Lebanon and a Future of Syria

By Hannes Swoboda

Several days that I stayed in Beirut were full of meetings with experts and discussions about Lebanon itself as well as about possibilities of peace and reconstruction in Syria. These discussions and encounters gave me a lot of information and insights. At the same time, however, it was quite difficult to see clearly through these numerous pieces of information and to write down some summary of what I have learnt. Nevertheless, I have tried. 



Religionintertwined with power

It has been some time since I last was in Beirut. It was after the civil war when reconstruction of the city center has just begun. There was no war in Syria back then and the region generally seemed to be relatively stable, besides the occupation of Southern Lebanon by Israelis. Things have changed since then, although, perhaps not so dramatically as one would expect. The center of Beirut is now mostly rebuilt, but it is a ghost city, especially at night. The economic situation is in shambles. Israel now longer occupies the South, but there is still the danger of an Israeli attack on a supposed Lebanese military site with missiles that could reach Israel. This site is allegedly located in the area controlled by Hezbollah. What is most important, however, is that for years there has been a war in Syria, a war in which Hezbollah, one of the strongest Lebanese forces, also participated. 

Lebanon is a country which is still very much divided into groups with different political and religious allegiances. Yes, there are Sunni, Shia and Christian political movements, but even in these groups there are internal divisions, they are not united under one religious umbrella. In addition, there are the Druzes. What we see today in Lebanon are changing alliances among these subgroups which lead to a chaotic political situation in the country. Furthermore, there are some families who are "giving" their political mandate to sons, daughters and wives.

During my visit to Lebanon there happened a reconciliation meeting between prominent leaders of two rival Christian fractions. Forty years ago, one of these militia groups committed a terrible massacre of the other. For this meeting to happen many years needed to pass. Moreover, a lot of effort had been put into the reconciliation process by the head of the Maronite church in Lebanon. When you think of these crimes committed by Christian militia, you wonder what meaning, if any, the word "Christian" has.

These fights inside different religious-political groups serve as a clear proof that it is not the existence of different religions as such that causes the conflict. It is the political use or rather, misuse of religion which creates crises and antagonism. The disputes are about power, very often personal power. Lebanon's political scene is a clear example of the dominance of power over ideology and religion, same as the neighboring Syria. Worldwide, you could find a lot of so-called religious disputes which in reality are more often of political nature.


They are all killers

A taxi driver who brought me to the airport for my flight back to Europe had very strong opinions about the political and economic situation in Lebanon. "We are governed by killers! They are the same leaders who were engaged in the civil war but now they are killing us in a different way!" 

Whilein Beirut, I bought a book by Lebanese sociologist Samir Khalaf. In an article with the title "On the Demoralization of Public Life" he wrote of the then ongoing civil war in Lebanon: "Lebanon at the moment is a textbook example of what sociologists call "anomie"; a social state in which society's norms can no longer impose effective control over people's impulses." In an analysis of "The Scars of War" he wrote: "Abhorrent as it was, the fighting went on largely because it was, in a sense, normalized and routinized. It was transformed into an ordinary vice; something that, although horrible, was expectable........In a word, killing became inconsequential."

It is obvious that the scars of the war do not heal quickly. That is especially true if there are no clear winners. This holds not only for Lebanon but also for Palestine. And it will be true for Syria too. In a recent article in The New York Times, Bret Stephans made an apt remark referring to World War I but also to Palestine: "Wars that do not end decisively - in absolute victory for one side and equivocal defeat for the other - tend not to end at all." But how could civil wars like in Lebanon and in Syria, or even in Palestine, end with a clear victory? And at what cost? It is true, if there is no clear and total victory, as it was in World War II, we should expect continuation of the conflict over a long time.

Outside powers are also inside

Importantly, to understand the turmoil in Lebanon, and in Syria for that matter, one needs to account for the influence of regional powers on national politics too. It used to be always Syria who experienced this influence most directly. Nowadays, Lebanon has also become a victim of antagonism between vital opponents in the region, namely Saudi Arabia and Iran. At the same time, however, Saudi Arabia has lost influence as its fight against Iran is reducing its capacity to  be  a power  broker  inside Lebanon.  The  last time  Saudi Arabia  and its  prominent  Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tried to exert influence in Lebanon was when he invited Lebanon’s prime-minister Saad Hariri to Saudi Arabia and held him hostage. In the end, it was one of the power games that the Crown Prince had lost. He had to let Hariri go back to Lebanon. Everything that Saudi Arabia achieved with this affair was turning the public opinion in Lebanon against itself and weakening its role in the country. Today, it is Iran that exerts major influence in Lebanon, directly from Tehran, via Hezbollah, as well as through a smaller party of the longtime president of the Lebanese parliament.


