Is the Lebanese revolution held hostage by regional power struggles?

Hezbollah is convinced it is the victim of an American plot. Washington, however, has never before been so disinterested in the Middle East.

A demonstrator in front of the US embassy, in Lebanon, on the 24th of November 2019. Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters

The same old story has been repeating itself since 1956. It started with the fallout from the Suez crisis and continued with the rise of Nasserism in 1958, the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) and more recently, the 2006 war. Throughout its contemporary history, Lebanon has been caught in regional power struggles that aggravate internal conflicts, further complicating their resolution.

The country of the Cedars has been a theater for conflicts originating beyond its borders in which the Lebanese end up playing a leading role. Ghassan Tueni probably best described this dialectical relationship between internal and external forces in his famous book “A War of Others”.

The Lebanese revolution, which began on October 17, marks a clear break from this pattern. The protesters have rejected all forms of foreign interference and oppose Lebanon being caught, once again, in the crossfire of regional power struggles. Civil society is now united in its call for the Lebanese to solve their problems on their own. But is this approach sustainable in the current regional environment?

“[The] rivalry between the United States and Iran is affecting all other subjects,” a senior diplomat station in Beirut told L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ) a few months ago. Can the Lebanese revolution, with primarily domestic demands, escape this fate?

The numerous, often unverified, rumors circulating about American blackmail, Russian pressure, Iranian counter attacks and Saudia plots cast doubt on this hope. The fact that French, British, and Russian envoys have been rushing, one after the other, to Baabda may, in the same sense, give the impression that what is happening today goes beyond Lebanon.

At the same time, the combination of political and economic crisis adds a new dimension to the internal/external dialectic: any international aid, which appears to be indispensable, will be perceived by certain parties as a political weapon.

The great paradox

Still, there is a wide gap between local actors’ perceptions of the regional situation and the reality of it. "The regional context exists, but it is far from being dominant,” a Western diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous, said.

Hezbollah clearly does not share this view. The Shiite party’s Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, accused "certain envoys" of pulling the strings of the revolution. His speech echoed the words of Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who said: "The United States and some countries in the region are causing trouble in our neighboring countries," referring to Lebanon and Iraq.

"Hezbollah sees what is happening in Lebanon as an attempt to change the balance of power at the regional level," said an Arab diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous.

The party, allied with Iran, sees an American-Israeli-Saudi plot behind the simultaneous revolts in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, that aims to weaken Tehran through a strategy other than military confrontation. "In its self-consciousness and its narrative, the Shiite party always sees itself the target of an international conspiracy. All it took was a statement by Jeffrey Feltman (former ambassador to Lebanon), who currently has no influence in Washington, to revive this feeling," the Arab diplomat said.

Speaking in his personal capacity before the US Congressional Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs for the Middle East, North Africa and International Terrorism last week, Feltman said that Russia could "facilitate the restoration of the Syrian regime's hegemony over Lebanon.”

Hezbollah––and by extension Iran––is also less willing to make concessions because it feels like it is under siege. It sees the formation of a government of experts, which is being called for by the people on the street and has been backed by the international community, as a way to isolate the party and launch a war against it without resorting to actual combat.

"The main obstacle before the formation of the government is America because it wants a government that resembles it and we want a government that resembles the Lebanese people," Sheikh Naim Kassem, Hezbollah’s second in command, said on November 22 in an interview with Reuters. Two days later, supporters of Hezbollah and the Lebanese left protested in front of the US embassy in Awkar against "American foreign interference".

Ironically, the United States, accused of being behind everything that is happening in the region, has never been less interested in the Middle East. The lack of response to the strikes allegedly launched by Iran against Aramco last September and the quasi- departure from Syria confirm the absence of American willingness to get involved in the region. In fact, Washington has remained very discrete since the beginning of the Lebanese and Iraqi revolts.

“The trump administration is quite busy with a lot of things going on. I don’t think that this is an issue that has gotten that much attention from the president,” said Patrick Clawson, research director at the Washington Institute.

"The Americans are in retreat and do not have enough leverage anyway in Lebanon to impose their conditions," the Arab diplomat added.

The Trump administration has increased the pressure on Hezbollah. But, at the same time, it has been divided for several months on whether to harden its tone or strengthen its partnership with the Lebanese government to prevent Hezbollah from becoming the sole kingmaker. "As for the American position, which line are we talking about?” the Western diplomat said.

The recent freeze of US aid to the Lebanese army, against the advice of some in the administration, fits into this context. "The issue of assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) is long-debated in the US," Clawson said.

Winners without victories

All those OLJ spoke to agreed that the US position has not changed fundamentally since the beginning of the Lebanese revolution. Hezbollah’s indirect participation in the next government does not appear to be a red line or an inescapable obstacle to possible international assistance. "Hezbollah has been smart enough to nominate ministers in the government people who were not formerly members of the Hezbollah, and I would certainly that the US would strongly urge that that continues to be the case," said Clawson.

"What is going to be decisive is not who will form the government, but the road map it will adopt. Will the government be able to undertake essential reforms? This is the main issue today from the point of view of the international community,” the Western diplomat said.

But how can this be achieved? How can a government of experts be formed that would not be held hostage by the helplessness and incompetence of Lebanese political parties while at the same time giving Hezbollah sufficient guarantees that it will not feel like it has the most to lose?

In the first lines of his book, Ghassan Tueni already formulated an answer: "To remake Lebanon we need winners without victories, and the victories of some should not be the defeat of others. "

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour ont he 27th of November)

The same old story has been repeating itself since 1956. It started with the fallout from the Suez crisis and continued with the rise of Nasserism in 1958, the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) and more recently, the 2006 war. Throughout its contemporary history, Lebanon has been caught in regional power struggles that aggravate internal conflicts, further complicating their resolution. The country...