The explosion that tore apart the port of Beirut and its surrounding areas last month has not only left Lebanon’s capital crippled, but it has also made the country more vulnerable than ever. The story of post-colonial Lebanon has not been one of independence, but rather of interference by international and regional powers. Whether it was US marines and Israeli tanks in the 1980s or an Iranian-backed militia and Syrian assassinations in more recent times, Lebanon has been the stage for repeated efforts by outsiders to extend their influence. With the French and Turkish presidents now speaking in paternal terms over their former colony, many wonder whether Lebanon has room for another foreign power.
Given the economic and political quagmire that Lebanon already found itself in, the explosion brought a country that was already failing to its knees. The subsequent clambering of both France and Turkey into the Lebanese political fray has highlighted not only the country’s susceptibility to such efforts, but also marked an important watershed in what could be a significant complication of the existing proxy conflicts the country hosts.
Lebanon’s neighborhood has never been an easy one. Following turbulence elsewhere and the historical role of Lebanon as an extension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the last two decades the country has seen itself at the center of efforts by regional hegemons as they seek to extend their writ over the wider region.
The country’s issues are often misunderstood as being the result of its cross-confessional fault lines, but the reality is that regional political agendas have actually done more to exacerbate the country’s religious differences. The roles of, first, America and then Israel in the 1980s, followed by the efforts of Syria and Iran to derail Lebanon’s prospects for building itself into a confident and stable state, have all contributed to the current malaise. Recent events have provided the specter of yet more foreign intervention.
Two weeks ago, French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to Beirut to mark the centenary of the creation of the modern state of Lebanon. This visit — his second since the explosion — showed all the signs of colonial re-engagement. One hundred years after French officials sat inside Beirut’s beautiful Residence des Pins to conjure Lebanon from what had been Greater Syria, the visit was an interesting if not complicated development. Macron, as president of the former colonial power, is clearly seeking to influence events following the recent explosion.
Since it was first invited to join the UN Security Council (after having capitulated to Nazi Germany), France has had an issue displaying its relevance on the international stage. It has always been a central pillar of French foreign policy to use problems in weak states as an opportunity to embellish its great power status. Racing to the scene of the Beirut explosion within 24 hours of it happening, Macron exposed Lebanese President Michel Aoun as being incompetent and lacking the political courage to support his people in their hour of need.
Macron was almost speaking for the many when calling for a change to Lebanon’s corrupt practices and the clique of kleptocratic politicians who have enriched themselves at the expense of the Lebanese citizenry. His efforts were greatly lauded and 70,000 Lebanese signed a petition remarkably calling for a return to a French mandate. The entire episode highlighted how, given the challenging economic situation, especially for the hydrocarbon sector, the traditional influence of Iran has been curtailed, providing an opening for the likes of France and Turkey.
The entrance of yet another colonial power in the shape of Turkey, whose Ottoman ancestors ruled over the territory for centuries, has been an incredibly interesting development. Though this development is indeed interesting, it concerns many within Lebanon. It will do little to reassure weary Lebanese who have grown tired of the machinations of foreigners on their soil.
Though Turkey’s efforts have concentrated on providing much-needed aid and France’s efforts have been focused on reconstruction and ensuring that aid is not funneled into corrupt schemes, the re-emergence of Lebanon’s two colonial powers is concerning. However, because the situation in which Lebanon finds itself is also a worry, it cannot solve its challenges without foreign assistance. There is also the argument that, had Turkey and France been able to provide the assistance that colonial powers owe the countries they have exited, Lebanon may never have become the playground of less responsible regional powers. How the two will re-engage in Lebanon will be interesting, especially in regard to the new donor conference the French president is planning.
Though both countries have been keen to show they are not interfering in a region that has seen successive weak states at the mercy of foreign interests, they will have to go to great lengths to ensure their influence is administered carefully. They would do well to focus on reconstruction and allow Lebanon to enjoy the development that will make it the confident state it was intended to be, rather than allow the current crisis to be an opportunity to settle their political scores in the wider Mediterranean.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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