The frail Lebanese State and weathering the Syrian Storm

9 January 2015 | 14:19

  • Last update: 9 January 2015 | 14:19

The recent harsh weather over Lebanon has made us think of poor refugees and their plight. But it also allowed Sami E. Baroudi to indulge himself in the dark art of metaphor gazing; Lebanon's own storm caused primarily by the Syrian war will pass, he reckons, although he rails the country's PM for not haranguing the international donors for more booty and the regional superpowers to stop squabbling


The late renowned historian Kamal Salibi depicted Lebanon as a "House of Many Mansions". What should be added is that this House was also built in a location known for frequent earthquakes that recurrently shook its weak foundations. Thus, ever since its inception, the Lebanese state has had to contend with a fairly high level of regional turbulence. Almost every single regional crisis has had its repercussions on the ever precarious Lebanese Republic. We can just mention in passing the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the inflow of Palestinian refugees, the 1957 Syrian crisis which led to the creation of the United Arab Republic and precipitated the 1958 Lebanese crisis (or mini-civil war), the June 1967 war and the subsequent relocating of the PLO headquarters from Jordan to Lebanon flowing Black September 1970 and so forth.


Hezbollah in Syria
These days, the principal source of regional instability is the ongoing crisis in Syria. The Syrian quagmire poses at least three interrelated challenges to Lebanon. To start with, Lebanese groups (especially Hezbollah) have gotten heavily embroiled in the military conflict with serious domestic repercussions especially on Sunni-Shia relations. By unabashedly backing and fighting on the side of the regime in Damascus, Hezbollah has strained its relations with the Sunni communities in Syria and Lebanon. The inability of the Lebanese state to speak with one voice on Hezbollah's military involvement in Syria signifies its lack of autonomy from the major constituent sects. It is also another reminder that the Taef accord was born with a structural flow: it allowed one Lebanese faction to keep its weapons and to use them at its discretion.


Syrian problem more about security
Equally important, fighting in Syria has already spilled over to Lebanon in the form of sporadic rocket attacks against Shia villages in Biqa', suicide bombings, and most importantly the summer 2014 major military assault on the town of 'Arsal, which resulted in the abduction of a number of Lebanese soldiers and internal security officers. Thus far, the danger of a major military spillover from Syria is limited. Nevertheless, if the Syrian opposition intensifies its military presence and operations in the border areas with Lebanon, and if at least some of the Syrians in Lebanon turn to violence, then the situation will change dramatically.

Last but not least, the fighting has triggered a huge influx of displaced Syrians who are posing multiple humanitarian, socio-economic and security challenges. The issue is not about stabilizing the number of displaced Syrians (standing roughly at 1.5 million) but about starting to bring this number down. An equally important challenge is stop the militarization of the Syrians in Lebanon.

In light of the Syrian conflagration, Lebanon entered a dark abyss due to: 1) the fierce fighting raging at its eastern and northern borders, and sometimes on its territory; 2) the exacerbation of sectarian tensions; and 3) the unregulated influx of displaced Syrians. State institutions are still functioning but with mounting problems. One cannot but read the many signs of the steady decline in the power of the state to impose its writ over its people and territory.


It's not about the money. Not.
But one must not despair. Lebanon can ride the Syrian storm; but this is contingent on two elements. First, the international community must accelerate its financial, military and political support for Lebanon. None of the major regional or international players wants to see the collapse of the state in Lebanon. The world does not need one more failed state, especially in the volatile Middle East that is literally in Europe's backyard. The Lebanese state is already receiving regional and international help to keep it on its feet, whether in the form of military assistance or economic and humanitarian aid. Clearly, much more support is needed.

Arguably, this is the time for a far more assertive and imaginative Lebanese diplomacy to wrestle more financial and military support from the international community; and to mobilize the Lebanese diaspora in order to put pressure on foreign governments to provide more aid for Lebanon at this critical juncture. The Lebanese government should use its current vulnerability as a tool to leverage greater external backing and to seek assurances (if possible) from the international and regional powers (primarily, the USA, EU, Saudi Arabia and Iran) that they will work in unison, and with their local allies, to stop Lebanon from going the Syrian or Iraqi way.

Second, while external support is desperately needed, local players must contribute to enhancing domestic stability through engaging in internal dialogues that aim at expanding the areas of common understanding. The recently launched dialogue between the Sunni Future Movement and the Shia Hezbollah, under the auspices of the speaker of parliament; as well as the planned talks between the two most powerful and rival Maronite leaders (Michael Aoun the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and Samir Geagea who heads the Lebanese Forces) are small steps in the right direction. But far bolder initiatives are needed on the part of local, regional and international players if Lebanon to ride the storm.

Internally, and in the absence of a president, the onus falls primarily on the prime minister and the cabinet who must demonstrate greater dynamism in tackling internal problems and soliciting international support. Most importantly, the cabinet, through deeds and not words, must strive to assure a weary Lebanese public that the country's basic infrastructure will not crumble under the weight of the displaced Syrians and that the latter will not be permanently resettled in Lebanon.

Equally important, the cabinet must spearhead the efforts to boost the immunity of the Lebanese population in order not to succumb to the sectarian flu that is fast spreading throughout the region. In this regard, the prime minister needs to play a more assertive role in prodding rival internal players to engage in constructive dialogues both within and outside cabinet walls in order to stabilize the domestic situation and provide the Lebanese with some concrete evidence that the country is moving, even if at a painstakingly slow pace, in the direction of reconciliation and consensus building.


Sami E. Baroudi is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the Lebanese American University. He received his doctorate degree from Indiana University, Bloomington and his BA and MA degrees from AUB. He currently serves as Assistant dean in the School of Arts & Sciences and was previously Chair of theCommunication Arts Department (2012-2013) and was previously the Assistant Provost for Faculty Affairs (2005-2013) and the Chair of the Social Sciences Department (2001 - 2005). He has published extensively on the political economy of Lebanon, Arab intellectuals and political Islam. His current research focuses on contemporary Islamist perspectives on international relations and representations of the United States by Arab intellectuals.

He tweets at @SamiBaroudi.


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