Some reflections after an IIP visit to Lebanon – partly with Stephanie Fenkart

To stay for several days in Beirut, to have many talks with experts about Lebanon itself and then about the possibility to envisage a – peaceful and reconstructed – future of Syria gives you many informations and insights. But at the end of the day you are feeling a certain incapability to see through these informations and to write down some summary. Nevertheless I will try. 

Religion intertwined with power

It is some time when I have been in Beirut. It was after the civil war and the reconstruction of the centre of Beirut was just beginning. There was no war in Syria and the region seemed to be in a stable situation – besides the occupation of the South of Lebanon by the Israelis. Things changed – but perhaps not so dramatically as one would expect. The centre of Beirut is mostly rebuilt, but especially at night a ghost city. The economic situation is in shambles. Israel is no longer occupying the South, but there is always the danger of some Israeli attack on the supposed site of rockets which could reach Israel. And of course this site would be in the area controlled by Hezbollah. And most important there was for years and still is the war in Syria, a war in which also one of the strong Lebanese forces, Hezbollah participated.

Lebanon is a country which is still very much divided into groups with different political and religious allegiances. Yes, there are Sunnis, Shia and Christian political movements, but even these groups themselves are divided and not united under one religious umbrella. And there are the Druses. What we find are changing alliances between them, which leads to a chaotic political situation in Lebanon. In addition there are some families who are „giving“ their political mandate to sons, daughters and wives.

Only these days a reconciliation meeting between two prominent leaders of two rival Christian fractions took place. The one militia has committed a terrible massacre on the other Christian group 40 years ago. And it needed so many years before a reconciliation meeting – with the help of the Maronite patriarch – took place. When you consider these crimes undertaken by Christian militia you wonder what „Christian“ means. 

These fights inside the different religious/political groups is also a clear proof, that it is not the existence of different religions as such that is the reason for conflict. It is the political use or rather misuse which is creating crises and antagonism. The disputes are about power and very often personal power. Lebanon’s political scene is a clear example for the dominance of power over ideology and religion – as is the neighbor Syria. Worldwide you could find a lot of so-called religious disputes which are more of political nature. It is mostly a question of power and not about religious beliefs.

They are all killers.

The 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 and now they kill us in a different way“. 

While in Beirut I could buy a book by the Lebanese sociologist Samir Khalaf. In an article with the title „On the Demoralization of Public Life“ he wrote at the time of the civil war: „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.“ And in an analysis of „The Scars and 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 are not healing quickly. It needs many years. That is especially true if there are no clear winners. That is the fact not only for Lebanon but also for Palestine. And it will be true for Syria. In an article these days in The New York Times, Bret Stephans wrote in reference 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 end at all.“ But how should civil wars like in Lebanon or in Syria or even in Palestine end with a clear victory and at what costs? But it is true, if there is no clear and total victory as with World War II we have to expect a continuation of the conflict over a long time.

Outside powers are also inside

Important to understand the turmoil in Lebanon – and in Syria – is also the influence of regional powers on Lebanon politics. It was always Syria who had the directest influence. Nowadays Lebanon is victim of the antagonism of the vital opponents in the region: Saudi Arabia and Iran. Due to the war, Syria has lost a lot of influence. 

But in the meantime also Saudi Arabia has lost influence as it’s 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 (MBS) tried to have a chance was when he „invited“ the Lebanon prime-minister Saad Hariri to Saudi Arabia and held him hostage. At the end it was one of the power games the Crown Prince MbS lost and he had to let Hariri go back to Lebanon – via France. All Saudi Arabia succeeded in was to create a united public opinion in Lebanon and a reduced role for itself in Lebanon. So today it is Iran which is the major influencer – directly and via Hezbollah and a smaller party of the longtime president of the Lebanese parliament.

Hezbollah as strong national and regional power

Many of our/mine interlocutors were very strong in their attitude against Hezbollah, led since 1992 by  Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, whom I met at one of my last visits to Beirut. He is certainly one of the strongest figure in Lebanon. First he represents many Lebanese of rather poor status, secondly he is the strongest fighter against Israel and thirdly he wins with the strengthening of Iran in the region. And at the last election he and „this“ Hezbollah were one of the winners. They were winning because they offer many services to the poorer part of the society which the state is not offering and they offer also cheap credits and employment to these groups. A failing state is always opening doors to such political movements – like to the Muslim Brothers. 

