الراصد القديم


The Ongoing Battle for Beirut: Old Dynamics and New Trends- part1

111 Memorandum

Benedetta Berti


Executive Summary
Internally divided along sectarian lines and with an inherently weak government, Lebanon has traditionally been a playground for regional and international actors alike, often acting as a surrogate for inter-state conflicts. Competing for power and infuence over Lebanon, the major قegional powers have consistently considered the country important in their efforts to adjust the regional balance of power in their favor. As such, battling for Beirut has become a key feature of contemporary Middle Eastern politics.

The present study looks at the role and infuence of foreign intervention in Lebanese domestic شffairs, focusing on the shifts in the dynamics of power following the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005. Specifically, the research explores old trends and new dynamics characterizing the involvement of several major regional powers (Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia) and international actors (the United States and France) that historically have wielded the most power and infuence over domestic Lebanese politics.

First and foremost on this list is Syria. Looking at Lebanon through the lens of the concept of “Greater Syria,” the Assad regimes have always asserted a special prerogative over Lebanon. Although many analysts interpreted the end of the Syrian “tutelage” in 2005 as a sign of the imminent end of Syrian control over Lebanon, the role of Damascus in the post-Rafiq Hariri Lebanon tells a radically different story. Syria has in fact survived the shock of its 2005 military redeployment, and the undue delays in the UN-led investigation of the assassination of PM Rafq Hariri, combined with the inability to create an effective regional or international strategy to
isolate and contain Syria, have given the Assad regime time to regroup and develop a new strategy for Lebanon. Since 2005, Damascus has repositioned itself at the center of the Lebanese political arena by playing on the internal divisions among the anti-Syrian movement, and by capitalizing on the political alliance with the Hizbollah-led March 8 forces.

Current Syrian influence in Lebanon is particularly strong, thanks to the rise to power of the Hizbollah-backed Mikati government and the political marginalization of the forces that orchestrated the anti-Syrian revolution. While Syrian power within Lebanon remains solid, the end of Syria’s tutelage reshuffled the cards in Lebanese politics somewhat, paving the way for the increased infuence of other foreign powers such as the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tehran was already heavily invested in Lebanon, frst through the relationship between the Lebanese and Iranian Shiite communities, and after 1982, through its strategic partnership with Hizbollah. However, when the Syrian tanks withdrew from Lebanon, the Iranians stepped up their direct involvement in Lebanese affairs in order to protect their local proxy, Hizbollah. This process, in place since 2005, has led to continued Iranian support for Hizbollah, the gradual enhancement of ties with the March 8 political coalition, and strengthened diplomatic, political, and economic
relations between Beirut and Tehran. At the same time, Damascus insists on preserving its Lebanese prerogative.”

The Islamic Republic would ideally like to swing Lebanon away from its Western alliances, and bring it closer to the region’s “axis of resistance.” However, the battle from Beirut is far from over, as other powers have also been at work within Lebanon to counter the rise of the Iranian and Syrian alliance.

Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in Lebanese domestic politics, partly responding to prior connections between the Kingdom and the Lebanese Sunni community and the Hariri family, and partly in an effort to oppose the rise of the “Shiite crescent.” In this context, Riyadh moved from a
traditionally friendly policy toward the Assad regime and its tutelage of Lebanon to one of progressive confrontation, assuming an important role in driving Syria out of Lebanon after the Hariri assassination. Since the withdrawal, however, Saudi involvement in Lebanon has failed to curb Syrian and Iranian infuence in Lebanon, and the Saudis have modulated their overall strategy and begun a rapprochement with the Assad regime, hoping to establish their infuence in Lebanon by engaging with Damascus to the exclusion of Tehran.

American and French attempts to rein in Syrian and Iranian involvement in Lebanon have been equally unsuccessful. France eyes Lebanon through the prism of its colonial past and its connections with the Maronite Christians.

