Coming Up for Air

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The election of Joe Biden has led to much speculation among the Lebanese about what this might mean for their country and the wider region. Too small to be noticed by U.S. policymakers, Lebanon has always been susceptible to how regional and international rivalries have played out domestically, usually to its detriment.

With 2020 having been a year of tragedy for Lebanon—between the country’s continuing economic breakdown, the horrific explosion of August 4, and the uninterrupted stalemate imposed by a depraved political class—a somewhat less pitiful outlook may actually be in the offing. The Middle East will go through major changes in the four years ahead, some of which may actually calm the fraught atmosphere in Lebanon, even if we shouldn’t expect these to immediately improve the country’s financial and economic situation.

One outcome of the Biden administration’s victory is that it may provoke a change in the behavior of the Gulf states, above all Saudi Arabia. For some time the Saudis have had increasing doubts about the willingness of the United States to defend the kingdom if it is threatened by Iran. The Saudis welcomed the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran. However, they also saw that when their oil installations in Abqaiq were attacked in September 2019, allegedly by Yemen’s Ansar Allah but most probably by the Iranians themselves, Washington did not retaliate.

The arrival of a Biden administration will not have reassured the Saudis. The president-elect has criticized the kingdom’s actions in Yemen, its human rights violations, and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the Central Intelligence Agency concluded was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Riyadh will doubtless feel more vulnerable in the coming years, and one outcome of this could be that the kingdom will try to lower tensions with Iran to avoid conflicts it might lose.

Where might this lead? Perhaps to greater flexibility in Yemen, where the Saudis have already implicitly recognized that their efforts to reverse the gains of Ansar Allah have failed. Today, the Yemen war has been transformed into one in which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are pursuing other aims—whether Riyadh’s priority to protect the Saudi borders or the UAE’s focus on backing southern separatists. Beyond that, Saudi Arabia is looking for an exit, although it wants to avoid a humiliation that could undermine the succession of Mohammed bin Salman, the architect of the Saudi-led campaign.

Another place that may feel a change in Saudi attitudes is Lebanon. While the Saudis will not go back to the days when they poured money into the country, a more accommodating approach toward Iran could lead to a revival of Saudi support for S‘ad al-Hariri, who has struggled in recent years to secure Riyadh’s approval. Hariri has maintained open channels to Hezbollah, which cost him with Saudi decision makers. But if Saudi Arabia replicates that approach with Iran, this can only enhance Hariri’s credibility. More importantly, as the Saudi-Turkish rivalry has escalated around the region, it would make sense for the Saudis to invest in an ally in Beirut who can rally Sunnis to the kingdom and away from Turkey.

If this scenario were to take place, it could improve Sunni-Shi‘a relations in Lebanon, but also modify Hezbollah’s calculations. The party has held to its alliance with Michel Aoun and his son in law Gebran Bassil. It has done so because Aoun’s position as president has lent official legitimacy to Hezbollah, which will not surrender such an advantage. However, a reinvigorated Hariri may oblige the party to take a more balanced attitude in the contentious relationship between Hariri and Bassil, particularly if it means pushing Bassil toward concessions that facilitate an international aid package for Lebanon.

Certainly, Hezbollah will always aim to exploit a situation in which it can play Hariri and Bassil off one another to its own advantage. However, if Hezbollah faces a galvanized Sunni partner, this could make possible agreements on major decisions that ameliorate the economic situation, which is what Lebanon needs most today. In fact, if the party’s ties with the Sunnis improve, Hezbollah may find that they are far more valuable in its standoff with Washington than relations with a Christian leader under U.S. sanctions.

A second thing that may reassure the Lebanese is that Trump’s departure will momentarily sideline the political actors and think tanks in Washington, many of them close to Israel, that have pushed for a much harder U.S.  line on Lebanon.

For some time Israel viewed the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East, justifiably, as a radical break with previous behavior. By empowering Iran through the nuclear deal signed with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, the United States implicitly recognized Iran’s stakes in the region, and provided it with a means to fund its policies. Israel saw this as a threat, even more so as the agreement lifted restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program by 2025. That’s why it strongly encouraged President Donald Trump to withdraw from the agreement.

There was a Lebanese dimension to this reaction. To anchor their gains against Iran, the Israelis and their friends in Washington sought to extend these to Hezbollah. That is why they have disseminated a narrative in the past two years that Lebanon and Hezbollah are the same thing, a line initially peddled by Israel’s defense minister Avigdor Lieberman. By tightening the noose on Lebanon and supporting a cutoff of financial aid, Israel and its followers hope to create instability, even a civil war, that would neutralize Hezbollah.

A significant step in that direction came last June, when the Republican Study Committee (RSC), made up of conservative Republican members of the House of Representatives, released a national security strategy. One of the objectives in the document is to squeeze Iran and its allies. Among its recommendations is that the United States end security assistance to Lebanon, sanction Hezbollah’s allies, and pass legislation “prohibiting any taxpayer money to the [International Monetary Fund] from going to a bailout of Lebanon.” Such a bailout, the RSC affirmed, would “only reward Hezbollah at a time [when]protesters in Lebanon are demanding an end to corruption and standing against Hezbollah’s rule.”

Since the document repeated almost verbatim what conservative think tankers in Washington had written, it was more than probable that portions of it were drafted by these same think tanks, which have been very influential in shaping the Trump administration’s policies. That these individuals will no longer have the same sway as before may give Lebanon a reprieve from maximalist U.S. policies that would be far more likely to destroy Lebanon and impoverish its population than wrestle it free from Hezbollah’s grip.

It may be going too far to assume a radical shift will take place under the Biden administration. U.S. pressure on Hezbollah will continue, as might the sanctioning of Lebanese politicians. Israel’s preferences will continue to have weight in Washington, particularly in Congress. However, Biden and his team will deal with Iran differently than Trump. They will also be more willing to listen to those, particularly in Europe, who warn against measures that are destined to bring about Lebanon’s ruin. With Biden focused on domestic affairs, it would make no sense for his administration to countenance policies that could turn Lebanon into a failed state, which might impose renewed U.S. intervention in the Middle East.

Lebanon is far from being out of the woods when it comes to the United States. But as the country faces multiple and serious crises—from the economic collapse to the challenges of Covid-19—the notion of making the whole county pay for the crimes of those who have misgoverned it may no longer be valid. Lebanon needs a break, and that message will circulate better once Biden takes office.

Carnegie Diwan

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Coming Up for Air

by Michael Young time to read: 5 min
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