Lebanon’s neutrality in Syria

The Atlantic Council hosted a discussion on Friday about Lebanon’s neutrality toward the Syrian conflict. Is it hot air or realistic promise? The guest speakers were Paul Salem, Vice President for Policy and Research from the Middle East Institute and Bilal Saab, Resident Senior Fellow on International Security at the Atlantic Council. Faysal Itani, Fellow at the Atlantic Council Center for the Middle East, moderated.

Paul Salem said there is always an issue of neutrality in divided societies. For Lebanon, this has been a challenge for decades. Beirut is trying to survive in a turbulent environment. Figuring out how divided societies should manage foreign policy has been a challenge more recently for Syria and Iraq as well. One option is to reduce the load on the central government and have a foreign policy of neutrality, as it reduces the chances of division in a society.

One of the dangers of this tactic is that local parties will seek foreign alliances. Similarly, regional parties ally with local groups. We have seen this in the Levant and Ukraine. The dangers become particularly acute when the central government is weak. The Middle East today is in the midst of an intense proxy conflict between Iran and the Gulf countries. This has torn apart Syria and Lebanon and it is digging into Iraq. Often these divided societies are very small. Consequently, achieving neutrality requires domestic and external commitment. If the region or world does not respect neutrality, it is difficult for divided societies to maintain it. Machiavelli said that the most dangerous decision a polarized state can make is to try to remain neutral because it will have no regional allies. It is safer to pick a side. Lebanon has tried both. It faces challenges concerning its foreign relations in a turbulent region. On one hand, local players have sought alliances in the region and world to support their domestic positions. On the other hand, outside players have sought local alliances for proxy wars.

For now, the recently formed government is cohesive, with both the March 14 and March 8 alliances involved. However, the government only has until this week to announce its policy statement. Otherwise, it cannot be a full functioning government and will become a caretaker. In addition, the president’s term expires in May.

Deciding on its foreign policy is critical for Lebanon. This is an external and internal problem. Externally the fight between two elephants, Iran and Saudi Arabia, will continue to devastate the Levant. The region cannot survive this level of proxy conflict.

Bilal Saab tried to answer the question, is Lebanon’s neutrality hot air or a realistic promise? In his opinion it is hot air unless a specific scenario takes place. The scenario is as follows: Hezbollah would draw or greatly reduce its military involvement in Syria.

Hezbollah sees the Syrian conflict as an existential struggle. However, there have been several moments of crisis in its history when top leaders proclaimed the death of the organization, but it never happened. For example, after Abbas al-Musawi was assassinated, after the 1993, 1996, and 2006 high-intensity conflicts with Israel, and after the tribunal accusing Hezbollah of killing Rafic Hariri, the organization weathered the storms.

The reason it has overcome all of these crises is because Hezbollah has always maintained a strong relationship with the Shia community. Today there is no rupture in this bond, but we are starting to see a few cracks. In Bilal’s opinion, these cracks are key to forcing Hezbollah to change its approach to the Syrian civil war and focus on the Lebanese internal politics.

For now, Hezbollah is nowhere near reducing its involvement in Syria. It has suffered many losses and several bombings, but Hezbollah is willing to tolerate this. The more challenging the situation becomes in Syria, the more the relationship between Hezbollah and its constituency will become tenuous. Out of its own self-interest, Hezbollah will be forced to come up with a compromise where neutrality will again become an option. In this situation, involvement in regional struggles will not be an option anymore.

Another scenario is one in which the intensifying struggle in Syria creates a rally ‘round the flag effect and strengthens the bond between the Shia community and Hezbollah. Bilal does not believe this is the direction the Shia community will take. Greater cracks will force Hezbollah to make some big concessions. Today they may have a tight grip over the community, but older aspirations of the Shias that tended to be more secular and less in line with perpetual conflict will come back to the fore. It is hard to make the case to explain why Shia are dying in Syria. This is the only scenario Bilal thinks could bring about Lebanese neutrality. Otherwise he sees it only as hot air.

Faysal Itani asked, in light of the divide in Lebanon, what are US interests here? What should they be?

Paul Salem: Look at Lebanon in the context of the Levant; it is part of a broader dynamic. When the Syrian uprising started and became increasingly violent, another US administration would have seen a potential to impact of balance of power in the Levant. There was a brief period when the Assad regime would have been vulnerable. That moment has passed mainly because of US reluctance to engage in the Syrian conflict. In the past there was an opportunity to roll back Iranian reach in Syria and Lebanon, which is a potentially major US interest. It might have also brought about a quicker resolution to the Syrian crisis.

By inaction, we have arrived at a bloody balance of power that has destroyed the Syria that used to exist. The war will likely go on for years. It is now the biggest humanitarian crisis of our generation and hugely destabilizes the whole region. From today’s perspective, the attempt to reach a negotiated ending with Assad’s departure and the creation of some sort of transition has collapsed.

The Ukraine issue has collapsed any chance of US-Russian cooperation. The main challenge for Lebanon is to survive the Syrian war. It is not clear if it will survive if the situation continues. The only way to reach a political resolution is by looking at the Geneva I framework. Assad has to leave. For Assad to leave, he must be forced to leave. This means the United States leading allies to raise pressure. The Assad regime is one that governs by force and will only relinquish its power by force. A resolution will not happen until the U.S. puts pressure first, diplomacy second.

Any post-conflict Syria must be more neutral. The united Syria of tomorrow cannot be closely aligned with Iran or it would not be united. To survive the Syrian war, Lebanon could benefit from a strong government and aid from the US to deal with the refugee crisis. Lebanon might otherwise be sunk by the refugee situation. If the refugees become more desperate and armed, Lebanon will not be able to survive. It will collapse and once again become a failed state.

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