The US, on the other hand, seeing Lebanon through the prism of the Arab-Israeli confict, has considered the country as a bargaining chip in the context of negotiations with the Assad regime. Despite these different outlooks, the alliance between France and the US was vital in creating the international pressure between 2003 and 2005 that ultimately forced the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. Since then, however, the two countries adopted very different strategies with respect to Lebanon. Between 2005 and 2008, the US relied on a strategy of isolation of the Syrian regime, while the French government never abandoned direct engagement. In the end, both efforts failed to reverse the reestablishment of Syrian infuence, and overall, the US lacks a clear and consistent strategy to counter the local rise of the Iranian-Syrian axis. Thus Lebanon is pulled simultaneously in opposite directions by two powerful and antagonistic political blocs. Although the Syrian-Iranian bloc presently has the upper hand, Lebanon has not fully transitioned to the
“resistance axis.” It maintains tight economic and political ties with Saudi Arabia and appears keen on continuing its relationship with the US. These intricate relations have also had their share of infuence over the fragile and volatile dynamics between Lebanon and Israel.The future of Lebanon is precarious, especially as the political fate of the country is linked to factors that reside entirely beyond its control, including the outgrowth of the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon and the ongoing unrest within Syria. Specifcally, prolonged strife within Syria, not to mention the collapse of the Assad regime, would represent a true game changer, heightening Sunni-Shiite tensions, delivering a strong blow against Hizbollah and its political allies, and renewing the strength of the March 14 coalition.

Given the current sweeping political and social changes, the emerging Middle Eastern order is still very much in the making. However, even in the “new Middle East,” Lebanon will continue to play a crucial role in influencing the regional balance of power, and as such, regional powers
will continue their battle for infuence over Beirut.

Introduction Lebanon: The Wildcard of the Middle East

Lebanon is a country with multiple and at times conficting identities, and as such it is often misunderstood by outsiders who lose their way in its “Byzantine” politics and struggle to make sense of the frequently blurred lines between domestic and foreign policy.At the same time, the small Mediterranean country is often mentioned as a possible model for the Arab Middle East. With its multicultural and pluralist society, a fundamentally liberal outlook, both culturally and
economically, and a strong “outward orientation,”(1) Lebanon stands out as a unique experiment in the region.

However, all the attributes that contribute to making the country one of a kind also create obstacles to Lebanon’s political and social development. In particular, far from being a harmonious experiment in multiculturalism, the Lebanese society is extremely fragile and fragmented along ethnic, religious, and sectarian lines. In the absence of strong common foundations and social cohesion, outbursts of ethnic and religious violence within Lebanon have
been a recurrent pattern in the country’s history. Despite the numerous settlements and ad hoc agreements signed in the aftermath of the civil war (1975-89), Lebanon has never achieved a stable resolution of its sectarian conflicts and a subsequent normalization of inter-community relations.
Lebanon’s divided and fragile society has strongly impacted on the country’s political system and the government’s capacity to exercise control and authority over all of its citizens and territory. Because identity politics are still very much the basis of Lebanon’s political system, political parties tend to function according to a community-based, rather than a nation-based, platform. Thus, far from rejecting the divided and sectarian basis of its society, the Lebanese political system reproduces and enhances existing divisions by working on the basis of confessionalism. Furthermore, lacking a national political identity and vision, most political parties invest enormous capital in preserving both their own political power as well as the current balance of power with respect to other sectarian groups. As such, parties tend to be inherently resistant to change, which only strengthens the static tendency of confessional politics. Consequently, the government and the political system as a whole suffer from institutional weakness and are often ineffective and dysfunctional.

The reluctance to move beyond confessional politics in the institutional arena is matched by similar distrust at the society and community level. In turn, because of this lack of a common political project and reciprocal trust, the political power of each community needs to be at least partially backed by military strength, thereby creating an ongoing internal security dilemma
and causing perennial instability. This unique combination of inter-sectarian tensions, societal divisions, clientelism, and institutional weakness makes Lebanon particularly vulnerable to the infuence of foreign powers. As such, both direct and indirect foreign intervention has been a key element in Lebanese political life since the foundation of the modern state, contributing to the blurred lines between domestic and foreign matters.

