The United States has just imposed sanctions against two Lebanese officials. This raises the question of its strategy in the region: Is its intent to isolate Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, or is it instead seeking a more elaborate policy for the region that would aim to build a new regional order?
The United States just imposed sanctions on two Lebanese government officials, Ali Hassan Khalil and Youssef Fenianos, based on charges of corruption and support for Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, with Washington also promising another wave of sanctions against other officials in the coming weeks.
As a result, everyone is wondering about the repercussions of these sanctions on the formation of the government and on French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative in Lebanon, but also on other issues such as the ongoing drawing of the border with Israel, and more generally, on the future of the country. To fully grasp these challenges, however, it is imperative to consider them first from a regional perspective, which weighs heavily on the country, in order to better understand the implications of American sanctions.
Lebanon at the Center of a New Partition
Indeed, Lebanon is at the center of a tangle of overlapping regional ideological conflicts. The first one, between Sunnis and Shiites, places Iran and its allies in opposition to a constellation of forces supported particularly by the Gulf monarchies, with Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and Lebanon as battlegrounds. The second conflict, internal among Sunnis, places Turkey (close to the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood through AKP, Recep Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party) in opposition to a coalition of Sunni Arab forces uniting adversaries of the Muslim Brotherhood; namely, Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, as well as Egypt. They are battling it out in theaters such as Libya and Syria, and of course Lebanon, where the Sunni community is split between supporters of the Gulf monarchies and those (namely in northern Lebanon and in Tripoli) advocating closer ties with Ankara.
Thus, a new partition is taking place where Lebanon, at the heart of the Middle East, plays an essential role. Today there are indeed three non-Arab powers emerging from the tangle of wars that have been tearing the region apart for the past 15 years − Iran, Turkey and Israel – that clash with each other in various theaters of operation throughout the Arab region, with the support of various local and international allies.
The meeting point of these three powers is in an area made up of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, which today constitutes a vast central buffer zone where these peripheral powers clash with each other.
Lebanon, Syria and Iraq have experienced the weakening, or even collapse of their countries, which has given way to a series of community or tribal allegiances. It is clear, however, that if one of these peripheral powers (Iran, Turkey, Israel and their allies) were to attempt to take over at the expense of their rivals in the central region, the other peripheral players would react immediately, provoking a broader regional war. The ongoing Israeli aerial bombing of Iraqi troops in Syria since 2017 gives us a small taste of what that would be like.
Furthermore, while the map of the Middle East has thus been redrawn on this basis, the arrival of Russia, an external player in the region takes on new meaning. This country, which has maintained relations with Iran as well as with Turkey and Israel, while being able to defend itself militarily, has been able (with the implicit consent of the United States) to “neutralize” the Syrian area, or at least the part dominated by the regime of Bashar Assad, by preventing it from falling under the exclusive influence of one of its neighbors, thus creating a balance of power between these players on the ground in Syria.
Overlapping this first set of conflicts in the Middle East is a second issue in the Eastern Mediterranean, where countries around its shores (Egypt, Israel, Greece, Turkey, Libya, Cyprus, Syria and Lebanon) wrangle over vast oil and gas deposits and the course of the gas pipelines through which these deposits would supply nearby large European countries, all of which covet Mediterranean gas. Furthermore, this Mediterranean conflict overlaps with the conflict in the Middle East, because Turkey and Israel are both directly on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, whereas Iran tries, for its part, to get a slice of it via Hezbollah in Lebanon and its allies; and Russia, active on the Syrian coast, tries to do the same.
The stakes are therefore enormous, all the more so because in the Mediterranean region, as in the Middle East, any attempt by one of the players to tip the balance by force to share resources in its favor (in particular Turkey, which is unhappy about the current distribution) would likely bring about an all-out war.
Thus, the very future of Lebanon and Syria, which are at the exact junction of these two areas of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean conflicts, is at stake more than ever. The question is all the more crucial as the long years of bloody civil war that have afflicted Iraq and Syria (and indirectly Lebanon) in the past 15 years have fortified the division of these countries on the ground into distinct, if not rival geographical entities, along with massive displacement and expulsions of populations, and with a demographic and denominational sorting out that today seems increasingly irreversible.
Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, in ruins on all three political, economic and social fronts, are therefore all three at the mercy of the outcome of this regional wrestling match.
Balance of Terror
The big question now (and that makes sense in the light of the latest U.S. sanctions) is to know what the United States actually wants: Does it really have a strategy for the Middle East?
If it does, is this strategy about building a regional peace through successive measures aimed at bringing all stakeholders to a compromise, or would it be satisfied with maintaining a form of “balance of terror” for which local populations would pay the price? In the latter case, Washington could tolerate the presence of players like Hezbollah, which it would simply aim to weaken, namely by hitting its economic and logistical bases or its political allies in Lebanon and elsewhere.
