Regional Conflicts and Lebanon’s Existential Crisis

05/05/2022 - 23:59 PM




Philip A. Salem[*]


The tragedy of Lebanon is its political geography: a small land martyred by its powerful neighbors, Israel and Syria.  Only the Mediterranean is kind to Lebanon.  Proximity to Israel has led Palestinians, Syrians, and lately Iranians to use Lebanon as a platform to launch attacks on Israel.  As a result, Lebanon is a permanent political hostage and an unwilling military tool buffeted by power dynamics it does not control and can hardly influence.  In recent decades, the conflict between the West and Iran has fixed Lebanon in position at the eye of the storm.

Beyond geopolitics, Lebanon is challenged by what can be called “geo-culture.” It is unique in the Middle East.  In every other Arab country, the official religion of the state is Islam; similarly, the official religion of Israel is Judaism.  But Lebanon has no official religion.  Rather, it is a cradle of multiculturalism in which eighteen officially recognized sects coexist.  Despite the cycle of wars and conflicts that Lebanon has endured, in this place, Christianity continues to embrace Islam and Eastern cultures continue to embrace Western ways. Thus it has been said, “If you visit Beirut, then you visit the whole world.” 

Israel feels somehow threatened by the model of Lebanon as a land where diverse religions and cultures interact and thrive.  This model poses a challenge to Israel because that country is struggling to define its identity: is it an exclusively Jewish state, a more inclusive Israeli nation, or some impossible combination of the two?    

Looking back, the first step in the disintegration of the Lebanese state was the Cairo Agreement signed in late 1969 by Lebanon and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).  Under the agreement, Lebanon granted the PLO a zone in southern Lebanon that PLO militias could use for training and as a base for attacking Israel.  The Cairo Agreement heralded the gradual collapse of Lebanon from a sovereign state to failed state.  Repeated Palestinian attacks eventually led to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which ultimately resulted in the PLO’s withdrawal from the country. 

A fatal mistake made by PLO forces in Lebanon was that they targeted not only Israel but also Lebanon.  For years, Yasser Arafat dominated the political scene in Beirut and sought to impose major political decisions on the country.  He spent money that the PLO had collected from Arab regimes on bribing Lebanese politicians, and so became master of Beirut. 

The PLO’s role in Lebanon was devastating to the country and was one of the major factors that triggered the cycle of wars that began in 1975 and have yet to conclude.  Many Lebanese believe that Arafat wanted Lebanon as a kind of “substitute” for Palestine.  Fortunately, this dream was not realized. 

After the PLO departs from Lebanon, the Lebanese government, unfortunately, could not establish peace and so wars and conflicts continued to rage.  These wars finally came to an end—of sorts—when the Taif Agreement was negotiated under Saudi auspices in September 1989; several weeks later, the agreement was ratified by the Lebanese parliament.  This instrument did indeed bring the fighting to an end, but it also introduced a major destabilizing element in that Lebanon was placed under the iron grasp of Syria. 

The pact stated, in part: “given the fraternal relations binding Syria to Lebanon, the Syrian forces shall thankfully assist the forces of the legitimate Lebanese government to spread the authority of the state of Lebanon within a set period of no more than two years.”  Only the most naïve believed that this clause would be implemented.  Inevitably, Syria did not use its armed forces to bolster the authority of the Lebanese state; rather, Damascus deployed its forces to dominate Lebanon.  In addition—and contrary to the Taif Agreement—Syria abolished all Lebanese militias except those of Hezbollah and the Palestinian factions.  Damascus safeguarded its militia allies and used them as local proxies to achieve its goals.  Syrian hegemony over Lebanon lasted until its armed forces were forced to leave the country in 2005 in the wake of Hariri’s assassination.  Syria never recognized Lebanon as an independent state and its military presence in Lebanon had four primary objectives:

  1. Using Lebanon as a negotiating card with Israel and the West;
  2. Employing Lebanon as a tool to settle scores with its enemies in the Arab World;
  3. Establishing good relations with Iran by allowing it to send arms and weapons to Hezbollah;
  4. Propping up its woeful economy by sponsoring lucrative cross-border smuggling networks, in both directions.

Over and above the troubles that Syria inflicted on Lebanon, it recently exported approximately 1.5 million refugees to its small neighbor.  Consequently, Lebanon now hosts a minimum of 2.7 million refugees, a staggering figure for a country of 4.5 million.  Regarding refugees, two things happened in Lebanon that never occurred in any other country: first, as a result of Middle East wars, Lebanon’s population is now precariously divided between refugees and citizens; second, despite all the problems and wars that plagued Lebanon over the last half-century, there is not a single Lebanese refugee anywhere in the world.

