Diplomacy

One Step Forward

Diplomacy

With a new prime minister designated after months of deadlock, Lebanon must now deal with a number of regional and domestic problems that have been mounting.

The government has been commendably successful at delivering on the security front. By July, the crisis had abated in Tripoli, after the Lebanese armed forces and Hezbollah’s “state within a state” formed an agreement permitting the army to enter the suburbs and disarm the feuding militias. Despite the ongoing presidential vacuum from May until September, the improvement in the security situation looked promising in terms of investment picking up; “all the observers agree that now there is something new happening in Lebanon on the level of security and the coordination in the forces… also with external countries to stabilize security,” as Minister of Tourism Michel Pharaoun told TBY during an interview.

Indeed, the improvement in security sent positive signals both at home and abroad. However, unfortunately for Lebanon, a short-term improvement in security conditions does not necessarily translate into a greater humanitarian aid commitment from the international community to address the immense pressure that has been placed on Lebanese communities and the economy. Over the last three years Lebanon has borne the brunt of the Syrian crisis, which by most indicators is now considered to be among the worst refugee and humanitarian crises in history, having put an enormous strain on Lebanon’s resources and infrastructure. In an exclusive interview with TBY, foreign Minister Gebran Bassil lamented how the international community was suffering from donor fatigue, despite the Lebanese state being confronted by what increasingly appears to be an existential threat. When asked if he feels the support to Lebanon to respond to the crisis the response is blunt. “Not at all. We are thankful for any and all assistance; however, no matter how much assistance is given or how much is spent, it will never be sufficient. You can’t subsidize the lives of millions of people indefinitely without encouraging them to return to their country.” This response embodies another political dimension for which only the Lebanese can determine their own destiny; the prospect of direct negotiations on the return of refugees to Syria. Such direct negotiations are, however, prohibited by the Baabda declaration, an agreement ratified in 2012 affirming Lebanon’s disassociation from regional events.

At the time of going to print the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister were at odds over direct communication with the Syrian regime. “There is no way we would accept the legitimization of the Syrian camps in Lebanon. We are seeing more and more “donors’ fatigue,” especially considering that there are now many refugee crises in the region, not just Syria but also Iraq and Gaza,” said Basil.

Upon the reformation of the cabinet the emphasis on the need for immediate humanitarian aid shifted to include the need for emergency military aid. In February, Saudi Arabia and France pledged $3 billion in military aid to support the Lebanese Armed Forces in upgrading its weaponry to more effectively combat terrorist threats. By August, this pledge had not translated into any significant material investment in the armed forces. After some months of relative calm, July and August saw renewed violence from the Nusra Front and Islamic State groups in the Lebanese-Syrian border town of Arsal, a town that has been the harbor of various takfiri and jihadi splinter groups taking refuge in Lebanon, frequently clashing with the Lebanese Armed Forces and Hezbollah. The head of the Lebanese Armed Forces Jean Kahwagi urged France to speed up the delivery of weapons under the $3 billion deal. The clashes left 19 Lebanese soldiers, 15 civilians, and 60 militants dead. Shortly after the clashes, which caused the greatest loss of life among the Lebanese Armed Forces during the three years since the Syrian civil war began, Saudi Arabia delivered an emergency $1 billion aid package, while both the US and the UK renewed military aid pledges, the US Ambassador claiming that the US has now made over $1 billion in aid to the Lebanese government since 2006. This aid was welcomed by all political parties in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, which in the past has been skeptical about Western political motives.

Following the Islamic State’s aggressive expansion, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hasan Sayyed Nasrallah gave a rare interview published in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar in August. Concerning Hezbollah’s ongoing military support of the Syrian regime, Nasrallah said that “the sense of danger is growing, and the popular sentiment is more accepting of our fight against takfiri [militants].” At both a domestic and international level, he may well be right. The speculation of US-Iranian military cooperation upon the Islamic State’s occupation of Mosul in July was ground breaking in its show of just how much regional dynamics and the lineation of alliances to fight common enemies are changing.

Nasrallah criticized regional actors for their indirect support of Islamic State and other takfiri groups, “There is a support for ISIS wherever there is a following of takfiri thinking, and this applies to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states.” Further afield than bloc division along Sunni-Shia lines, the need for enhanced diplomacy and observation by countries all over the Western world is increasingly apparent. Today, Lebanon and Syria serve are the front line against a threat that has roots growing all over Western Europe.

Lebanon’s parliament has failed on eight consecutive occasions to reach a consensus over a new president, neither the March 14 nor March 8 alliances has enough Parliamentary seats to elect their own candidate as head of state, and a quorum has consistently failed with numerous politicians casting blank votes. In August, speculation was rife about whether to extend Parliament’s mandate and postpone elections scheduled for November, in light of the presidential vacuum.

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