Lebanon’s constitutional void is an opportunity for regional players

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The writer is author of ‘Black Wave’

The US vs Iran football match in Qatar, one of the most politically charged games in the World Cup, produced a series of jokes and memes in Lebanon, which does not have a team playing there. One joke stated that whoever wins the match gets the Middle East. Another said this was the first time Iran and the US would confront each other “outside of Lebanon”, long a geopolitical battleground.

In fact, the two foes played against each other in 1998. Iran won 2-1 — and you could argue that it won the Middle East. Under president Mohammad Khatami in the 1990s, Iran had seen a detente with the US as well as Saudi Arabia, but in the wake of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, Tehran has been ascendant in the region, pumping money and weapons into proxy militias from Lebanon to Yemen and now supplying drones for Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The US win over Iran does not presage the return of a Pax Americana in the region, but it comes at a time of weakness for autocracies from China to Russia, and especially Iran, where ongoing public protests are a challenge. It also coincides with a constitutional void in Lebanon where there is a caretaker government and the president’s mandate ended on October 31. Parliament has failed to elect a replacement after an eighth electoral session last week. Regional players have a choice: impose their candidate or make concessions as the pressure mounts.

Iran and Syria would like to fill the void in Lebanon with someone malleable, as they have done since the end of the country’s civil war in 1990, to protect their hold on the nation and their regional influence. Last month, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared that “Iran’s active policy in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq led to foiling America’s plot in these countries” while vowing to continue to support “resistance forces in the region”. At almost the same time, Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad said Damascus would continue to support Hizbollah, the Shia and Iran-backed militant group and political force in Lebanon, which it sees as a “strategic partner”. He said Lebanon’s “stability” was crucial to Syria. Their favourite candidate was Gebran Bassil, former foreign minister and son-in-law of Michel Aoun, the outgoing president. He is now under US sanctions, so Suleiman Franjieh, scion of a prominent family and close friend of Assad, is the frontrunner.

Syria once occupied Lebanon with 30,000 troops. Assad has not commented much on his smaller neighbour since his own rule was challenged in 2011 and he responded with devastating violence, assisted by Iran and Russia. But the statements out of Damascus and Tehran indicate they feel the need to make a renewed play for Lebanon for the long term. Next year, key levers of power will come vacant as the army chief, governor of the central bank and security chief all retire. The bargaining over who replaces them has only just started.

In the grand scheme of things, Lebanon is a nagging irritant that barely registers with Joe Biden’s administration as the US grapples with the war in Ukraine and rivalry with China. Lebanon has been sinking into poverty, popular despair and institutional decrepitude since an economic crash in 2019 that spurred nationwide protests. Although the World Bank has accused the country’s ruling establishment of causing a “deliberate depression”, the political elites remain firmly ensconced.

The Biden administration might be tempted to agree to Iran and Syria’s preferred candidate for Lebanese president or acquiesce to a quick compromise on the full deck of positions. But quick compromises often include easily-missed fine print. In 1990, when the US wanted Syrian participation in Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait, it turned a blind eye to Hafez al-Assad’s full takeover of Lebanon. Pax Syriana conveniently put an end to 15 years of war in Lebanon as George H W Bush declared a new world order.

But the fine print then required all militias to give up their weapons, except those fighting the enemy — namely Israel. Hizbollah grew from a deadly bunch of rag-tag operatives accused of blowing up the US Marines in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 people, to a highly organised, regional paramilitary force and powerful political party with veto power over Lebanon’s future.

The US will not be able to impose a presidential candidate today but neither should it give its rivals a gift in Lebanon. Biden speaks often of the global battle between democracy and autocracy, but that also plays out within countries. Washington should see Lebanon not as a minor headache but as a contested space where freedoms can expand on the periphery of thornier issues such as Iran.

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