Hezbollah as a strong national and regional power

Many of my interlocutors were resolutely against Hezbollah that has been led since 1992 by Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah whom I had met during one of my previous visits to Beirut. He is certainly one of the strongest figures in Lebanon. First, he represents many Lebanese of rather poor status. Secondly, he is the strongest fighter against Israel. Thirdly, he wins from the strengthening of Iran in the region. In the last election, he and Hezbollah were among the winners, mainly because they offered many services to the poorer part of the society whom the state is not offering anything otherwise, whereas they provide cheap credits and employment to these groups. A failing state is always opening doors to such political movements, like to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Many Lebanese perceive Hezbollah as a direct instrument of Iran. Consequently, they view Lebanon as being in danger of getting involved in the war in Syria due to Hezbollah’s activities there. Also, Hezbollah’s provocations against Israel might spur another war with that neighbor. During our discussion at the dinner organized by Dr. Sami Nader from the famous American University in Beirut the criticism of Iran as dominating and blocking Lebanon's development was the main issue. Another concern was the ideological position of Hezbollah. As one former minister said to me: "I do not fear the military arm of Hezbollah. I detest their way of life that they would impose on us all if they got stronger!"


In the meantime, the US has extended sanctions against Iran as well asagainst leading figures of Hezbollah. In Paris, a trial has been opened against a drug cartel which could also have some contacts with Hezbollah. Certainly, Hezbollah is predominantly financed by Iran but there are always rumors about other financial sources, including drug trafficking. Anyway, Lebanon is limited in its room of maneuver because of many outside influences. Therefore, many argue for officially declaring the country’s neutrality in order not to be drawn into regional conflicts. That would certainly help, but these conflicts arevery severe and will in many ways continue to have influence on Lebanon’s internal political developments.

Palestinians are long-term refugees

The refugee issue is one of these outside/inside influences. Lebanon has had for decades a high number of Palestinian refugees that arrived in the country in the aftermath of the 1948 war. They were often a part of internal political and armed conflicts, such as the notorious massacre of Sabra and Shatila of September 1982, where many Palestinians lost their lives. During my stay in Lebanon, I witnessed the horrific situation in Shatila. In spite of the poor living conditions people were greeting us friendly and seemed to be happy to have visitors from abroad. One of them who has a son working at the United Nations in Vienna gave us a small Palestinian flag for our jackets. We visited also the monument built in memory of the massacre in which the Israeli forces and in particular Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon played a terrible part.


No estimate of the number of Palestinians still living in Lebanon can be accurate. But in spite of many babies born in the refugee camps, the overall number seems to have declined because many left Lebanon in search for decent living conditions. The possibility to be legally employed in Lebanon is still restricted to few professions. Most of the Palestinians are employed through an oral contract and can be sacked at any time. In addition, there are also other kinds of discrimination concerning public services, especially healthcare. The situation of Palestinians will deteriorate because President Trump has decided to cut the US contributions to the UNRWA, an organization established by the UN to deal with the Palestinian refugees.

However, I am certain that Palestinians will survive this brutal attack on their existence, as they are the most peaceful and patient people I know. If you look at what is done to them on the daily basis it is surprising they are not even more radical. Nevertheless, the rising influence of radical Islamist groups is alarming.

Syrian refugees are seen as a heavy burden

As a result of the war in Syria many more refugees came into Lebanon. The estimates lie above 1,5 million people, with the overall Lebanon’s population being about six million. Syrian refugees certainly present an incredibly heavy burden for Lebanon, as well as for Jordan and Turkey. Nevertheless, many of them managed to secure jobs if they found a Lebanese sponsor as their employer. At the same time, their presence in the country is seen as an even heavier burden in comparison to Palestinians. There is a consensus in the society as well as across the political spectrum that Syrians should leave Lebanon as soon as possible.

