The latest source of instability in the Middle East is Lebanon – a crisis that could spillover into states such as Syria. That’s causing Kremlin decision-makers to adjust their foreign policy calculus for the region.
Lebanese anti-government protesters burn a mattress on a barbed wire barrier that blocks the road to the government building, during a demonstration in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015. Photo: AP
At the end of August, the political situation in Lebanon again escalated. This indicates a systemic crisis within Lebanese society. For the Kremlin, it means that yet another hot spot has flared up in the Middle East, that Lebanon is yet another factor to take into account when it comes to finding a solution to the Syria crisis.
When the system comes apart at the seams
The mass demonstrations at the end of August in Beirut reached their apogee on August 29, when tens of thousands of Lebanese citizens of different faiths, ages and social status took to the streets to protest the critical and severe crisis running throughout the Lebanese political system.
Since spring, the Lebanese parliament has been unable to choose a head of state to replace Michel Suleiman, whose term expired in May. The parliament’s work has been paralyzed, as has the activities of the Council of Ministers.
The final straw for the general public was the closure of the waste disposal company Sukleen. As a result, waste disposal services ceased and Beirut and its suburbs have sunk into unhygienic conditions.
As a response, the community has started a movement called “You Stink.” Judging by the fact that calls made by social organizations, supported by left wing parties, on August 29, brought tens of thousands of mainly young people from various cities in the republic out into the squares and streets, the archaic religious-political system in the country, in reality, no longer responds to social issues.
According to the Lebanese Constitution, representatives can only be elected from specific districts of one or another religious confession. For example, the president must be a Maronite Christian and the head of government a Sunni. A Shiite heads the parliament.
On the one hand, such a political structure prevents a new civil war. On the other, it condemns Lebanon to permanent political crisis. Added to this is high unemployment, high level of corruption, rationing of water and electricity. As such, there is more than sufficient reason for public discontent.
Foreign players looking out for their own interests
Recently a large number of Russian commentators have attempted to find the “hand of the West” behind every large-scale, overseas, anti-governmental movement and an example of yet another “color revolution.” It is clear that the outburst in Lebanon has a primarily “internal” explanation.
However, Lebanon’s geographic situation in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean automatically means that any internal political disorder in this western Middle Eastern country will be used to its full extent by foreign players.
For many years after the end of the Cold War, Lebanon was the conflict zone between Syria and leading western countries such as the U.S. and France. Incidentally, these countries are key trade partners for the Lebanese state. The political situation in Lebanon is extremely confused and fragmented.
If Shiite parties, in particular Hezbollah, are orientated towards Tehran and Damascus, then the majority of the “Sunnite bloc,” in its turn, is focused on the West and the “oil monarchies” of the Persian Gulf. At least 41 percent of Lebanon’s population are unified in Christian communities, there is serious political segregation concerning events in Syria.
However, deep divisions on this issue occurs even among Lebanese Muslims: Hezbollah units are known to be fighting on the side of the Syrian government, while many Lebanese Sunnis are in rebel groups fighting against the Syrian regime.
Added to this is the large number of problems Lebanon has from Palestinian and Syrian refugees, as well as the penetration of ideas and militants from the Islamic state, it is clear that any political destabilization in this small country will necessarily affect the overall balance of power in the greater Middle East and, seemingly, it will lead to even more explicit intervention from foreign players in internal Lebanese affairs.
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Russia’s interest – a sovereign, stable Lebanon
The Soviet Union was one of the first states to recognize Lebanon as an independent state as early as 1943. Later in the 1970s and 80s, when a bloody and protracted civil war broke out, the Soviet Union, wherever possible, worked to end it. This is remembered and valued in Lebanon.
Without a doubt, Soviet or Russian influence was never preeminent in the Cedar Republic, as Lebanon is sometimes called.
And now, as is noted on the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, there is no stable trend in Russian-Lebanese trade and economic relations. In 2013 bilateral trade exceeded $500 million, with Russia maintaining a positive balance in mutual trade.
While Russian supplies to Lebanon are dominated by raw materials (oil and hydrocarbon products), Lebanon provides Russia predominantly with agricultural products, primarily tobacco. It is unnecessary, at present, to talk about serious Russian investment in Lebanon, although there is an Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation, and also a Russian-Lebanese Business Council.
Given the fact that Moscow and Beirut have similar positions on most global political issues and for regulating the Middle East, Russian diplomacy has consistently supported the independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Lebanese state.
The current crisis of the Lebanese state is not the first, but whereas formerly it was mainly about the opposition of certain religious and political forces, now it seems to be the decrepit and inefficient state machine has met the discontent of the general secular public. Here the only cure to the crisis can be quick and effective action on the part of the government apparatus.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.