For decades, Iran has pursued a strategy of expansionism in the Arab World and has become the major power broker in Lebanon.  Hezbollah, which represents the military arm of Iran in Lebanon, has achieved political and military dominance of the country.  The threat posed to Lebanon by the Iran-Hezbollah combination is extremely serious; indeed, it constitutes an existential threat.

Hezbollah is backed to the hilt by Iran, a powerful country that provides the kind of money and arms that other Lebanese—including the Lebanese state—cannot match.  In addition, Iran has a well-defined strategy, a clear vision, and defined goals.  Contrariwise, Lebanese who support the sovereignty of their country are unarmed, divided, collectively penurious, and have no clear vision of what they seek to achieve. 

Iran has two major strategic objectives: the first is to dominate as many Arab countries as possible to become the sole negotiator with Israel and the West on the Palestinian issue.  Teheran wants Israel and the West to talk to its representatives instead of talking to Arabs.  This would represent a major shift in the power dynamics of the Middle East. 

Iran’s second objective is to export the ideology of the Islamic Revolution, which has religious, political, and cultural dimensions.  The culture of the Iranian Revolution is fundamentally antagonistic to that of Lebanon and the West because it is grounded in religious fundamentalism, specifically the promotion of a narrow interpretation of Shia Islam.  This vision is not only a threat to Lebanon, it is an even greater threat to the West.

Some military experts believe that the major threat posed by Iran is not nuclear but rather emanates from Teheran’s ability to produce advanced missile systems.  Should Iran one day attain nuclear weapons, this achievement will not eclipse its ability to produce precision missiles.  Iran will probably never use nuclear weapons, but it is producing precision missile technology now.  This technology poses a threat to the Gulf states and, consequently, is a threat to the Arab World’s oil fields.  Should a new nuclear deal with Iran fail to address the issues of Iranian expansionism and Iranian missiles, then such an agreement would be destabilizing.

Unlike the Syrian threat, the Iranian one is not confined to the domination of Lebanon’s political life.  The real danger of Hezbollah resides in its attempt to change the cultural identity of Lebanon by imposing an ideology that is the antithesis of Lebanon.  This ideology does not recognize a separation of religion and state and thus it turns the existence of a civic state into a mirage.  The Hezbollah ideology is not only a threat to Lebanon, but it is also a threat to human civilization.  Anybody who dissents from this ideology is not an opponent, but an enemy to be vanquished. 

Hezbollah’s approach contradicts the very meaning of Lebanon as a “message” and a “model,” to use concepts that have been powerfully espoused by the current pope and his predecessors.  Lebanon is a “message” because of its unique culture in the Middle East.  In this land, Christianity and Islam embrace each other and Arab culture embraces Western culture.  Lebanon upholds human rights, the dignity of the individual, and respect for others, particularly others who are different. 

Pope Francis will visit Lebanon in June to affirm the greatness of the country’s “message.”  He has already referred to Lebanon as an “exemplary model” of coexistence and tolerance.  The pope knows that the wars in Lebanon have never been religious and that religion has been used as a tool for driving conflict.  Despite 50 years of war and conflict, the people of Lebanon continue to embrace each other, irrespective of differences in religion and culture. 

Lebanon is a model of multiculturalism and a pathway to a better future.  The culture that Iran seeks to impose on the Middle East is monocultural and, as such, belongs to the past.  The West should not be handcuffed in the face of this threat to Lebanon and the world.  Regrettably, the West’s vision has contracted over the last half-century.  It has focused on military and economic power and has neglected the importance of culture and the centrality of values, which give meaning to human existence.  Human rights and the sacredness of the person have been eclipsed by reliance on military power, economic considerations, and technology.  However, we can take some comfort that during the Ukrainian tragedy, there is evidence that the West is rising to the challenge to defend freedom, to defend the weak, and to defend right against brute military might.  But the West must do more to lead a reinvigorated Free World.

Iran, Israel, Syria, and the Palestinians would not have been capable of inflicting carnage on Lebanon had it not been for a class of corrupt local politicians who manipulated external powers to achieve their objectives and ambitions at the expense of the welfare of their country. 

The basic cause of the current and potentially fatal crisis in Lebanon is political.  Economic and financial collapse are products of political failure, not its cause.  Although corruption is indeed partially responsible for economic ruin, it certainly was not the major factor because Lebanon has been plagued since birth by endemic corruption.  But something new has happened: the hegemony of an external power over the political independence of the Lebanese government.  Iran, using its proxy Hezbollah, has obstructed all nation-building efforts and demolished almost all Lebanese public institutions. 

