Saudi realism and the illusion of initiatives

Sam Menassa
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Perhaps what Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said in an interview with CNN about Lebanon is the only new and different update amid the numerous analyses and initiatives that seek to pull Lebanon out of the abyss. These initiatives often find a vexatious ruling class standing in their way, as its members only care about their interests and not the interests of the nation.

“The future of Lebanon is in the hands of the Lebanese… the situation in Lebanon has become unbearable and the Kingdom does not feel it is suitable to continue to support the current situation where a non-governmental entity, namely Hezbollah, is in control of the state as a fait accompli and possesses a veto right on all that is happening in the country, in addition to controlling its infrastructure… while the ruling class is doing almost nothing to handle the challenges faced by the Lebanese people, including the rampant corruption, mismanagement and many other issues,” bin Farhan said.

Prince bin Farhan’s words give a clear and direct description of the issue, and all else that is being said is just beating around the bush. The rumors about a possible visit by the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement Gebran Bassil to Paris, during which he will meet with the Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri is nothing but a pointless repetition of previous events that inevitably lead to forming a government that is controlled by political quotas and consensus. It is also a restoration of the French role that was weakened following the failed French Initiative.

Some describe the French Initiative, and by extension French diplomacy, as hasty, while others describe it as regressive. The second description is more accurate considering all the amendments that were made to the Initiative, which basically called for a radical change in Lebanese political life by forming a government of specialists independent of political parties to achieve the required reforms. It seems that French President Emmanuel Macron, when launching this initiative, intentionally or ignorantly overlooked the issue of Hezbollah’s roles, weapons and domination of the country, which were not considered as part of the causes of the crisis. This made the initiative ineffective from the start, even before all politicians – including Hezbollah’s – backed out of their agreements with Macron.

French President Emmanuel Macron meets members of the military mobilised for the reconstruction of the port of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon September 1, 2020. (Reuters)
French President Emmanuel Macron meets members of the military mobilised for the reconstruction of the port of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon September 1, 2020. (Reuters)

The French accepted later that the government would include political parties or that the specialist ministers would be close to these parties, especially after a political leader was designated to form the government. That was the first sign of the ultimately complete French acquiescence for the government be techno-political, a clear sign of conceding to the demands of Hezbollah and its ally, the FPM.

The stumbling block faced by the French Initiative was also faced by the Egyptian attempts, with the visit of Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to Beirut after the Lebanese President's team shot the French Initiative down. Shoukry’s visit was followed by the visit of the Assistant Secretary-General of the Arab League, Husam Zaki, which was also preceded by a Russian move through an invitation to a delegation from Hezbollah to visit Moscow.

The common factor among all these initiatives and mediations, which is also why they are all going around in a vicious circle, is the fact that they have turned a blind eye to the core of the problem, which is Hezbollah. They even go further and try to meet the party’s demands in an attempt to solve the Lebanese crises with sedatives rather than solving the country’s deadlock, effectively stirring away from acceptable and sustainable solutions. The country remains in a deadlock, in a clear indication that Hezbollah does not believe it is time to make way for government formation. There is no clearer proof of what I’m saying than what is being marketed as the main obstruction behind the government formation, which is the vetoing third of the government that the president is demanding he names. This demand is absurd as the president and his ally, Hezbollah, practically have the vetoing third through their alliance. Thus, this point of disagreement is invalid and it is just an issue of distributing the roles between Hezbollah and its ally.

Despite the sincerity of intentions, the initiatives will go nowhere because they shy away from confronting the causes of the impasse, all in order to preserve a delusion of civil peace, security, and stability in exchange for acknowledging Hezbollah's increasing hegemony over political life and decision-making in the country. Everyone believes that the mere nomination of Hariri to head the government is a gift or a privilege that deserves all concessions.

This brings us back to the most sincere and frank statement in the Saudi minister’s speech when he said that the Kingdom “does not feel it is appropriate to continue to support the current situation.” This statement reflects the truth behind the major international positions, especially the implicit American and European positions.

The Saudi position exposed the emptiness of initiatives and positions and their occasional malice, especially since it was expressed at a sensitive stage in the region. Firstly, after Washington and Tehran agreed to negotiate a return to the nuclear deal amid American flexibility towards Iran and an explicit intention to study a mechanism to review and reduce sanctions in exchange for Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal. Everyone knows that if the sanctions are to be lifted, even partially, Iran will no longer be isolated, its allies will relax, and this will be visible in their intransigence in all their areas of influence including Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. Everyone also realizes that any new agreement that does not go beyond Iran's nuclear program to address its interference in the region will be equal to burying heads in the sand in order not to see the problem because what Iran actually wants is not nuclear power, but rather influence and expansion by exporting its revolution. The nuclear power with which it is threatening the international community is nothing but a way to achieve its main goal.

Secondly, the tone of Israeli political, security and research references has escalated to reject any international agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. This coincides with old and new information about the presence of precision missiles not only in Lebanon, but also in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and even the possibility of missiles being launched from Iran.

The conclusion is that what is being marketed as the solution or antidote to all Lebanon’s problems through the formation of a government of whatever nature, without addressing the epidemic of the country’s Iranian extension, is like promoting illusions that will soon dissipate, leaving us in a situation worse than where we started.

What is the way out then? Available internal solutions to this political deadlock and national intractability are through the implementation of the Taif accord, both literally and in spirit, according to a specific timetable, in addition to the formation of a salvation government that includes members who are known to be efficient and clean. But that is almost impossible, especially with the presence of Hezbollah, and internal political understanding seems unlikely when dealing with issues of sovereignty, defense and foreign policy, economic and financial reform, the role of banks, and Lebanon's role in the region. With foreign initiatives stumbling on the varied goals of their initiators, the only remaining solution is to call on the United Nations Security Council to place Lebanon under international protection or administration to help it devise a national resolution that results in a new ruling authority emanating from free elections that express the desires of the people, which will carry the task of deciding the shape and form of the ruling system.

There are many obstacles to this last-chance solution, because an essential part of Lebanon's dilemma is its international and regional entanglement. But if it is true that the international concern is to save Lebanon and avoid subjecting it to additional fragmentation and the repercussions thereof, then the illusions will recede and the chances of realism and some role for the United Nations will rise, and with it the possibility of returning the soul to Lebanon.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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