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Lebanon's current risks and opportunities

Lebanonwire.com 06/04/2012

Before addressing the expatriate Lebanese community's continued anxiety about Lebanon's immediate and long term future, we should start by praising the Lord that the country has remained relatively stable despite the turmoil surrounding it. We appreciate the reassurance from leaders inside and outside Lebanon that the summer of 2012 will be a calm and successful touristic season. We sincerely hope they are right and that their reassurance is based on facts and not wishful thinking. The so called "Arab Spring" continues to be the subject of many unanswered questions. While at one time we said we hope it is not "autumn" many are now referring to it as "Arab Winter." The outside players who influenced the outcome in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, etc may still desire to brag about contributing to the progress of freedom and democracy in the Middle East. On the other hand, the people of those countries do not seem to really feel that they achieved their desired goals. The presidential elections in Egypt may hopefully soon offer a clearer indication of what to expect down the line.

For Lebanon, nothing is more important than what the phenomenon of the "Arab Spring" may produce in Syria. So far, there is only reason for more concern and anxiety. Syria has suffered confrontation and violence for more than one year. Since the beginning of the unrest we all said Syria is not Libya and such statement remains essentially valid. The evolution of the crisis is also different from Egypt and Tunisia, where the regimes were not able to demonstrate enough support from their people or reliable control of their armies to secure their survival. The Syrian regime apparently continues to have sufficient control of its armed forces and had on and off significant popular demonstrations in support of its persistence in power. While the majority of the Syrian people may be Sunni Arabs, there are important diverse minorities that may not follow a religious Sunni call against the "secular, Alawite dominated" government. In addition to the Alawites, there are many Christians, Druze, Shiites and Sunni Kurds who may have different points of view and may not support a Sunni Arab dominated revolution. Further, some experts claim that at least one third of the Sunni Arab Syrians, believed to be more moderate or secular, do support the current regime, for fear it may be replaced by a government dominated by the Moslem Brotherhood or possibly more radical Sunni factions.

The official US policy is said to support regime change in Syria, theoretically to promote more freedom and democracy. It has, however so far, wisely limited its role to diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions, while resisting calls for direct military intervention or even open supply of lethal arms to the opposition. Some US leaders seem to entertain the dangerous and ill advised possibility of encouraging and supporting Turkey to intervene. Others suspect that the Obama administration may have some affinity for the Moslem Brotherhood, based on a conviction that they are more moderate than other radical factions that may have ties to terror groups such as All Qaeda. If there is any truth to these possibilities, it would be wiser to wait and watch how the post-revolutionary governments will evolve in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya before supporting or facilitating access of the Syrian opposition to power to replace the current secular regime.

While in principle everybody wishes peace, stability and prosperity for the Syrian people, the world is currently sharply divided with regard to the Syrian regime. More importantly we Lebanese-Americans like our families and friends in Lebanon are also unfortunately divided, but hopefully less sharply than the political camps on the Lebanese scene. We know the challenge of keeping our small moderate and mostly independent think tank Board democratically united when we address the Syrian issues. Be it what it may, Lebanon's divisions put the country in a very vulnerable position, should the Syrian situation further deteriorate and procrastinate. Thus Lebanese Americans have good reasons to worry about Syria, and when possible lobby against foreign policy mistakes, not just for the sake of fairness and justice for a sisterly country, but also for the protection of Lebanon's interests, stability and prosperity. Here again, we believe the best interests of the United States and Lebanon fully coincide and are best served if the US current Middle East policy is reexamined in the light of more than a year evolution of events in the whole area.

There is therefore justification to raise the following questions with regard to the United States' foreign policy: (1) what is the benefit for the US from regime change in Syria? The simple answer would be to replace the regime by a more democratic government that promotes more freedom and would be friendlier to the West. However, are we assured that the result would not be replacing the supposedly secular regime by one that could end up being hijacked by some fundamentalist factions? While a regime allied to Iran may not be very helpful to the US, the possibility of a regime friendly to Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups could be more dangerous. (2) How far is the US willing to go to produce a regime change in Syria? Military intervention appears to be extremely unlikely during a Presidential electoral campaign season. Also at this point it would seem to be a reckless option since it may risk destabilizing the whole Middle East or triggering a broader war than anybody wants. Attempting to intervene through a proxy, if possible, may be an equally or even more dangerous option. In such a case the US may know where the process may start, but will have difficulty controlling how far it goes or when and how it will stop. (3) If the rationale for regime change is idealistic due to its lack of democracy, the natural question would be what country would be next on the list for regime change, since there are enough monarchies and dictatorships in the area with less democracy and worse records on freedom and human rights. Further, how many times has the US policy been clearly and loudly stated that America did not intend to be the world's policeman? The summation of all 3 questions is why America should put its resources, prestige and credibility on the line to seek a result that could more than likely be against its best interest and principles? It is therefore no wonder that the current administration policy towards Syria appears hesitant. Even some strongly pro-Israel leaders are unconvinced of the value of the regime change. Wallerstein clearly discussed the rationale against regime change in a well written article published in Commentaries - February 15, 2012. On the other hand, while the US President and Secretary of State have implied some time ago that President Assad's days in power can be easily counted, one of the most knowledgeable foreign policy leaders told us: do not hesitate to bet on his remaining in power at least until the US elections and may be way beyond.

