If Lebanon needs Syria more than Syria needs Lebanon, I suppose that Lebanon needs America more than America needs Lebanon. Either way, the country’s neutrality still protects it from itself
Facing possible invasion from both Britain and Germany in 1940 and determined to remain neutral, the Irish government in Dublin asked one of its senior ministers to draft a memorandum on how to stay out of the Second World War. “Neutrality is a form of limited warfare,” was his eloquent but bleak response.
The Lebanese would agree. For seven years, they have been pleading and praying and parleying to stay out of the Syrian war nextdoor, to ignore Israel’s threats, Syria’s sisterly embrace, America’s warnings, Russia’s entreaties and Iran’s blandishments. I guess you have to be an especially gifted people to smile obligingly – ingratiatingly, simplistically, bravely, grovellingly, wearily – at all around you and get away with it.
“When Lebanon is without a government for a month, you know the Lebanese are to blame,” a friend announced to me over coffee in Beirut this week. “When Lebanon is without a government for three months, you know foreigners are involved.” Armies have clanked through Lebanon for thousands of years, of course, but its current suitors are arriving with almost daily frequency. The Lebanese are being embraced by the newly victorious Syria, threatened by Israel, warned by the Americans, cuddled by the Russians and vouchsafed eternal love by the Iranians who pay and arm the Lebanese Hezbollah militia. And all this with an $80bn national debt, 1.5 million Syrian refugees, and electricity cuts – every day, without exception – since 1975.
It’s a lesson in how to be small, stay safe and live in fear. The caretaker cabinet of Saad Hariri – in effect, the pre-election Lebanese government and the next government rolled into one, each minister chosen under the country’s tiresome Muslim-Christian system of sectarianism – has adopted a policy of “dissociation” from regional conflicts. “Dissociation” is a version of neutrality, in which almost everyone from the Americans to the Iranians and the EU pretends that Lebanon is united in mutual love, and of far more use intact than destroyed in a rerun of the 1975-1990 civil war. The EU, of course, is lavishing money on the bankrupt Lebanese patient because it doesn’t want even more refugees pouring into Europe.
In fact Lebanon’s neutrality also protects it from itself. The Sunnis receive massive funding from the Saudis, who loathe the Iranians, Hezbollah and the Lebanese Shias who support them. The Sunni Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri loves the Saudis – or rather, has to love the Saudis, since they support his premiership and because he holds Saudi citizenship and the Saudis believe he will do their bidding. Readers may remember the gentlemanly kidnapping of Hariri in Riyadh last year and his ghostly reappearance before Saudi television to “resign” his Lebanese premiership until president Macron rescued him from the clutches of crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, and spirited him to Paris where he mysteriously resumed his Lebanese premiership. Hariri, being an eclectic passport holder, is also a French citizen.