Lebanon’s more than 17 sectarian, religious, and ethnic groups have all developed ties with foreign actors as a way to improve their domestic position with respect to the other sects. This relationship between Lebanese political and sectarian groups and foreign actors can range from sporadic contact to tactical cooperation to full strategic alliance, and it can be fixed or shift over time. Similarly, the type of foreign support varies and may include political, diplomatic, economic, and military backing. An important consequence of the ongoing relations between domestic
sectarian and political groups and their foreign “patrons” is that despite Lebanon’s small size and lack of crucial natural resources or wealth, a myriad of foreign powers have been invested in the country, often with profoundly conficting agendas. There are of course other reasons why
each regional power, from Syria to Iran to Israel to Saudi Arabia, has been strongly involved in Lebanese politics. For one, Lebanon is geo-strategically important, and exercising local infuence has been deemed a key to shifting the regional balance of power. Over the past decades, this geo-strategic relevance, combined with Lebanon’s institutional weakness and its internal divisions, has led the country to become a playing feld for regional and global actors to compete for regional power, through both political and military means.

The relationship between foreign patronage and state weakness is at once entrenched in Lebanese modern history and self-perpetuating. Foreign intervention is enabled by the state’s weakness, but it also further contributes to weakening the state, creating a vicious cycle. For one, foreign interventions challenge and question the government’s sovereignty and its ability to exercise control, while de facto making its foreign policy intrinsically connected to that of its foreign patrons. This was of course especially true during the long years of Syrian so-called tutelage (1990-2005) when the Lebanese government’s foreign policy was shaped entirely by Damascus.
Furthermore, by making Lebanon an arena where foreign competition is played out by proxy, the system becomes even more unstable and prone to periodical outbursts of violence, further eroding the state’s ability to function. In fact, it is possible to fnd foreign and regional roots for most Lebanese political and military crises, confrming Lebanon’s unfortunate role as a surrogate for regional and international conficts and linking its fate to larger regional and international geo-strategic developments. Beginning with this premise, the present study looks at the role and
infuence of foreign intervention in Lebanese domestic affairs, focusing in particular on understanding the shifts in the power dynamics following the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005. Specifcally, the research explores old trends and new dynamics behind the involvement of several major regional powers (Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia), as well as international actors (the United States and France). This list is by no means comprehensive, as other countries that also have extensive relations with Lebanon are not included in the analysis (e.g., Qatar, Bahrain, Turkey). Rather, the focus of the study is to understand the relations between Lebanon and the countries that historically have wielded the most power and infuence over domestic Lebanese politics. In this context, the role of Israel as a prominent regional actor is also mentioned, albeit briefy, as the main thrust of the study is to track both indirect and direct government-to-government political and diplomatic relations.

For each of the principal international actors analyzed, the study looks specifically at their role in attempting to infuence and shape both domestic and foreign Lebanese policy. In doing so, the research describes both institutional, government-to-government relations, as well as the links that each foreign country has with specifc domestic ethnic-religious communities and political parties. Indeed, although it is important to understand the Lebanese government’s offcial foreign relations, solely focusing on these institutional links may draw a misleading picture. In the context of the deeply fragmented Lebanese society, non-state actors have in fact a high amount of domestic power and infuence, and extra-institutional, behind-the-scenes relations between foreign powers and Lebanese political actors are just as important as offcial diplomatic relations in determining the country’s political trajectory. The overall objective of the study that follows is to track the shifts in the Lebanese balance of power, first, by analyzing the internal changes that occurred following the 2005 Syrian withdrawal, and second, by looking at
the new trends arising since early 2011 with the events known as the “Arab spring.” In turn, this understanding of internal shifts in the balance of power is related to wider regional dynamics, with the study charting the military, political, and diplomatic signifcance of such shifts both for the Middle East in general and for the State of Israel in particular.

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