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Middle East Stability Hinges On Lebanon's Neutrality

In his UN speech on Sept. 24, the Lebanese president reminded the world of the importance of helping Lebanon and keeping it neutral.
Lebanon's President Michel Sleiman addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, September 24, 2013.    REUTERS/Justin Lane/Pool  (UNITED STATES  - Tags: POLITICS)   - RTX13YDY

It is Lebanon’s week at the UN. There has been a special conference organized by a group of countries dubbed the International Support Group for Lebanon, a title which suggests that those countries do care about Lebanon and that this small country is facing real dangers.

There is no doubt that the issue of the Syrian refugees, because of its horror and magnitude, has accelerated the convening of such a conference. But this UN conference will not be limited to the refugee issue. It will also try to find ways to implement UN Resolution 1701, which is a safety net for Lebanon. The implementation of that resolution has become urgent after the exacerbation of the war in Syria and the growing possibility that Israel may join the fight. There is also the issue of supporting the Lebanese army and how to build up its capabilities so that Lebanon does not one day find itself hostage to the de facto forces and surrenders to them for lack of other options. There is also the economic issue, which has unfortunately not yet received the attention it deserves.

There is no doubt that the issue of the Syrian refugees is the most pressing. That issue may cause an earthquake in a region resting on delicate demographic and sectarian balances. The two countries most vulnerable in this regard are Jordan and Lebanon. Both are still suffering the repercussions of the Palestinian exodus that happened in the middle of the last century, affecting the balance and order of things throughout the region.

It is true that the case of the Syrian displacement is different than the Palestinian one. It is true that Syria will remain on the regional map despite the fact that its administrative shape may change. The Syrian refugees carry Syrian citizenship and have ID cards showing this. This is not the case for the Palestinian refugees, since the “nakba” took place before a Palestinian state was established.

But it is also true that the number of displaced Syrians has exceeded every estimate. According to a World Bank report issued yesterday [Sept. 24], it is estimated that by the end of 2013 Lebanon will have more than 1.3 million displaced Syrians, which is equivalent to a third of its population. A country like Lebanon doesn’t have the ability to bear such a heavy burden, especially since the country has been suffering from political, economic and social turmoil even before the refugee problem. Lebanon’s infrastructure has not been significantly modernized in two decades. 

The refugees’ first effect was on the labor market. The displaced Syrians were willing to work under any conditions, which constituted an illegal competition to Lebanese workers and professionals, resulting in increased unemployment among the Lebanese. In addition, the Syrian refugees spread throughout Lebanese towns and villages, bringing with them new customs and traditions that threaten the social stability of a country already suffering from many political problems.

The second effect of the refugees was on Lebanon’s infrastructure, especially the power grid. It is worth recalling that the budget deficit of the government’s electric company, Eléctricité du Liban (EDL), is the main source of the government’s budget deficit. The sector hasn’t been modernized since the civil war ended more than 20 years ago because the electricity issue has been at the mercy of polarization in Lebanon regarding quotas and politics.

The economy is suffering from recession because of the growing treasury deficit, public debt, corruption in public utilities and low productivity, all due to the lack of reform policies. So how can the economy bear the burden of displaced persons? It is an international and Arab responsibility, a point the Lebanese delegation will certainly mention.

The delegation is headed by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman. It is his moment, his last appearance at the UN podium, at least in his capacity as president of the Lebanese Republic. Contrary to his predecessors, he has repeatedly declared that he has no intention of renewing his mandate, which ends in May 2014. Now is certainly his best opportunity to remind the Lebanese of his foreign policy doctrine: Lebanon’s neutrality, which was consecrated in the Baabda Declaration

The Baabda Declaration was approved by all the conflicting parties in Lebanon before Hezbollah chose to withdraw its support for it. Hezbollah’s decision may have been due to the international welcome given to that document, which, if applied, would practically take Lebanon out of the region’s conflict. That declaration also runs contrary to the strategy of Iran, which directly controls Hezbollah’s decision-making, and indirectly controls that of the Assad regime.

Iran was and still is seeking with the West, and with the United States in particular, a package deal that would recognize Iran’s role and areas of ​​influence in the Middle East. To achieve that, Iran has been accumulating negotiating cards to trade them as part of a package deal. Lebanon is one of those cards, and an important one at that, because it is related to two particularly sensitive issues: the Syrian crisis and the conflict with Israel through the south Lebanon gate. Any attempt to neutralize an issue, or to make piecemeal deals, even if they meet Hezbollah’s internal interests, may be opposed by Iran if they are not part of the package deal that it seeks.

That explains why those states have rushed to weave a safety net for Lebanon’s moribund institutions. They want to strip, or at least neutralize, the Lebanon card from Iran’s hand. The Lebanese party that is supported by the West and the Arab moderates has agreed to neutralize this card after losing all hope of recovering it. Hezbollah confronted that by backing down from its support for the Baabda Declaration. It is unfortunate that Lebanon’s neutrality has turned from a historic settlement into an additional point of disagreement. Neutrality has been “Lebanonized.” But the fact remains that this is the only rational proposal that will ensure the survival of this diverse country because it maintains the balances inside it.

Maintaining the balance and the voices of reason in Lebanon will be reflected by maintaining the balance and the voices of reason in its surroundings. Lebanon’s disintegration means the disintegration of the East and the collapse of the Sykes-Picot agreement, which still exists only because there is fear of the alternative.

Neutralizing Lebanon is essential to its survival as an incubator for all its components. Neutralizing Lebanon is first and foremost the responsibility of its citizens. It is also the responsibility of the world if it seeks to build peace and stability in a diverse world. In his UN speech on Tuesday [Sept. 24], Suleiman reminded the world of this. As Imam Musa al-Sadr once put it: “Lebanon’s preservation is both an international need and a national duty.” 

Sami Nader is an economist, Middle Eastern affairs analyst and communications expert with extensive expertise in corporate strategy and risk management. He currently directs the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, focusing on economics and geopolitics of the Levant, and is a professor for USJ University in Beirut. On Twitter: @saminader

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