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Roundtable Discussion Series
The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), in collaboration with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS), organized a roundtable discussion on the impact of regional developments on Lebanon’s political stability on December 6, 2013. Some of the key points made by the three featured speakers were:
Dr. Yezid Sayigh: The development of a war economy on the ground in Syria will have important ramifications for any attempts at a conflict resolution.
Dr. Talal Atrissi: The anticipation that there will be a medium term settlement in Syria will likely incentivize all actors to attempt to make short term strategic gains on the ground, and lead to more violence in Syria and Lebanon.
Mr. Michael Young: The Iranian-American rapprochement will not lead to much change in Lebanon. Instead, Mr. Young foresees a return to the status quo in two different scenarios.
Dr. Yezid Sayigh, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center, made the following points:
While there is no balance of capabilities, the situation on the ground currently reflects a relative balance of power. Since the battle of Qusair, the Syrian war has entered a new phase. Certain areas are continuously being conquered and lost. Bashar al Assad appears to have the upper hand, but he cannot conduct military operations on all fronts at the same time and the resistance takes advantage of this weakness. However, the opposition is scattered and its learning curve slow, reflected in its inability to significantly improve its strategic position.
The conflict cannot be defined as simply between two united protagonists. It more closely represents two loose coalitions operating with a variety of agendas, with different local as well as national and international dynamics. Devolution of control to localized militias has occurred, even within the regime. Any serious changes could result in massive and unpredictable coalition changing. This is widely recognized in the case of the opposition but it is also the case for the government.
The development of a war economy could have serious ramifications for the current political and military balances. On both sides devolution of economic power to localized actors has occurred, actors who seek to gain access to traditional government revenue and rent streams. This has led to the creation of vested economic interests within non-centralized parties, all of which are keenly aware of the role they will play (the division of spoils) in a post war economy. This development, which is just starting to take form, will play an important role in determining the outcome of the war.
The survival of the Syrian pound is a significant marker of the regime’s durability. Although civil wars are marked by a collapse of the local currency, the recent appreciation of the Syrian pound from 300 to 140 to the dollar signifies the ability of the regime to prevent economic collapse. In maintaining the currency, the Syrian regime has relied to a large extent on Iranian funding, but it can also be argued that the financial support for both sides is buoying the economy.
The political influence of the Syrian people and particularly the refugees cannot be ignored. Within internal conflicts the refugees and internally displaced are easily forgotten or ignored when assessing the strategic situation. They are assumed to have no voice: they are only seen in terms of numbers and as a burden on the host countries, or as recipients of humanitarian aid. However, they do have a say in the broader political picture. Dr. Sayigh hypothesizes that as they enter their third winter of displacement, many Syrians will now prioritize their most basic needs over their political goals. This can already be seen in the return of some refugees to regime held areas in Syria. Dr. Sayigh questions whether this may be the beginning of a flow of return, the impact of which may serve to reinforce and legitimize the government, or opposition, depending on the destination.
Neither side is currently ready for peace negotiations, and the short to medium term will likely be marked by an increase in violence. Those forces who are in favor of negotiations will try to strengthen their position, and those who do not will provoke more violence. If an agreement with Iran is not reached, the war will drag on for a long time especially since the regime is currently not on the verge of collapse. The opposition, on the other hand, is in a critical stage: if it does not emerge victorious or fails in the near future to develop a political plan , it could implode from within.
The impact of a US-Iran rapprochement on the Syrian conflict, or lack thereof, could be considerable. Dr. Sayigh postulates that if a proper agreement between the US and Iran on the nuclear issue is upheld, this will have serious and generally positive impacts on both Syria and Lebanon, including a significant reduction in fighting. In general, if any regional agreement contributing to resolving the conflict takes place, a drastic unpredictable political reorganization within all Syrian factions will occur. As the overall political and military picture changes, the alliances on the ground will do so as well. From now until spring, the situation is in a very critical stage for both Syria and Lebanon (Watch video).
Dr. Talal Atrissi, Professor of Sociology at the Lebanese University, argued the following:
Despite its limited scope and strong opposition, the Iranian-American rapprochement has created the possibility of serious negotiations on regional issues. Despite the agreement only involving the nuclear issue, it still opens the door for future talks on wider issues such as the Syrian conflict. It is no coincidence that the date for Geneva II was set following this rapprochement. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia very much oppose these developments. However, while Israel is against this rapprochement because it believes that Iran’s ability to develop uranium must be stopped rather than reduced, Saudi Arabia does not necessarily oppose the details of the nuclear agreement, and is more fearful of recognition by the West of the influence of Iran. As a result, in the coming period, we can expect Saudi attempts to sabotage Geneva II.
Given this new environment, we should expect more violence in the short term. Even though Geneva II is a step in the right direction, Dr. Atrissi does not believe that it is the beginning of a solution. On the contrary, the anticipation that there will be a medium term settlement in Syria as a result of wider regional and international politicking will likely incentivize all actors to attempt to make short term strategic gains on the ground. This is motivated by the desire to strengthen their positions as much as possible in order to achieve a more favorable post-conflict settlement. Another factor is the desire of those who directly oppose negotiations to create a situation less favorable to a peaceful settlement.
