It is time for Lebanon to Grow Up
Only Neutrality can save Lebanon from the destructive forces being directed at it
London , United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - 15 Nov 2017 - Ghassan Matar
In the words of famous Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi, Lebanon is a non-country where Christians and Muslims once lived side by side but failed to have a common vision for their homeland. The Lebanese Christians looked to Europe while the Muslims aspired to remain anchored in a wide Arab nationalist framework. They occasionally fought each other while the idea of Lebanon survived and even flourished under violence, sectarianism and corruption.
With the current crisis that resulted in the unprecedented resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s in Riyadh, the many sides are once again on the verge of being shaken to their foundations, however this time may be different.
Few people could have anticipated the current Lebanese crisis in which is seeing Iran replacing Saudi Arabia as the main regional player in a country that has been within the Saudi sphere of influence since the creation of the Arab league after World War II.
From Hussein Owayni, Riyad Solh to Rafiq and Saad Harriri, there is a history of finance and politics, and sometimes marriages with senior Saudi princes, cementing a precarious relationship, often controlled by Riyadh for its own purposes, and benefiting Sunni families. The grandfather of Walid bin Talal, now detained, was Lebanese prime minister Riyad Solh.
But above all, such prime ministers were instrumental in defending Saudi political interests in Lebanon.
Against this history of Saudi-Sunni connections, since the 1980s Iran began to consolidate a Shiite faction that had been ignored, marginalised and sometimes humiliated by the Lebanese historical sectarian politics drawn by the French under the mandate, and ravaged by successive Israeli occupations of the south where the majority lived.
Since the 1970s there have been many violent Israeli intrusions that led to impoverishment, expulsions and destruction of towns, villages and agricultural fields. Without Iran’s support to Hezbollah, southern Lebanon would have been most probably still under Israeli occupation.
The Sunni bourgeoisie of Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli among other cities became vital to Saudi Arabia maintaining its foothold and guarding Lebanon from the excessive Iranian intrusion.
Former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who was the protégé of King Salam during the Taif accords, boosted the confidence of the Sunnis in Lebanon while also building his financial empire in both Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Under post-war reconstruction efforts, he emerged as a financial tycoon who wiped out small traders and businessmen in favour of global capitalist intrusion.
With his assassination in 2005, his son Saad became the face of Sunni power, albeit a declining one in Lebanon. Money earned in Saudi Arabia was translated into philanthropy in Lebanon. Patron-client relations became the core of the Sunni za’amat, leadership, like other sectarian leadership.
But since King Salman came to power in 2015, coinciding with a sharp decline in oil prices, global economic slowdown and depletion of Saudi foreign currency reserves, the Hariri financial empire collapsed in Saudi Arabia and the political one began to show serious cracks in Lebanon as patronage gave way to reality. Since the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, Saudi Arabia began to lose its historical importance in Lebanon allowing a slow but creeping Iranian consolidation of its presence there.
After endorsing the Israeli bombing of Hezbollah in Lebanon and orchestrating the destruction of the Syrian state in a bid to weaken Iranian influence, Saudi Arabia decided to go a little further and snub Iran by summoning Saad Hariri, its man in Beirut, to Riyadh where he surprisingly and unexpectedly read his resignation letter on the same night that Mohammed bin Salman started his anti-corruption purge.
The hypocrisy of his decision to step down is outstanding. In his resignation speech, he effectively states that only Saudi Arabia is allowed to meddle in Lebanon; and that Iranian meddling is not permissible. The rash decision by Prince Salman to force the resignation of Hariri not only undermined his own argument about meddling, but has all but destroyed the credibility of the Hariri clan, the Sunnis and the office of the Prime Minister, not to mention the Vienna Convention.
But Lebanon is one of those places where society and its sectarian factions have always been stronger than the state. It continues to operate without a central power since this central power has no means to provide for citizens any substantial welfare services or economic prosperity, let alone protection against successive Israeli invasions.
Like Palestinians, Lebanon has more Lebanese people in the diaspora than inside the country. If the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry erupts into violent confrontation of some sort in Lebanon, not only the Lebanese but also thousands of Palestinian and Syrian refugees will be drawn into such conflict.
A new refugee crisis may be at the doorsteps of Europe again. This should deter any European country from encouraging or becoming complicit in Saudi designs to destabilise the fragile peace between the many Lebanese mansions, but given what happened in Libya, despite the numerous warnings by the late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, I’m not so hopeful.
Fortunately, EU ambassadors in Lebanon have expressed support for the Lebanese state and showed no intention of contributing to a volatile situation by supporting Saudi claims that Lebanon declared war on it. Rex Tillerson commented that he still recognised Saad Hariri as Prime Minister; further weakening Saudi credibility.
Saudi Arabia will only be able to destabilise Lebanon if it works with Israel, the only country with the military capabilities to threaten Lebanon’s fragile peace. Will Mohammed bin Salman go as far as striking a deal with Israel in which he offers full normalisation in return for Israel destroying Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanon?
This should not be ruled out as the young prince does not seem to think of the consequences of his actions.
If his domestic repression and detention of his own cousins is something to go by, the international community, especially those who will be directly affected by his actions in Lebanon, should work to put pressure on him to restrain his illusions of becoming the master of Arab affairs from the Levant to Aden.
