. These actions clearly show that Macron is deeply worried about losing any remnants of French influence in Lebanon to the United States.
Once again, France and the US are in conflict with each other over their interests in Lebanon, which is what is expected of all great powers operating in a geopolitical sphere. As for the United States, it will increase its influence in Lebanon through its institutional tools at its disposal whilst increasing pressure on Hezbollah to appease Israel, which would further bolster President Donald Trump’s support for the Jewish state ahead of the upcoming US presidential election.
Currently, France is using all its efforts to implement political reforms in Lebanon that would favor its interests. However, Paris lacks the capabilities to make a significant difference. French diplomats have also admitted that France has little leverage in Lebanon and have indicated that political reforms put forward by President Macron are unlikely to be implemented.
More importantly, the Lebanese people need to realize that their situation is going to remain unchanged unless corrupt politicians are removed from power and the entire governmental system undergoes a radical change. Lebanon’s current situation, like that of most Arab nations, is a consequence of imperial interference that began in the mid-1800s. Because of this imperialist hangover, Lebanon is incapable of charting its own political destiny and achieving peace and security. Unless these obstacles are permanently resolved, Lebanon would remain a nation destined for conflict.
*[Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Syria intervened in the Lebanese Civil War to neutralize attacks by the Christian militias against the Muslim population. Updated on 9/18/2020 at 12 pm GMT.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.