Due to an open border policy and the regional nature of the Syrian crisis, Lebanon has become more intertwined in the conflict. Lebanon and Syria have similar societies with various confessions and feelings of affiliation between groups in the two countries. The humanitarian impetus allowing Syrians fleeing the country easy access to Lebanon has been a driving force behind the open borders policy. The latter, in turn, reinforces these feelings of affiliation and further intertwines the two countries. Furthermore, due to the cross national and regional nature of the conflict characterized by a struggle between powers that have significant influence on Lebanese factions, Lebanon was bound to be part of the conflict.
There is a wider religious-sectarian dimension to the conflict through which the heightened sectarian tensions in Lebanon must be understood. After the Arab revolutions and the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in, for instance, Egypt and Tunisia, the idea of new political systems reflecting Islamic rule was revived in the Arab world, possibly also including a future Syrian government. The desperation of this project increased when the Muslim Brotherhood fell in Egypt and the opposition began losing ground in Syria. The sense that a major regional project was faltering was then exaggerated by the categorization of the Shia Muslim world as an antagonistic force, one which increasingly drew radical Arab Islamic movements on the Syrian battlefront. These issues are important in understanding the situation in North Lebanon and the heightened sectarian tensions in the country in general. Lebanon will face many challenges to its stability in the short term (Watch video).
Mr. Michael Young, Opinion Editor of the Daily Star, raised the following points:
The impact of the Iranian-American rapprochement on the Syrian crisis is not likely to be as significant as many have suggested. The scope of the talks seems to be restricted to nuclear issues, and does not include broader regional political topics. The US’ focus is on the nuclear issue and the Americans do not wish to risk sabotaging the negotiations by widening the mandate, concurrently Iran is not willing to give up the strategic cards which it holds in the region. Iran wants to continue to play a regional role and will resist expansion of negotiations. However, if Western powers push for making normalization of relations conditional on the expansion of the scope of the talks, there is an opportunity for further peace talks.
There are potential implications for Lebanon as a result of the American-Iranian negotiations. Young sees two possible scenarios: The first is quite ambitious, namely that Iran will negotiate about fully integrating Hizbullah into the state, and laying down its weapons; the second one would see Hizbullah’s presence in government maintained and solidified, but would also involve it holding on to its weapons, while lowering the political tension existent in the country. The first one seems highly unlikely. Iran wants economic change, but without undermining its political power. Especially if Iran opens up more to the West, it will want to maintain the presence of a strong Hizbullah in Lebanon, as a deterrent against Israeli or Western aggression, and will consider negotiations on this topic a red line. Keeping this in mind, it must also be acknowledged that Hizbullah maintains significant agency, and Rouhani does not have a full mandate over its activities. Furthermore, if Assad can regain his power, his regime and Hizbullah will act as self-reinforcing pieces in a wider Iranian regional umbrella.
It is not in Iran’s or Hizbullah’s interest to allow inter-Lebanese conflict to escalate. So far, Iran and Hizbullah have pushed the envelope in Lebanon, but would not let tensions escalate to the point of a civil war that could destroy both Hizbullah and the country. If the Iranians would even agree to negotiate about Lebanon, the topic would be a lowering of sectarian tensions in the country. This would involve the election of a favorable president, and a new election law that would guarantee Hizbullah or its allies a substantial presence in parliament in order to secure its position within the Lebanese system. Once Hizbullah has significant authority, Iran might be open to more compromise, for instance to invite Hariri back to Lebanon to be part of a ‘national unity’ government, thereby reassuring the Sunnis while securing the acceptance of a permanent armed Hizbullah presence. To pressure Saudi Arabia and the Lebanese Sunni community to accept this deal, Iran and Hizbullah might otherwise call for the renegotiation of the Taef agreement in a way more favorable to Lebanon’s Shia population.
The impact of the position held by Saudi Arabia is important; it is unlikely the country will overly isolate itself from regional and international political trends. Whether Saudi Arabia will accept renegotiation of Hizbullah’s role in Lebanon entirely depends on the situation in Syria. If Assad emerges victorious, the Saudis will have no choice but to jump on the bandwagon on the Iranian deal. The alternative means to continue to fund the Syrian opposition which could lead to further regional problems, especially if other countries pressure for peace, not to mention the expense. The US seems not to want to get too involved, especially since the American public is not keen on perpetuating military involvement in the region.
A likely scenario could be that the rapprochement between Iran and the US leads to long-term change in the region, but this will be a slow and painstaking process. Geneva II is the start of a process, not the end of it. Iran, also undergoing internal political changes, will press for a decrease of sectarian tensions, including in Lebanon, which would involve the installment of a power-sharing government. If Assad regains full power, the regime will also regain some authority over Lebanon, while seeking reconciliation with the Sunni Arab states in order to facilitate Syria’s reconstruction. Both Iran and Russia see the benefits of this, meaning broadly a return to the status quo of the past (Watch video).