Friday, February 1, 2013

Can Lebanon survive Syria’s war?

Reports that Israeli warplanes bombed a truck transporting Sa-17 missiles to Hezbollah only show us, once again, that the Lebanese are being dragged into a conflict not theirs. This news came only days after The Washington Post published an article reporting that Lebanese Sunni Islamists were flocking to Syria to fight against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Can Lebanon survive the Syrian civil war?

Indeed, does it want to? Hezbollah has also sent fighters to Syria to defend Assad’s dictatorship. And Iran is playing a vital role in bolstering the Syrian regime, whose potential overthrow a senior Iranian official, Ali Akbar Velayati, has called a “red line” for Tehran. If Hezbollah is now defending an Iranian “red line” and the Sunnis are answering the call for a jihad against Assad and his followers, while Syria is transferring advanced weaponry to Hezbollah for a possible war with Israel, Lebanon cannot possibly emerge unharmed.

Nor is the country’s economic situation reassuring. Take, for instance, the fear among politicians of recent efforts to raise the salary scale. This was opposed by the government, which feared it would carry Lebanon over its own fiscal cliff. Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh warned that the move could cause inflation to rise by 2 to 3 percent a year and reduce job opportunities by at least 4 percent. More alarmingly, it would be too expensive for the state, undermining its efforts to cut the deficit and support the Lebanese pound. This, in turn, could harm the banking sector, the backbone of the economy.

Lebanon’s financial woes are also a consequence of the Syrian conflict, which has choked off the export of goods to Arab countries and land tourism to Lebanon from these countries, and has negatively affected the health of large Lebanese banks operating in Syria. While a financial collapse may not be around the corner, for the first time in years economists are not so readily dismissing that outcome, despite the Central Bank’s efforts to reassure the Lebanese.

Perhaps most worrisome is that a large part of the political class seems far more preoccupied by the intricacies of an election law than by the risks to Lebanon’s existence. Perhaps the dominant problem is that there is no unity of purpose in the country. The election law debate is significant because all sides have different objectives, and hopes that a new law will help them in their parochial pursuits.

Hezbollah wants a law that will allow it to win a majority of seats in parliament, so that it can control the legislature, with its allies, and bring in a friendly president in 2014. The party realizes that Assad may not survive politically, and needs to anchor itself in state institutions in order to survive. And if it is not guaranteed of an election law that brings victory, Hezbollah will push hard, through persuasion or a resort to violence, for a delay. Already, the expectation today is that elections will not be held in the summer.

Nor is this universally unpopular. Many economic actors regard elections under the present circumstances as destabilizing. And there are politicians inclined to agree with this assessment. Moreover, there are those surveying the wreckage left by the debate over an election law, and most doubt a consensual outcome is possible. Under those circumstances, they feel, it’s better to wait, which also means that President Michel Suleiman’s term will likely be extended.

So, Lebanon could see immobility in its institutions in the years ahead. This will put additional pressure on Prime Minister Najib Miqati, if he decides to stay on, and it will hardly reassure the business sector, regardless of its reluctance to go ahead with elections. After all, stalemate is bad for investment, particularly when Arab states seem disinclined to do anything that might strengthen Miqati. 

What are the prospects for confidence in the future? National cohesiveness is bound to suffer. The danger from events in Syria is very high, but not nearly as high as the growing and debilitating rifts within Lebanese society. Sectarianism has reached levels not witnessed since the civil war years, and there seems to be no chance of a national dialogue as long as the Future Movement and its March 14 partners refuse to participate in one. Even at the social level, Lebanon is drifting. The latest example is the debate over civil marriage, which prompted the mufti, Muhammad Rashid Qabbani, to threaten, quite scandalously, Muslim officials. 

Even if Lebanon averts political and financial collapse, you have to wonder where the country is heading. Politics are at an impasse, and will remain so as long as politicians bicker over seemingly petty issues and as Hezbollah continues to bend the country out of shape to accommodate its arsenal, there to serve Iran. The economy will further decline, as the government has neither the imagination nor the wherewithal to introduce much-needed reform. And sectarian relations are abysmal, as Christians fret at everything, and Sunnis await Assad’s downfall, hoping for greater power against a Shiite community that fears any challenge to its arms and domination. 

There was more direction to Lebanon during its war years. Today the country is going nowhere, while the interaction and irreconcilable aims of its political forces are breaking Lebanon apart. Syria, as Assad predicted, is too large to fall to his enemies. He intends to make good on that prediction. As if he hasn’t done enough damage.

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