On the other hand, it was common for Syrians to work in Lebanon even prior to the war. and there is also a demand for Syrian, as well as Palestinian, labour in Lebanon, especially in the informal labour market with low wages and bad working conditions. But politically there is no readiness to integrate them. It must be admitted that granting them citizenship would destabilize the delicate religious and ethnic balance in the country.


Power balance against modernizing the country

It is a longstanding agreement confirmed in the so-called Taif Accord of 1989 that the division of political power between different religious groups should be fixed: the President should be a Maronite, that is a Christian, the Prime-minister a Sunni, and the President of the Parliament a Shia. But this fixed division which is mirrored also in the distribution of parliamentary seats is blocking many decisions and preventing a free choice for citizens and flexible formation of government. Thus, after a long time of having had no president who was finally elected at the end of 2016, for months now Lebanon has had no government. Such situations are also common for many European countries but in Lebanon many drastic reforms are of urgent character but cannot be proceeded with, especially in the economy where things go particularly badly. The big reconstruction project of the city centre of Beirut started by former prime minister Rafic Hariri has been stuck and many buildings are still empty. Many other half finished buildings show no construction activity. Beirut is still a lively city but it could not catch up with its former vitality. Instead of stabilizing the country politically and concentrating on rebuilding a strong economy politicians have been eager to fight for positions in the future government.

Syrians should go home

It is true, the war in Syria has negatively affected the economy in Lebanon and of course, there is a hope among the people that the war will end soon. For Lebanon, the main concern is to send the Syrian refugees back to Syria as soon as possible. Again and again during our stay in Beirut one could hear the message: the Syrian refugees should go home.

During a lunch given by the Austrian ambassador we had a lively and partly fierce discussion with some Lebanese representatives. I insisted on the necessity to create humane conditions for return which would give the Syrian refugees an incentive to go back. Many laws and political actions of the Assad regime did in fact make it very hard to convince refugees to go back. As long as there is a justified fear that the returnees will be persecuted and put into prison for their ‘treason’ of fleeing the country, they will refrain from returning. There are some indications that this has often been the case for those that already did return to Syria.

At a conference organized by Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Beirut we discussed conditions for return in the context of future reconstruction of Syria. Overall, the conference participants did not see things very positively. The war is still not over and there is no clear picture of the future constitutional and political structure of Syria. And again, it is also a question of how the external powers will act and how much pressure they can and will put on the Assad regime. Russia, Iran and Turkey are the main players, especially since the US has started withdrawing from the region.


Illusions about the US

In this respect, President Obama has been often strongly criticized. He was made responsible for having left the space for others to come in, especially by those Lebanese who fear a strong Iranian upsurge in the region, but not only them. My counter argument that Obama's withdrawal was a result of the disastrous intervention by Bush in Iraq and the failure to convince Israel to negotiate a peace agreement with Palestinians was hardly accepted.

In the view of many not always pleasant and peaceful players in the region it is understandable that many wish to have the US as a strong partner or even a leader that provides counterbalance. However, the one-sided attitude of the Trump administration in supporting Saudi Arabia and Israel does not help. Neither can the US nor Europe solve all the domestic and regional problems of the Middle East. There is no strong and selfless actor who could manage the critical issues of the region. Things may even go worse.

A strange coalition of the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates could attack Iran and installations of Hezbollah. Neither Russia nor Turkey would be happy about it, but would they be ready to defend Iran and go into war with that coalition? Also, an Arab NATO is under discussion, but the Arab world is not as united so that it forms such an alliance and the extremist and erratic actions by the Saudi Crown Prince have not been helpful to this endeavor either.  

EU, Turkey, Iran and Russia

Of course, Europe is increasingly concerned about the developments in its neighboring region. Even if there are many more refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey than in all EU member states the political effects of the crisis have a strong impact on Europe. Therefore, it is in the interest of Europe to foster peace in the Middle East, as it would strip the extremist parties of their arguments that exploit the refugee issue for their political purposes. Sadly, the leverage of Europe is very small. We could spend a lot of money for the reconstruction of Syria but who would really benefit from these investments? It does not make sense to send money which would end up in the pockets of the regime and the corrupt war lords. Even supporting NGOs is very doubtful if we look at how the regime is forcing them to play by its rules. Without a sincere process of political transition Europe cannot be a partner in Syria's reconstruction. That does not, however, concern humanitarian aid and targeted aid, for example for education, that needs to be continued. Europe could also cooperate with those forces who may rule semi-autonomous regions governed by local communities, by the Kurds and by the Syrian Free Army. Of course, here again the control of money flows is difficult but vital. 


