A conference to save Lebanon’s future


For some years now, Arab diplomacy has been a chronicle of death foretold. In Iraq, Darfur, and the Palestinian territories, either Arab states have been too anemic to seize the initiative, or have worked at cross purposes. Now, with the collapse of Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa’s mission to Lebanon, brace yourselves for more futility.

But don’t pity Moussa. An exemplar of Arab political sterility, he arrived in Beirut last week with a plan that, his circle claimed, was “constructively vague.” Through that vagueness, he probably thought he could secure for himself a margin of maneuver. Instead, the imprecision of the proposal allowed Syria and its Lebanese allies to impose conditions of their own on the distribution of power in a future government that were, plainly, not what the Arab states intended. So, by the end of his shuttle diplomacy, Moussa had to clarify what the Arabs meant, by which time it was too late.

You have to hand it to the Syrians. They gauged the utter mediocrity of their Arab peers early on, before the foreign ministers’ meeting in Cairo that was supposed to pressure Syria into allowing a presidential election. Damascus defused Arab opprobrium by claiming they were on board with the Arab plan, before subsequently undermining it. Then, once Moussa left Beirut, Damascus upped the ante, asking its allies to accelerate the pace of their street demonstrations in Lebanon.

In a recent interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Gheit recalled how, at the Paris donors meeting for the Palestinians late last year, Western states mocked the idea of a successful Arab diplomatic initiative in Lebanon. “You never do anything,” is what Western officials told their Arab counterparts, Abu al-Gheit recalled. They were right.

So what is next? Typically, Moussa refused to admit that his mission had failed. The Arab plan had not reached a dead end, but only a “closed door that can be opened.” That’s a relief. Then again, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a door that might one day be opened, but that has remained closed for six decades. The Arabs need a plan B in Lebanon, but don’t hold your breath.

The next confrontation point is January 27th, when the Arab League will have to consider whom to blame for the Moussa debacle. Here’s a prediction: Little will happen, leaving a possible fracas for the Arab summit in March. The Syrians have made it clear that they will use instability in Lebanon as leverage to force Arab leaders to attend the Damascus gathering and avoid Syria’s humiliation. Given the brutal way in which the Arab plan for Lebanon was discarded by Syria and its allies, however, the summit seems almost certain to be a bust, whatever happens in Lebanon. There are limits to what can be done in Beirut’s streets, but there have also been worrying signs in recent days that Syria’s allies are willing to push the envelope very far on that front. And with Lebanon chronically unstable, the Syrians feel, the Arab states, the United States, and the Europeans will lose interest in the country long before the Assad regime does.

In so many ways, Syria has managed to remain a Teflon state at the center of myriad regional crises. In April 2005, the Syrian mood was well captured in an exchange leaked to the French daily Le Monde between President Bashar Assad and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. After warning Ban that passage of the Hariri tribunal under Chapter VII of the UN Charter would lead to instability in Lebanon, Assad pointedly told the secretary general: “We’re in the eye of the cyclone. You will, therefore, need to stay in contact with us.”

Now that Arab diplomacy has failed in Lebanon, so soon after the French were humiliated in their efforts to make headway on the presidential election, it is time to conclude that almost none of the methods employed previously will change Damascus’ behavior. The Syrians are well into their counterattack in Lebanon, to reverse the setbacks of 2005, while the international community and the Arab states seem paralyzed. New ideas are needed if there is sincere regional and international concern for Lebanon’s future independence – which at this stage is not guaranteed.

For starters, the Arab states, the US, and Europe – failures each and every one of them in defining an effective policy toward Syria – should initiate contacts to determine if they have parallel objectives in Lebanon, and define what these are. That shouldn’t be too difficult. The US continues to oppose a return to the pre-2005 situation in Beirut; the Europeans too, even as they have thousands of their troops deployed in South Lebanon; and the Arabs very much fear a war between Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites that would have regional repercussions, as well as threaten their own regimes. The groundwork for broad cooperation exists.

Those talks should then lead to a conference on Lebanon, preferably at the UN, whose resolutions passed since 2004 must provide an underpinning for any diplomatic action on the country. The conference would not only return Lebanon to near the front of international attention, it should decide on specific, tough measures to help implement Arab decisions and UN resolutions on Lebanon, and pave the way for a presidential election. The notion that internationalization of the Lebanese crisis is bad for the country is absurd. Without internationalization, buttressed by an Arab consensus, Lebanon will be lost within months.

Can this work? Nothing is less certain. There is great fatigue with Lebanon internationally; the Arabs, ever fearful of precedents, will water down any concerted effort to alter the behavior of a fellow Arab state like Syria; and some Europeans, most recently Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, adhere to the cult of “engaging” Damascus, whatever the disappointments. But Lebanon is not what it was in 1975, when its Civil War began. Events in the country have existential implications for many regimes in the Arab world, and by extension for equilibrium in the Middle East. Lebanon is a problem that has to be addressed whether the international community likes it or not, and in way that transcends the mostly fruitless policies adopted until now.

Otherwise, let us just prepare ourselves for the worst. Conflict is as near as it has ever been in Lebanon since 2005. Diplomats have wasted many months, even years, misreading the situation in the country. Their timorousness notwithstanding, there is still time to avoid Lebanon’s fall into the abyss if the international community displays some nerve.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.


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