The international community should also show solidarity with Lebanon by pre-emptively condemning any Israel aggression on Lebanon and by continuing to recognize Saad Hariri as Prime Minister.
More importantly, it is time for Lebanon to grow up and reform itself, it is time for self-reflection and a series of measures that will give rise, preserve and protect a new Lebanese reality, it is time for Neutrality.
The case for Lebanese Neutrality
If there is a single example of what Lebanon of the 21st century should resemble, then I would choose the Swiss model. It overcame centuries of local and world wars and, through its “armed” neutrality, achieved the miracle of staying outside the conflicts despite that its citizens were divided politically between two axes according to ethnic loyalties.
Lebanese neutrality would have to be the result of the present reality with its dissociation policy being adopted by neighbouring countries so that its dissociation policy can be viable. In order to create and thereafter preserve Lebanese neutrality, it should not be based on current circumstances.
The Baabda Declaration, which was a step in the right direction, is not enough. Lebanon should also adopt the Hague Convention regarding the rights and duties of neutral powers and enjoy what is stipulated in that convention, especially in its first article (do not violate the freedom of the territory of neutral states), 10th article (any act taken by a neutral power to repel attempts to undermine its neutrality, even if by force, is not considered hostile) and 11th article (a neutral power that receives on its territory troops belonging to fighting armies should hold them in camps as far away as possible from the theatre of operations).
There is no room for the survival of the formula “People, Army, Resistance.” That formula immediately ceases to exist once neutrality is implemented. Our people are one. Our army is one. And our resistance emanates from the unity of the people and the army.
The resistance should neither be an independent entity or leadership, nor a reference other than the legitimate authority. In other words, as part of the armed forces, the resistance is subject to the decision of the Council of Ministers, whose supreme commander is the president of the republic. If Hezbollah cannot accept this, then they will be eventually be held responsible for the destruction of the Lebanese state; as this is likely to be the alternate reality.
From here, the practical steps to the proposed road map entail making a decision at the national dialogue table that would finally resolve this issue, thus ending the duality of arms, which would be united under the sole authority of the state. Therefore, it must propose a road map to adopt neutrality and, more importantly, a formula on how to implement and preserve it. To achieve this, Lebanon must resolve the following issues.
First: internal reconciliation. Neutrality cannot be imposed, and it will not be respected from the outside if it is not accompanied or rather based on a new item in the National Charter that specifies the new obligations.
“No pathway and no safe haven” (for foreign armed entities) should be rewritten to read, “No to taking sides and no to getting sucked in militarily, security-wise or even politically or through the media” to foreign problems. Lebanon would announce its to The Hague Convention of neutral powers without the need to remove the existing paragraphs, thus leaving the Taif Agreement and the Charter of 1943 as two institutional documents for the establishment of Lebanon and its sustainability through its neutrality.
Lebanon should then abolish all treaties or agreements that do not conform to Lebanon’s neutrality policy, ranging from the “Cooperation, Coordination and Brotherhood Treaty” with Syria to the Joint Arab Defence Treaty, etc.
Second: Lebanon should seek explicit Arab recognition of its neutrality by amending the charter of the Arab League, or by the league approving a special exception to Lebanon by confirming Lebanon’s “supporting” status, whereby Lebanon doesn’t participate in military action or join any regional or international axis. If the Arabs refuse, it should pull out of the Arab League and go for the International recognition.
Third: international recognition based on an official document issued by the Lebanese state and registering that document with the UN, then inviting the Security Council to revive and confirm the truce between Israel and Lebanon as we await a fair and comprehensive political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. That UN resolution should be under UN Chapter VII to enforce the truce, which Israel refuses to revive, and to protect Lebanon’s neutrality by UN troops that were tasked for this purpose under Resolution 1701. That way, we would be able to securely extract our oil wealth.
- To emphasize that neutrality requires Lebanon to have a force capable of deterrence;
- To change the nature of the army into a “moving army”;
- Absorbing the resistance in the army; and,
- Reviving conscription, but in a way where the training is improved and the army is made stronger.
Fifth: popular support. Put neutrality up to a national referendum or get it approved by a parliamentary majority and two-thirds majority in the cabinet according to Article 65 of the constitution.
After doing that, Lebanon’s strength will no longer be “because of its weakness,” but because of its own strength, which is approved at home and respected abroad.
This is the only way to protect us from the killing and destruction that may reach us any moment if some Lebanese continue to get involved in regional conflicts that are larger than the small country can bear.
Since the discovery of significant natural gas reserves off the shores of Israel and Cyprus; the countries that share the same geological underwater basin with Lebanon, Lebanon has been blessed with an opportunity. According to the latest estimates, the basin holds 708 Billion Cubic Meters (BCM) of natural gas and from 440 to 675 million oil barrels. Meanwhile, huge new gas fields have been found offshore of Egypt and Israel, increasing the prospect that the pool extends into Lebanese waters as well.
In Lebanon, the potential benefits from a domestic supply of gas are immediately clear; ending power shortages, wiping out Lebanon’s rapidly rising public debt, reviving the economic sector, social development, and the reduction of pollution. This blessing should be viewed as its last chance to reform itself and deliver to its citizens a prosperous and stable life.
The failure to reform is likely to lead to the destruction of Lebanon, and a miserable future for all its citizens; let us hope the Lebanese make the right choice.