Many Lebanese perceive Hezbollah as a direct Instrument of Iran. Consequently they see Lebanon due to the activities of Hezbollah always in danger to be part of the war in Syria. And Hezbollah in provoking Israel might be the reason for another war with that neighbor. In a discussion during a 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. Others fear especially the idealogical position of Hezbollah. As one former minister said to me: „I am not fearing the military arm of Hezbollah, I detest their way of life they would impose on all of us if they would get stronger“! 

In the mean time the US has extended sanctions against Iran also against leading figures of Hezbollah. And 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 a country which is limited in its room of maneuver because of the many outside influences. Therefore many argue for an official position of neutrality in order not to be drawn into the regional conflicts. That would certainly help, but these conflicts are very severe and will in many ways continue to have an influence on the internal political development. 

Palestinians as long-term refugees

The refugee issue is one of these outside/inside influences. Lebanon has already since decades, the Palestinian war in 1948, a high number of Palestinian refugees. They were often part of internal political and also armed conflicts. Well known is the massacre of Sabra and Shatila of September 1982 with many Palestinians as victims. During our visit we saw the still 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 UN in Vienna gave us a small Palestinian flag for our jackets. We visited also the monument built in memory of the massacre in which also the Israeli forces and in particular defence minister Ariel Sharon played a horrible part. 

There is no uncontested number of Palestinians still living in Lebanon. But in spite of many babies born in the refugees camps, the overall number seems to have been declined because many left Lebanon to reach decent conditions of living. The possibility to be legally employed in Lebanon is still restricted to few professions. The majority of them is employed with an oral contract and can be sacked at any time. In addition there are also other kinds of discriminations concerning public, especially health services. The situation of the Palestinians will deteriorate because President Trump has decided to cut the US contributions to UNRWA the organization established by the UN to care for the Palestinian refugees. 

Palestinians will also survive this brutal attack on their existence as they are the most peaceful and patient people I know. If you look what is done to them day by day it is surprising they are not more radical and extremists. Nevertheless the rising influence of radical Islamist groups should be of concern. 

Syrian refugees are seen as a heavy burden

Due to the war in Syria many more refugees came into the country. It could be 1,5 millions or more. One should compare this number in relation to the population (overall about 6 millions) with the situation in Austria and other European countries. It certainly is a real heavy burden on Lebanon and Jordan and also Turkey. 

Many of the Syrian refuges found jobs – if they found a Lebanese sponsor as employer or who would rent some space for a shop for them. Nevertheless the Syrian refugees are even more seen as a burden in comparison to the Palestinians. There is a consensus in society and a common attitude across the political spectrum, that they should leave Lebanon as soon as possible. 

On the other hand, Syrians are needed for many professions and worked in Lebanon also before the war. Both the Palestinians and Syrians are welcomed as labour and especially in the informal labour market with low wages and bad working conditions. But politically there is no readiness to integrate them. And one has to confess, to give 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 between the different religiously defined political groups should be fixed: the President should be a – Maronite – Christian, the Prime-minister a Sunni and the President of Parliament a Shia. But this fixed division which is mirrored also in the distribution of parliamentary seats is blocking the country and preventing a free choice for citizens and a flexible formation of government. Again and again the election of the President in the Parliament and the formation of the government is blocked. After a long time of having no President now Lebanon has for many months no government. 

This was also true in many European countries but in Lebanon many drastic reforms would be necessary and this is specially true for the economy. Here things go particularly badly. The big project of reconstruction of the centre of Beirut started by former Prime minister Rafik Hariri is stuck and many buildings are empty. Many other half finished buildings show no construction activity. Beirut is still a lively city but it could not catch up to its former vitality. Instead of stabilizing the country politically and to concentrate on the rebuilding of a strong economy politicians are eager to fight for positions in the future government. 

Syrians should go home

It is true, the war in Syria has had and still has a negative effect on the economy in Lebanon and of course there is hope the war will end soon. In Lebanon the main concern is to send the Syrian refugees back to Syria as soon as possible. Again and again during our/my stay in Beirut one could hear one message: the Syrian refugees should go home.

During a lunch given by the Austrian ambassador we had a lively and partly fierce discussion with and amidst some Lebanese representatives. I insisted on the necessity to create human conditions of return which would be an incentive to go back. Many laws and political actions by the 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 by the Assad regime and put into prison for their treason to leave the country, they will refrain from returning. And there is some indication that this is often the case with those that already did return. 

In a conference organized by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Beirut we discussed intensively the conditions for return in the framework of the question of future reconstruction of Syria. Overall the 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 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 been withdrawing from the region. 

