One of the gradual developments that has taken place over the past few years has been the almost total reversal of Lebanon’s place in the geopolitics of the Middle East, which likely portends more years of stress and violence ahead.
For most of the recent era of independent Arab states, Lebanon has always been the exception to the rule. From the 1950s it was always the lively, open, liberal and freewheeling place where other Arabs came for exile and safety; or where Arab regimes fought their ideological battles through the Lebanese press or militias that they either backed or funded to a large extent.
While most Arab countries were ruled by top-heavy autocracies dominated by individuals or families, often representing some minority sect or ethnic group, Lebanon was different. It was governed by a consociational system of government that sought consensus among 18 different confessional groups represented in Parliament and society. Lebanon’s central government was usually weak, because power was decentralized in the hands of the leaders of the sectarian groups. Arab and foreign governments supported various Lebanese groups, and often used them to fight proxy wars in Lebanon.
When the Lebanese engaged in debilitating war or fell into political stalemate because they could not agree on major issues, they usually had to turn to a foreign country or two to mediate and help straighten things out. Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, the United States, France and even Qatar have played this role in the past. That was all in the past, though, as Lebanon today finds itself in a very different situation.
It is no longer the exception to the region, but rather now finds itself as something of a mirror of the Middle East. It is deeply entrenched at the heart of the biggest proxy conflict in the region – the war in Syria – and its internal dynamics accurately capture the broader major tensions and active conflicts.
Across the region and within Lebanon we have seen Shiite self-assertion, Sunni militancy and dynamism, Shiite-Sunni tensions, Iranian-Arab tensions, anti-authoritarian rebellion (mostly against the Syrian regime), fragmentation and polarization of society and state, large-scale and sustained external interventions, the rapid growth of Salafist-takfiri movements and their violence, and the slow fraying of the state’s borders in some places.
Especially through Hezbollah’s and Lebanese Sunni militants’ military roles inside Syria, Lebanon now finds its condition and fate closely tied to the big conflicts that define the entire region – especially the outcome in Syria and the widespread Saudi-Iranian proxy confrontations in several countries.
The linkages between these two main issues mean that the recent increase in fighting and bombings in Lebanon is likely to persist for some time, because political violence and warfare inside the country and throughout the region have meshed into a single dynamic. The most vicious aspect of this phenomenon is the fighting across Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran, which have effectively become a single operational theater in which guns, money, people and ideas flow across borders with virtual impunity.
The heart of this battleground is the fighting between different forces seeking to topple or protect the government of President Bashar Assad in Syria. This has significantly increased the level of violence inside Lebanon – in Beirut, Tripoli and the northeast Bekaa Valley along the Syrian border – and has also placed tough new pressures on Lebanon through the flow of a million Syrian refugees into the small country. Yet it also seems that the Lebanese political leaders who control the country’s policies are firmly committed to preventing a return to the terrible civil war the country experienced from 1975-90.
The Lebanese people have for decades had a hard time sustaining any kind of coherent, diligent governance system, due to the constant political wrangling among the many confessional groups in the country. Now that Lebanon also emphatically mirrors the ideological tensions and plays a more direct part in the political violence that defines most of the region, it has lost its former status as an exceptional Arab land.
All the ills of Arab countries are now visible in Lebanon. This suggests that the situation in the country is likely to remain volatile, as it has been for some years now. A resolution of the Syrian war and an agreement between Iran and the Western states on nuclear and other issues would go a long way toward allowing Lebanon to resume its life as a different kind of pluralistic Arab society when compared to other Arab countries.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.