Is the objective in Washington limited, as one often hears, to “protect Israel and contain Iran and its allies,” or does America have a more elaborate strategy for the region? One fundamental criterion to determine which strategy would prevail is to know whether the United States wants to overthrow Iran’s Islamic regime, or get along with it.
The American decision to subject Lebanese officials to a series of sanctions must be placed in this context. Indeed, if today the American strategy fits with the “balance of terror” strategy, one can expect that the United States will let Lebanon sink further into crisis in order to better contain Hezbollah, and won’t do anything to support French intervention in this country.
Moreover, one can further expect that Washington will adopt an extremist policy (as some urge it to do) aimed at imposing regime change in Tehran, by striving to stifle Iran, both internally and externally, driving Lebanon, Hezbollah’s host, even further into the abyss. In that sense, the sanctions against Lebanese officials would seem to reflect a willingness to “deconstruct” the Lebanese system to replace it with … the unknown. In the meantime, the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act, which seeks to boycott the Syrian regime, would in turn serve to create chaos in the Syrian economy in order to make the terrain treacherous for all of Washington’s opponents.
Inventing New Relationships
If on the contrary, however, the American strategy is to build a regional peace, it would in this case imply putting in place the conditions for an agreement between rival powers in the Middle East (Iran, Turkey and Israel, which has established closer ties with several Gulf countries, all of which now stand together against Tehran and Ankara), as well as between rival powers in the Mediterranean theater.
Both issues are indeed linked, since Turkey, Israel, Iran and Russia are all involved on both of these fronts, while other countries (Greece, Europe, Egypt and the Gulf countries) are all linked to one of these players, and would be indirectly affected by a decisive tipping of the balance in either the Middle East or in the Mediterranean region.
Once more, Lebanon and Syria find themselves at the heart of all these issues, condemned by geography to be the buffer zone at the junction of the Mediterranean and Middle East regions. Thus, reading the map shows that any regional appeasement strategy between Israel, Turkey and Iran would mean stabilizing the Lebanese-Syrian buffer zone (as well as Iraq) by finding a compromise formula between “peripheral” powers; the Iranian regime in particular would demand some guarantees for the longevity and protection of its territory. (After serving as grounds of operation, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon would then become a defensive buffer zone.) And if appeasement in Syria and Lebanon allowed the drawing of the maritime borders of these two countries with all their neighbors, it would hasten the settlement of the Mediterranean dispute (provided that all players agree, including Turkey, which has a significant influence in Syria and Northern Lebanon).
This stabilization would mean two things. On the one hand, in practice, it wouldn’t amount to anything but neutralization, particularly of Lebanon. This gives full meaning to this status of neutrality for Lebanon, the mention of which today provokes an outcry, but which would however become acceptable, as it would be in the interest of all stakeholders, in particular Iran. On the other hand, to ensure balance among all regional stakeholders, and given the state of political, administrative, economic and social decay in Syria and Lebanon, this stabilization could only happen by establishing international protection, especially for the Land of the Cedars. All the more so as Lebanon, along with Syria, transformed by successive wars into a conglomerate of rival minorities, none of which alone has a decisive demographic majority, have today become almost ungovernable (the Damascus regime, in fact, currently being under strong Russian influence) and are in a situation similar to that experienced by Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country located at a critical junction between Eastern and Western Europe, profoundly divided, and living under some form of international mandate.
An International Settlement?
This is where the French initiative in Lebanon also makes sense. This is because France, a U.S. political ally, a Mediterranean power that has militarily intervened in the Middle East against al-Qaida and has a strong influence in Lebanon, while also maintaining contact with both Russia and Iran, holds enough cards to play the role of intermediary between the different stakeholders. That is, provided the cooperation between Paris and Washington continues, which the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to confirm recently.
The American strategy of sanctioning Lebanese officials would, in this scenario, take on a very precise meaning: This would no longer be (or not only be) about intervening in the formation of the Lebanese government, nor even about drawing the border between Lebanon and Israel.
Here, once again, we would be talking about nothing less than “deconstructing” the Lebanese system, by taking out one by one the political stones with which it is built, and replacing it, no longer with something unknown, but with new construction in progress, and which would be subject to close international monitoring. In that sense, the Caesar Act would also be used as a means to pressure Damascus – and above all Moscow, which dominates Syria – to bring also the Syrian crisis to an end through an international settlement.
Whatever scenario one considers, American sanctions will have the same result in the end: deconstructing the Lebanese system even faster. But there is still one significant point to make. In theory, setting up progressive sanctions presents an alternative to engaging in battle, and generally means there is a willingness to negotiate. Will Washington eventually come to an agreement with Iran and its allies? That remains an open question.
Fouad Khoury Helou is an economist, author of “Globalization: The Death of a Utopia,” published in 2017 by Calmann-Lévy.
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