How about Lebanon, what can or should it do, considering that it has the most to lose in case the situation deteriorates further in Syria and progresses into chaos or full fledged civil war. In principle the Lebanese Government has wisely declared that it would distance itself from involvement in the divisions and confrontations plaguing Syria. However this is easier said than done. Syria has frequently accused some Lebanese factions of organizing or facilitating arms transfers into its territory to help the revolutionary opposition. On the other hand the Lebanese opposition has complained that some ministers in the Miqati government are acting to serve Syrian needs ahead of Lebanese interests. In simple terms the divisions in Lebanon remain sharp and dangerous. While most leaders are conscious of the risks that threaten Lebanon's stability, it is not clear whether most are doing enough to avoid possible catastrophe. Assuming that the opposing camps trust each other's wisdom and control in avoiding provocations that could trigger violence or instability, nobody can guarantee that in this tense and suspicious climate an unintended incident, a fifth column or a foreign agent would not spark a fire that could expand into disaster. Recent incidents, which luckily have been so far contained, and the tension and anxiety they produced testify to the legitimacy of our concerns.

The Lebanese should remember that if their reactive divisions result a in major security or economic problems, the countries that in the past rushed to help them are all too busy with problems of their own. They should therefore focus on smoothing their divisions through sincere and enlightened dialogue. President Sleiman has been calling for sometime to resume dialogue in Baabda. We are not aware if he has proposed any specific agenda, that may offer enticement to the opposing pro and anti-Syrian groups. Nevertheless we believe that the internal and geopolitical climate has evolved to make dialogue more necessary and possibly more acceptable to both camps, if properly structured and prepared for. The March 8 forces had wanted the dialogue all along. We now hear that Hezbollah may be wisely inclined to show some flexibility regarding its arms; supposedly to preempt proliferation of opposing radical armed extremist groups. We also hear of signs that the issue of disarming Palestinians outside the camps, which was a subject of consensus during the early dialogue, may currently be moving towards implementation?

On the other hand, the March 14 forces that wanted the dialogue focused on arms control, are now calling for the formation of a new independent government. Such move can solidify the unity of the country in the face of the constantly looming risks of further security deterioration in Syria or a surprise attack by Israel against the nuclear facilities in Iran. A technocratic government can also secure impartiality during the upcoming legislative elections in 2013, but is unlikely to see the light without intelligent and sincere dialogue. The challenge now is in front of President Sleiman to skillfully convince all concerned that dialogue at this time is worthwhile and the climate is ripe to reach a consensus that will benefit both camps. He may find a lot of support amongst the expatriate community which may be able to help him secure cooperation from both East and West. When Lebanon is united on an issue, the expatriate community can sometimes be very efficient in helping. Many may remember when in 2004 a resolution was initiated in the US Congress favoring implantation of Palestinian refugees in the hosting Arab countries, we were able to explain the negative consequences and convince the initiators to stop it. Such initiative has not resurfaced up to this time. The efforts by Prime Minister Saad Hariri to liberate and facilitate the return of the Shiite pilgrims believed to be detained by elements of the Syrian opposition, clearly demonstrate that the Lebanese can always unite to support specific fair issues, for the best interest of their country.

Has Lebanon, to this point been able to significantly help Syria in any capacity? We sincerely doubt and the divisions in Lebanon may have contributed in a small way to further exacerbate the confrontations in Syria. The Lebanese government which officially distanced itself from the Syrian scene may not have enough strength to prevent pro and anti-Syrian groups from interfering or appearing to interfere in Syrian affairs. The Lebanese tend to have knowledge and understanding of Syria better than most. However, taking sides will certainly not help solve the problem. Helping the present government reach a fair compromise, though difficult is not impossible. Who knows, may be a peaceful united Syria emerging from the current quagmire could become a mediator with Iran and help defuse most of current Middle East tensions. A united Lebanon through consensus may have a shot at mobilizing formidable assets amongst its expatriate community to help Syria effectively progress towards a fair compromise. This may be the best pathway to stop the violence and give the Syrian people hope that a genuine democratic process will sometime determine the future of Syria in a peaceful climate. We acknowledge strong imagination and extreme optimism, but not naivete in putting our thoughts together. We hope the leaders in and outside Syria and Lebanon who may read this article will examine their conscience and consider some of these ideas towards not just finding a way out of the current Syrian quagmire, but also towards resetting the stage for a fair and complete peace in the Middle East.

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Last modified: 06/04/12.