Sam Menassa wrote in Asharq Al-Awsat:
This September has brought major developments to the fore, with more pivotal events yet looming. The most significant and dangerous of them may be the outcomes of bloody turmoil and violence in the streets of Baghdad between supporters of Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr and his opponents in the Iran-backed Coordination Framework.
This followed a decision by the Sadrist Movement leader last Monday to “retire permanently from political life.” His retirement came after a fatwa from a religious authority (Marjaa) in Iran, Kadhim al-Haeri, in which he called on Sadr’s supporters to “follow” the authority of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
The second major development was a Houthi attack west of the Yemeni city of Taiz, the most violent since the humanitarian truce took effect on April 2, 2022 and which has since been extended twice.
In Lebanon, however, a race is underway between two pursuits: Hezbollah’s decision – as the date approaches for Israel to begin production in the Karish oil field early this month – to carry out military action if the effort to demarcate the border is unsuccessful. Karish is a cross-border field extending from Israeli waters to the disputed area between Lebanon and Israel.
The second development in Lebanon is the approaching deadline to elect a new president on October 31, amid the total collapse of constitutional institutions and confusion, chaos and loss striking all political and religious leaders in Lebanon, without exception.
What can be inferred from these developments in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon is that a return to the nuclear agreement between Washington and Tehran, if it will take place, does not at all mean reaching understandings on non-nuclear issues; nor does it imply that Iran would desist from its usual approach to negotiations – intimidation and pressure.
Today, Iran is once again attempting to control Iraq while it is in chaos. The Houthis have undermined the truce. Hezbollah threatens war.
Meanwhile, Washington has opted to remain a mere spectator so as not to anger Iran, effectively repeating Barack Obama’s policy with Bashar al-Assad when the latter used chemical weapons against his people. At the time, Washington did not lift a finger out of concern for the prospects of a nuclear agreement with Iran.
As for Lebanon, it is today at a crossroads. If efforts to demarcate maritime borders with Israel succeed, there can be a period of calm for a decade (or more) between Israel and Hezbollah and its allies, consolidating Hezbollah’s upper hand over the “sovereign” Christian and Muslim forces opposed to it.
The second possibility is that border demarcation fails, and this very frightening prospect would drag Lebanon into a devastating war that spares no one and in which all efforts and initiatives would crumble under the weight of tragedies, calamities and grave consequences.
In the first scenario, which is the most likely, the upcoming elections will be a reflection of the US-mediated agreements between Israel and Hezbollah. It may lead to a “forced stability” that allows for holding presidential elections in Lebanon, naming a prime minister that keeps pace with developments, and signing and following up on drilling agreements, bringing Lebanon and the Lebanese into an “Iranian Peace.”
Is this scenario merely an act, or is it our irreversible fate? Is it the unfortunate outcome of the mediocrity of the entire Lebanese political class and the bizarre inaction of the Lebanese people, which contrasts sharply with the uprising of the Iraqi people and what has happened in Baghdad since October 2021?
In this comparison, a paradox emerges that needs no elaboration or commentary. The difference between the reaction of the movement of the Iraqi people, or at least the majority of its members, immediately after Sadr announced his retirement from politics could hardly be more different from the cold reaction by the Lebanese in general and the Sunnis of Lebanon in particular, to Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s suspension of his political career in Lebanon and his departure from the country in what resembles voluntary exile.
The Lebanese know well that Hariri’s decision does not affect the Sunnis alone and that it has repercussions for other parties and sects, as well as the capacity of the forces that describe themselves as “sovereign” to maintain a balance with the axis of Iran.
It is true that the two cases are different in many respects, that the circumstance in the two countries are not the same, and that Sadr is no Saad Hariri. Rather, the difference in the reaction between the Lebanese and the Iraqis clearly indicates a state of despair and surrender, besides the excessive and unjustified adjustment to the crisis by the Lebanese in general.
The results of the Lebanese parliamentary elections last May, which did not change the internal balance of political power, favored the opinion that change will only be meaningful if it is done from top to bottom, meaning beginning from the presidency.
The president of the republic ought to be a patriotic figure, unifying all forces and serving as the top regulator of commitments to the constitution and laws, and must stand outside of alignments in order to win the trust of all Lebanese, the Arabs, and the world.
However, appointing a president with these criteria is impossible in Lebanon today, in light of the hegemony of Iran’s axis and its allies and proxies, and it does not fulfill the objective of bringing Lebanon to safer shores.
The executive authority, like the choice of its Sunni head of government, will remain in the hands of Hezbollah. It also goes without saying that the speaker of parliament, second in terms of the hierarchy of government power, is an undisputed monopoly for Hezbollah and the Amal Movement.
The issue of presidential elections has become an obsession of would-be presidents from all Lebanese political forces. Meanwhile, many remain convinced that if such elections are held in accordance with the same standards and methods, then the will of the Supreme Leader would ultimately prevail in Lebanon.
Then, and for the thousandth time, we ask: Is there any hope or space left to think outside the box and produce a patriotic reform movement supported across Lebanon?
Such a movement would have to be based on a broad Christian base that is not enthralled by the obsession and allure of Baabda Palace and a solid Sunni identity that requires a lot of work to crystallize.
At this stage, there is no harm in Shiites being absent from this consensus for reasons known to all. However, we must always remain in the knowledge that it will undoubtedly find tacit acceptance from Shiites in Lebanon, even if it requires time and patience to be expressed.
Let us assume that this step succeeds after more than 14 years of failure since Hezbollah’s invasion of Beirut in 2008. Do we actually have patriotic forces that believe in what was just said? Can they impose themselves politically and obtain significant cabinet positions, serve as an example of good governance, and create a comprehensive national political dynamic beyond theorizing?
Can it work to confront corruption and the confiscation of decision-making, reverse Lebanon’s isolation from the Arab world, and adopt openness to the Gulf as a political and economic strategy, not merely as means to ensure their personal interests? Lebanon will not rise without the presence, will and support of Arabs, who are, in this sense, the main artery of Lebanon and its bridge to the world.
This rosy and optimistic scenario is perhaps the most plausible outcome we can hope for, and an expression of “living with the reality” rather than coexistence among the Lebanese, which almost succeeded once but then left and never returned.
The lesson from developments in Iraq, whatever their outcomes, relates to the consequences of Iran’s policy in the region: the penetration of institutions, communities and sects, and finally, dividing adherents of the same sect, an experience that Lebanon has suffered and continues to suffer from.
On the other hand, “nuclear dust” obscures America’s view of the real dangers, which threaten to extend and renew crises and conflicts.