In Turkey it seems that 90% of the population are not satisfied with the presence of so many Syrian refugees in their country. Whereas in nearly all the issues the Turkish society is split into two approximately equal halves, here a big majority is against Erdogan's policy. Despite that, the Turkish President is still politically strong enough to survive domestic opposition. 

In relation to Syria Erdogan has two main aims. Firstly, he wants to prevent new refugees from coming to Turkey, especially from the Idlib province. However, nobody knows how long the agreement with Russia will hold concerning the establishment of a protected zone in Idlib. The Turkish President will do whatever he can to avoid a new refugee influx. The second major aim is to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state outside or inside of Syria.

Iran certainly wants to establish itself strongly in Syria - politically, economically and militarily. But that is not always seen positively. Of course, Israel and the US do not want any kind of Iranian presence, and even more so the military one. Economically, Iran is in competition with Russia. Many Syrians are not very keen on supporting the Shia Iran dominating the country, as there are only about 200.000 Shia in Syria. Also, Russia is not seen always positively, as Syria was predominantly destroyed after and due to the Russian air strikes.

How long will Assad survive politically?

This critical attitude towards Iran and Russia - the two defenders of Assad and occupiers of the country - played into the hands of the regime. Bashar Assad himself is trying to play it both ways. As one conference participant from Syria said: ‘Assad walks on two legs, one Russian and the other Iranian. He uses them according to his own wishes’. Anyway, it is surprising that this man who implemented such a disastrous and cruel strategy against his own people can still have this strength to rule the country. He himself is not seen positively by the population but many have realized that in areas controlled by his regime basic services function.

War Lord Economy in Syria

The Assad regime has established a war lord economy. It also has no interest in having a strong presence of Iranians and Russians. War lords profit from laws like the expropriation of land of refugees who do not come back to register their property. They present a serious impediment to quick and thorough reconstruction of the country. They are in competition with Russians and Iranians who are demanding rewards for their participation in the war on the side of the regime. Some of these war lords are also active in the drug business. Syria began to produce drugs like Captagon itself. It was produced for exports into the Gulf countries when those started to support the armed resistance against Assad.

For any reconstruction to happen, Syria would need not only the European money but also its own citizens to return to the country and bring the experience and know-how they gained while being in asylum. Unfortunately, Bashar Assad is unlikely to invite them, as they are often regarded as being in opposition to the regime. Many Syrians who stayed in the country also see them as traitors or at least as privileged, since they lived in peace and in better economic conditions outside the country. Even internally displaced people are often baldy perceived and received in their original communities when they come back. In a nutshell, everything that Syria needs will not be acquired by a Syria where Assad is the major political force. That is true for many refugees as well as for the European money. Perhaps, a strategy to start with support in some of the areas which are not under the government control is more realistic. There at least may be fewer war lords and the money will flow to the citizens who need it.



I have very mixed feelings about this trip to Lebanon. Conversations about Lebanese politics and prospects of peace, stability and reconstruction in Syria created no grounds for optimism whatsoever. When I met famous Lebanese writer Elias Khouri – whose books I can strongly advice to read – he was very pessimistic about his country, the region and about developments in Europe. Another younger Lebanese writer, Alexandra Chreiteh explained me how she conceptualized the main character of one of her books: "I constructed a character that was wrapped in mapping much larger than himself, not only a victim of History proper, but a culprit of geopolitics and coincidence...... I was fascinated by the packages of mass-produced hatred that public consensus incessantly left at my doorsteps." On the other hand, she was "not ready to take my place in conflict's chain of reincarnations'". “I was not prepared to be a sheep to the slaughter, pulled against my will into the cyclical twist of eternal return. I had no reason to sacrifice myself for a string of meaningless metaphors, nation-honor-loyalty." She did not accept that "emancipation of one's self deceptively necessitates the crushing of others' bones." 

Let us hope we find more and more such citizens who are not ready to accept a place in the "conflict's chain of reincarnations " - in Lebanon, in Syria, in Europe and elsewhere. Looking at the young people from all over the world, studying at the American University in Beirut - which was founded already in 1866 - gave me some hope.