Is there a way that major Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as other Arab states, can restore some of their influence in Lebanon? The question may seem peculiar at a time when the Saudis seem to have given up on the country, regarding it as being solidly held by Iran and its local proxy Hezbollah.
If the Saudis and Emiratis seek to limit Iran’s sway in the region, then simply abandoning Lebanon doesn’t represent a strategy. Nor does it mean taking advantage of regional changes to try to contain Iran’s reach. The mechanisms of Hezbollah’s control are slowly eroding in Lebanon. The party had advanced its local agenda through the Lebanese state and a political class that saw any confrontation with Hezbollah as an invitation to civil conflict and, therefore, a threat to its own existence. Yet today the state is decomposing, the rifts in the country’s political leadership appear to be irreconcilable, and Hezbollah is already preparing to protect its own followers from the oncoming economic catastrophe, a good sign that it has doubts about reconstituting the façade of the state to its advantage.
If Lebanon cracks further, as it surely will, spaces will open up that Hezbollah no longer controls. Wherever Iran has interfered in the Arab world—Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon—the results have been anarchy and disarray. The so-called “resistance axis” is nothing more than an axis of failure and bankruptcy. The temptation of the Saudis and the Emiratis may be to allow the whole rotten edifice to disintegrate. However, that offers no certainty that they can shape the aftermath, and is not how they have approached Syria, a country miles ahead of Lebanon in its descent into the netherworld.
Perhaps that’s because the two countries realize that Iran and its allies are better equipped to survive in chaos than are their enemies. Certainly, the Emirati approach in Yemen has been to fill emerging vacuums with alternative orders to better protect itself—whether by facilitating the creation of an autonomous entity in the south, or by building military bases near, or settling pro-Emirati forces in, the western coastal areas to guard access to the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. Saudi Arabia is following suit. Having seen that it cannot roll back the Houthis, it is now focused on overhauling its southern border.
In recent months, there has been a noticeable shift in the positions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE toward Syria. The Emiratis reopened an embassy in Damascus in 2018, and there have been multiple signs recently of an Arab desire to return Syria to the Arab League. The Saudis have taken a more cautious approach than the UAE, Iraq, or Egypt, but ultimately the kingdom will go along with a consensual decision to resume contacts with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. However, this raises an important question: What price will the Arab states and Syria try to extract for such a resumption?
The Gulf states, feeling that Syria is exceptionally vulnerable—with reconstruction costs estimated in 2019 at anywhere between $200 billion and $400 billion—will most probably demand that Syria downgrade its relationship with Iran. Assad will not want to do so, but his options are limited. Few countries are willing to give money to Syria while Assad remains in power, so he cannot be choosy if he wants to initiate a reconstruction process. Nor will reducing Syria’s ties with Tehran be easy, so extensive is Iranian power in the country, reaching into the regime’s core security and intelligence institutions.
However, Assad does have options if he decides to recalibrate with Iran. He can count on the backing of Russia, which also has extended its influence over Syria’s military and security sectors. Moscow appears keener to stabilize Syria within an Arab consensus than Iran, and has been instrumental in trying to change Arab attitudes toward Damascus. The Syrian president also has an election this year. While its democratic worth will be nil, his manufactured victory will give the Syrian regime new momentum, as well as bogus legitimacy that he will try to build upon. That begs another question: What will Assad demand in return from the Arab states for going at least part of the way in meeting their conditions with respect to Iran?
Here the answer may be worrisome for the Lebanese. What Assad may well ask for is renewed influence in Lebanon. The structures of such influence will be different compared to the pre-2005 period when the Syrian army was deployed in the country. It’s difficult to imagine that Syria’s armed forces will return, even if the over 1 million Syrians currently in Lebanon can be a step in that direction. If Assad is guaranteed of naming a certain number of parliamentary deputies, and the various Arab states compel their local allies to include pro-Syrian politicians in their electoral lists, that may be a possibility. At the same time, if Syria, backed by the Arab states, also has a say in whom becomes president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament, that could further whet Assad’s appetite.