Illusions about the US

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

In view of the many not always pleasant and peaceful players in the region it is understandable that many wish for a strong partner or even leader like the US as a counterbalance. But the one-sided attitude of the Trump administration in supporting Saudi Arabia and Israel does not help. And neither the US nor Europe can solve all the domestic and regional problems of the Middle East. There is no strong and selfish-less actor who could and would mange the critical issues of threat region. Things may even develop 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 in discussion, but the Arab world is not so united as to form such an alliance and the extremist and erratic actions by the Saudi Crown Prince did not help in uniting the Arabs.  

EU, Turkey, Iran and Russia

Of course Europe is specially concerned about developments in this region because it is its neighbor region. And even if there are much more refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey than in Europe all together the political effects in Europe are quite strong. It is in the interest of Europe and of fighting against extremist parties exploiting the refugee issue to come to peace in the Middle East, especially in Syria. But the leverage of Europe is very small. We could spend a lot of money for the reconstruction of Syria, but who would really benefit of it? It does not make sense to send money which would end in the pockets of the regime and the corrupt war lords. Even supporting NGOs is very doubtful when we see how the regime is forcing a commitment and allegiance of many NGOs to the regime. 

Without a sincere process of political transition Europe should and cannot be a partner for Syria’s reconstruction. That does not exclude humanitarian aid and specific aid to education etc. Europe could also cooperate with those forces who may rule semi-autonomous regions governed by local communities, the Kurds and/or 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. Whereas in nearly all the issues the Turkish society is split into half and half, here the population is with a big majority against Erdogan’s policy. But he is still strong enough to survive politically this domestic opposition.

Erdogan as representing a major neighboring country to Syria has two aims. He wants to prevent new refugees to come to Turkey, especially from Idlib. But nobody knows how long the agreement with Russia concerning the establishment of a protected zone in Idlib will hold. But the Turkish President will do whatever he can to avoid a new refugee influx. And Erdogan wants to prevent an establishment of a Kurdish state outside or inside 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 an Iranian presence and specially not a military one. Economically Iran is in competition to Russia. And many Syrians are not very keen to support the Shia Iran dominating the country, as there are only about 200.000 Shia in Syria. Also Russia is not seen always positively, as the country was predominantly destroyed after and due to the Russian bombardment. 

How long will Assad survive politically?

This critical attitude against the two defenders and occupiers played into the hands of Assad. Assad himself is trying to play it both ways. As one participant from Syria at the conference said, Assad walks on two legs, one Russian and the other Iranian. And 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 in ruling 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.

In this respect one has of course to ask how come that so many in the West have had hope that Syria will become democratic and „Western“ soon after the revolution began. Many groups including religious denominations have been relatively happy in comparison with some of the neighboring countries. The support of several Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia for the revolutionary forces should have created a lot of suspicion. And one should have realized that neither Iran nor Russia would stand by idly if their ally would be toppled. Now it will be difficult to get rid of President Assad, on the other hand with him – after all his brutal actions – there cannot be peace and stability in the country and even beyond. 

War Lord Economy in Syria

The Assad regime has established a war lord economy. They also have no interest in having a strong position of Iranians and Russians. And they profit from laws like the expropriation of land of refugees who do not come back to register their property. These war lords are a strong impediment against a quick and thorough reconstruction. They are also in competition with the Russians and the Iranians who are also demanding a dividend 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 captogan itself. It was according to serious opinions produced to sent it around in Gulf countries when these started to support armed resistance against Assad.

For a strong reconstruction Syria would need not only European money but also refugees who have gained experience and know-how to come back. But he is unlikely to invite them as they are often regarded as being in opposition to the regime. And many Syrians who stayed in the country see them also as traitors or at least as privileged having lived in peace and with better economic conditions outside the country. 

Even internally displaced people are often badly perceived and received in their original villages when they come back. So whatever Syria would need will not come to a Syria where and as long as Assad is the major political force. That is true for many refugees and for European money. Maybe a strategy to start with support in some of the areas which are not under government control is more realistic. There at least may be fewer war lords and more money will flow to the citizens who need it. 


Coming back from Lebanon I have very mixed feelings. Discussing Lebanese policies and analyzing condition for peace, stability and reconstruction in Syria created no conditions for optimism. 

When we met the famous Lebanese writer Elias Khouri – whose books I can strongly advice to reed – he was very pessimistic about his country, the region and also about developments in Europe. Another, younger Lebanese writer, born in Russia but growing up in Lebanon – Alexandra Chreiteh –  whose book, „Ali and his Russian Mother“ I read during my visit to Beirut explained her concept of the main character Ali: „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.“ 

But 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.“ And she wanted to reject, 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 etc. 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.