The last session of Lebanon’s national dialogue under the guidance of President Michel Suleiman came to a close on Monday. As was expected, the March 8 alliance boycotted the session, objecting to the outgoing president’s decision that Lebanon truly is a “state” and that he was entrusted with its welfare by the constitution. But this March 8 alliance wants to see Lebanon as a failed state under Tehran’s thumb.
Incidentally, a relative of mine just returned from Lebanon. When I asked him about his impressions of the political situation there, he responded that politics is the last thing the Lebanese people care about these days and that political talk shows are among the least viewed and trusted programs on television. In fact, I have also heard similar remarks from a friend who arrived at a similar conclusion after living in Lebanon for a few months.
My explanation of this phenomenon—and I hope I am correct in my assessment—is based on many pieces of evidence. First, the ordinary people’s trust in the political elite has collapsed. This does not necessarily mean that the Lebanese people have overcome their factional fanaticism, and neither does it mean that they have broken free of the incitement practiced by religious leaders who—forgetting their duties towards God—engage in the most sordid aspects of politics. In fact, anyone who had seriously examined the post-Taif Agreement political scene in Lebanon would surely have lost all confidence in the majority of politicians who have been dishonest about the lofty but false ideals of patriotism, nationalism, struggle and resistance.
Second, there is a general state of despair and frustration entrenched in large parts of the Mashreq as a natural consequence of the lack of real development, citizenship standards and good governance in the shadow of backward dictatorial regimes. What is most dangerous about these dictatorships is that they have been long emboldened by the use of sectarianism as a weapon without taking into consideration the ensuing potential sectarian reactions. Most dangerous of all, in certain cases Arab dictatorships have deliberately provoked extremist exclusionary reactions in a bid to justify their crimes. The three-year tragedy in Syria is a glaring example of a cunning extremist ideology polishing its image by deliberately inciting an ignorant counter-extremist ideology.
Third, the political reality in the region has acquired a veneer of defeatism and impotence in the face of clear plots being hatched in the region with the collusion of the international community. Whether we like or not, there have been three competing—but not necessarily contradictory—projects in the Mashreq spearheaded by Israel, Iran and Turkey.
The Israeli project is the most well known, and has been in existence since 1948. This project is based on destroying the Palestinian cause once and for all, ending all possibility of progress and transformation among Israel’s neighbors, blocking their transformation into civil and democratic societies and disrupting any chances for true peace based on justice and coexistence. Whether out of a deliberate and shrewd plan or merely due to arrogance or foolishness, Israel’s hardline policies over the past two decades have managed to bestow undeserved credibility to the Hamas movement in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Even today, Tel Aviv is pretty much ensuring Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in “occupied” Syria gets glowing praise from immature liberals, chauvinist pan-Arabist politicians and dogmatic Left-wingers across the Arab world.
The Iranian project has also been exposed recently, after Tehran imposed its hegemony on the resources of three failed Arab states—Iraq, Lebanon and Syria—while aspiring to secure more. US President Barack Obama’s policies in the Middle East have not only helped to expose this project, but also to uncover Washington’s desire to coexist with Iran, requiring it to accommodate Tehran’s regional ambitions.
At this point, it must be said that George W. Bush’s White House also served the interests of this project in Iraq, if not anywhere else, by supporting the latter country’s sectarian opposition. The intersection of interests between Iran’s project, wearing the guise of political Shi’a Islam, and the Israeli–Western idea of the alliance of minorities was the driving force behind the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent toppling of Saddam Hussein.
Against the background of Washington’s farcical verbal support for the Syrian revolution, a former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, Yahya Rahim Safavi, recently announced that Iran’s western “defensive line” extends to the Mediterranean, encompassing all of Lebanon. His statement is clear enough, and so is his message: namely, that Iran today is occupying both Lebanon and Syria, and as a result shares a border with Israel. Thus, Tehran’s message to both Washington and Tel Aviv is that it is qualified to be treated as a partner and neighbor, and perhaps even as an ally in the face of the “takfirists.”
Finally, as for the Turkish project, it is—according to its critics—attempting to resurrect Ankara’s hegemony over the region by relying on the the former legitimacy of the Ottoman Caliphate and a professed desire to “protect” Sunni communities. However, the weakness of this project lies in Turkey’s lack of patience and its inability to practice dissimulation.
Paradoxically, the Shi’ite regime in Iran was the regional player that benefitted most from the Muslim Brotherhood’s short spell in power in Egypt, strengthening its position in Syria and exploiting Islamist organizations in Palestine. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan awkwardly missed the opportunity to emerge as the “savior of the Sunnis” that followed the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Mursi in Egypt—the first real test of his leadership qualities in the region. Unless Turkey’s understanding of the nature of its role and what it can and is allowed to do in the Arab world matures, Ankara will find itself out of the game in the Mashreq.
In fact, the growth of “jihadism” and “takfirism” has been linked to Syria’s porous borders. Assad’s regime has laid responsibility on Lebanon and Turkey for facilitating the access of “takfirists” into the war-torn country. On the other hand, Tehran, his regime’s main backer, downplayed the “war of words” with Sunni Turkey, but wisely raised the stakes by taking action on the ground. As a result, Lebanese and Iraqi factions affiliated to Iran have been tasked with controlling the Syrian–Lebanese border, leaving its borders with Turkey to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other like-minded groups.
So what will happen now?
Assad is running for a third term in office, and there is no doubt he will win his presidential bid amid the death and destruction in what remains of Syria.
In Iraq, where sectarian hegemony prevails, Nuri Al-Maliki is also seeking another term in office and he will no doubt secure it, unless something unexpected transpires.
This week, Lebanon will continue its search for a successor to outgoing President Michel Suleiman. In the background lingers one important question: Will the intersecting interests of Iran, Israel and the US bring a Lebanese version of Assad or Maliki—such as Michel Aoun, for example—to Baabda Palace?