Furthermore, Hezbollah has encouraged and provided cover for vast networks of insidious corruption.  It has used this tactic to render most political players hostage to its will.  However, we must admit that responsibility for this political collapse rests with the Lebanese people and government, which have failed to establish a solid structure for the state or a clear vision of a sovereign Lebanon.  Most, but not all, of those who came to power in recent decades lacked loyalty to Lebanon and used every tool possible, including welcoming external intervention, to consolidate their power and ambitions at the expense of Lebanon’s sovereignty. 

Another factor that should not be forgotten is the basic cultural pathology that led to this state of affairs, including the allegiance of Lebanese to religious sects and Zaims.  To put Lebanon on the right track for the future, we need to correct the political mindset of Lebanon by inculcating a primary and absolute loyalty to the nation. 

Two recent developments might have a positive influence on the crisis in Lebanon: the Ukraine war, and a shift in the Arab-Israeli paradigm.  The Ukraine war has demonstrated that freedom can be defended and that military strength is not always capable of crushing the weaker side.  The unified response of the Ukrainian people and their leaders has proved that offensive dictatorships can be stopped in their tracks.  The United Western response to the war has given the world hope that values and justice can be upheld.  Western civilization was built on values like freedom and, at least for now, the West has stood up to defend freedom in Ukraine.  Lebanon’s crisis is also a challenge to freedom because Lebanon represents the best example of, and hope for, freedom and democracy in the Arab World.  The United States, as leader of the Free World, should defend freedom in Lebanon.

Drastic changes in Arab-Israeli relations could also have a positive impact on Lebanon.  Recently, something radical has happened in the Arab World: Israel is no longer the “main enemy” because Iran threatens the Arabs.  This reality found expression in the Abraham Accords signed during the Trump presidency.  Arabs and Israelis are both threatened by Iran’s Islamic Revolution and have formed a potent defensive coalition.  Lebanon is not necessarily ready to sign a formal peace with Israel, but active hostilities between the two countries should cease.  The 1948 truce should be revived and Lebanon must not allow any power or force to use its territory as a platform to strike another country. The solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem is political, not military. 

How can we retrieve Lebanon from the abyss?  How can we bring it back to life and away from its existential crisis?  Two major objectives should be pursued.

First, Al Thawra is a must, but it is a long process that may take years to achieve its goals.  Also, it should be made clear that Al Thawra is not the same phenomenon as the noise it produces in the streets; rather, it is the anger and the commitment to change in the hearts and minds of Lebanese.  The final objective of Al Thawra is not to win the elections of May 2022; that is only the beginning.  Al Thawra may be dormant at the moment, but this temporary failure should not deter us from renewing and redoubling our efforts. 

Al Thawra is essential not only to cultivate new leaders but also to change the political culture in Lebanon and to educate the public about the role of the citizen and the role of the state.  We must forge a new political philosophy using Al Thawra to break down borders between religious communities and end the Zaim.  Allegiance to religious sects and Zaim has helped ruin Lebanon. 

Second, Lebanon needs and deserves international assistance.  Al Thawra alone is necessary but not sufficient for change to succeed.  Lebanon also needs help from the West.  We should present the case of Lebanon to the United Nations and request an international conference focused on:

  • Guaranteeing the sovereignty of Lebanon;
  • Establishing the neutrality of Lebanon;
  • Launching a Marshal Plan for economic recovery;
  • Placing Lebanon under a temporary and transitional international umbrella to facilitate Lebanon’s passage to peace and stability.

It is in the interest of the West and the world to help Lebanon regain its status as a free, democratic, sovereign, stable, and neutral state.  At the same time, we should reiterate that the identity of Lebanon is Arab.  Lebanon is Arab to its core and should remain at the center of the Arab World and its collective institutions like the Arab League.  Lebanon, however, should never dissolve into the Arab World.  It should always remain an independent, sovereign country.

The objectives sketched above are achievable.  I have learned after more than half a century in cancer treatment and research that nothing is impossible if pursued with vision and determination. Lebanese patriots must know exactly what they want to achieve and go forward toward their goals with determination and perseverance.  Those who fear failure never achieve success.  We must learn from failure and rise to the challenge, again and again.

Lebanon is our country, our identity, and our destiny.  We should be ashamed of ourselves if we do not try to save him in this hour of peril.  If we try, not only should we do our best, but we should do our utmost.  If we fail to do our utmost, then we certainly do not deserve our Lebanon.


This piece was presented at the first conference of the Lebanese American Coordination Committee which was held on April 29 in Washington DC.

[*] Philp A. Salem, M.D., is a cancer physician, medical researcher, and author on Lebanese and Arab affairs.



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