The Syrians could seek to anchor this through heightened collaboration with the Lebanese army and intelligence services. While we may not see Syria soldiers in Lebanon’s streets, what would prevent Syrian intelligence officers from being present in the country alongside their Lebanese counterparts? The Lebanese-Syrian Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination of May 1991, like the Lebanese-Syrian Defense and Security Pact of September 1991, could legitimize such arrangements, with far-reaching consequences.
What would the Arab states gain from such a plan? First, they may well consider greater Syrian control over Lebanon as a means of reducing Iran’s footprint in both Syria and Lebanon. If that were to unlock Arab financial assistance for Beirut, the Arab states might assume, it could silence Lebanese resistance to any such scheme. Second, the Arab states could consider Syria’s restoration in Lebanon as a way of stabilizing a chronically dysfunctional country, much as Syria did after the end of the country’s civil war in 1990. And third, by boosting Syria’s Arab bona fides through a heightened role for Damascus, the new situation could facilitate an eventual settlement with Israel, preventing Iran’s return, and alleviate tensions in the Levant while opening the door to wider Arab-Israeli agreements.
Lebanon’s reprehensible abandonment would in no way constitute an obstacle. The country has become such a headache for the Arab world that parking it under the domination of a regional state poses no problems—as long as it’s an Arab state. This would help explain why Hezbollah has been so adamant in its refusal to put pressure on Gebran Bassil in the government-formation process. The party knows the two prime candidates for the presidency next year are the Hezbollah-aligned Bassil and Suleiman Franjieh, a close Assad ally. Weakening Bassil, Hezbollah may feel, would only strengthen Franjieh and the Syrians’ hand in Lebanon, ultimately at the party’s expense. So, while Hezbollah and Syria are allies regionally, they are competitors in Lebanon and the party has no intention of relinquishing what it gained after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005.
What worries Hezbollah and Iran is that the Arab states and Russia appear to be on the same wavelength in Syria and Lebanon. Reconstituting the semblance of an Arab order is desirable for them, as this would bring back some stability to Syria and to a region that has suffered from a decade of volatility and violence. The main driver leading to this situation, the Arabs and Russians might agree, is a revisionist Iran that has exploited and exacerbated sectarian and social divisions in Arab societies to advance its expansionist ambitions. In the process, Tehran has accelerated the region’s ruin.
This explains the emerging fault line between Syria’s and Iran’s allies in Lebanon. In this regard, one former parliamentarian described the tirade against Bassil last week by a prominent Syrian ally, Elie al-Firzli, as a sign of things to come. Likewise, the different paths adopted by the pro-Iranian Hezbollah and the pro-Syrian Amal Movement with regard to President Michel Aoun and Bassil reveal similar strains. Iran is feeling insecure about its stakes in the region. Hezbollah and the Iranians are facing incessant Israeli attacks in Syria, without any Russian support. Moscow is stitching together understandings over Syria with regional powers on opposite sides of the Syrian question—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, but also Qatar and Turkey. And the Astana process, which had brought Iran into a tripartite negotiating format with Russia and Turkey to address the Syrian situation, has fallen by the wayside.
The reason why all sides are unable to form a government in Lebanon is that beyond the personal animosity between Bassil and Saad al-Hariri there lies a deeper problem, namely that the nature of any government will have a bearing on the regional balance. Aoun and Bassil are the only partners Hezbollah has in its efforts to push back against Arab backing for a Syrian revival in Lebanon. Therefore, the party will not side with Hariri against the president and his son in law. This stalemate may last, and it appears that Hezbollah is now looking toward the nuclear deal with Iran to consolidate its role at home. Ironically, that is why it does not want Lebanon to fragment.
If this is indeed the thinking among the leading Arab states, then they should be realistic. The Assad regime will almost certainly aim to pocket any advantage it can secure in Lebanon, without surrendering much on Iran. The Syrians prefer to position themselves midway between the Arab states, Russia, and Iran to play all sides off against each other to their own benefit. In the coming months the situation in Lebanon will ripen more as Aoun’s presidency begins to wind down and everyone gets a better sense of where negotiations over the nuclear deal are heading. With elections scheduled in Syria, Iran, and Lebanon in the coming two years, the region is preparing for what could be a transformative period.