By Toufic Baaklini & Alberto M. Fernandez
“Lebanon is more than a country. It is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for East and West,” said Saint Pope John Paul II during his 1997 pastoral visit to Lebanon.
The Polish saint’s admiration for Lebanon in the past has become the Maronite Patriarch’s admonition for Lebanon in the present. At the In Defense of Christians 2020 Digital Summit, Cardinal Bechara Boutros Al-Rai declared that Lebanon must adopt the policy of “Active Neutrality” to remedy its longstanding political crisis. As the last remaining country in the Middle East with an empowered Christian population, Lebanon, the Patriarch asserted, cannot afford to favor either the east or the west in its political orientation.
Even before the August 4 explosion in Beirut, it was clear that Lebanon was falling victim to the ruthless ambitions of the greater competing powers in the region.
For years, Iran, through its proxy Hezbollah, has been strangling Lebanese society and threatening its national security through reckless provocations and war with Israel, while cynically using Lebanese civilians as human shields. Moreover, Hezbollah’s parasitic grip has manifested itself in the illegal smuggling of weapons and fuel across the Syrian border. Hezbollah’s infiltration of the Lebanese government apparatus and ownership of parts of the political class has insulated the terror group from accountability, with mafia-esque impunity.
Adding to the powder keg, serial political arsonist Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey, has also fixed his eyes on Lebanon in pursuit of achieving his Neo-Ottoman, expansionist vision. Turkey is currently smuggling weapons into Lebanon through its northern border with Syria, which carries the potential to further destabilize the country. Erdogan aims to forge an aggressive Islamist sphere of influence amongst Lebanon’s Sunni community in the north, to counterbalance Hezbollah’s dominance amongst the Shi’a community in the Beqaa Valley and the south, through a similar model.
Erdogan is also attempting to infiltrate the Lebanese political system through the exercise of soft power. Erdogan aims to gain and exploit Lebanese support for his ideas and objectives on the ground. One such example is demonstrated by Mounir Hassan, a pro-Turkish Lebanese voice. Hassan responded to criticism of Turkey made by Der Haroutiounian, an Armenian Christian television show host, by stating that “[w]e and our Turkish and Ottoman ancestors are proud of the massacre [which was actually a genocide] that our Ottoman ancestors carried out against the Armenians, because you deserve it.”
Turkey’s attempt to bolster its influence amongst Lebanon’s Sunni community is at odds with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have been the traditional patrons of the Lebanese Sunni community.
Russia and China are both looking to increase their influence in Lebanon as they have already done in Syria.
When examining Lebanon’s history of sectarian conflict, one cannot help but worry that Lebanon could implode once again into such a conflict to be exploited as a proxy war, where foreign powers would arm Lebanon’s sects and pit them against one another in pursuit of their own national interests. Lebanon experienced this bitter reality in the 1950s during the attempted Nasserite intervention and again in the 1970s and ‘80s during its fifteen-year civil war, which was indeed a proxy war. Proxy wars have most recently left Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya in rubble. Lebanon must take proactive action to prevent itself from becoming the region’s latest graveyard.
This reality has been the motivating factor in Patriarch Rai’s impassioned call for political reform. He has not only called on the Lebanese ces to be the sole, legitimate armed military actor in the country, he has also condemned the rampant corruption which can be found across Lebanon’s political class.
Rai’s proposed “Active Neutrality” is the best way to insulate Lebanon from the aspirations of nefarious actors such as Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, who only seek to progress their own interests, at the expense of Lebanese society. Historically, Lebanon’s Christians were under the protection of France during Ottoman times. Western involvement, primarily through France and the United States, is essential to provide some stability to a frayed political system.
As it stands, active neutrality, which requires western engagement, is the best way to ensure political stability. There is much wrong in Lebanon that must change but political stability is the best way to ensure that Lebanon’s dwindling Christian population does not become the latest ancient Christian community to give up on the Middle East and emigrate to the West.
The Patriarch notes that “Active Neutrality” is what brought prosperity to Lebanon in the first half of the 20th Century. While regional turmoil consumed Lebanon in the second half of the 20th Century, and now into the 21st Century, the Patriarch has outlined a roadmap for how Lebanon can stabilize once again and secure a return to prosperity. Achieving active neutrality for Lebanon would enable Lebanon to:
* Steer clear of regional and international conflicts, struggles, and wars;
* Serve as a venue for dialogue between Christians and Muslims, and between Sunnis and Shias;
* Defend human rights and promote stability and mutual understanding; and
*Build a strong and legitimate national military, to serve as the sole defender of Lebanese sovereignty from enemies, foreign and domestic.
“Active Neutrality,” asserted the cardinal-patriarch, will free Lebanese society from its divergent loyalties to external powers, and pledge its unified allegiance to Lebanon above all.
Patriarch Rai envisions this will give Christian communities of the Middle East hope for a brighter future. Active neutrality will enable Lebanon to pursue strong diplomatic relations with both Eastern and Western nations.
The West, the United States in particular, has a vital role to play here. The U.S. can help advance the Patriarch’s vision for the country, and combat Hezbollah’s current hegemony, by pursuing what we have described as a “robust ground game.” This is as much about will and engagement as it is about financing. The essential objective is to reverse the past 15 years of Hezbollah’s hegemony over the Lebanese political system. To do so, the U.S. will need to “play the cold realpolitik game” and build up an alternative counterweight to Hezbollah.
The Lebanese Armed Forces is indeed, with all its caveats, a part of this, but there needs to be a broader aspect of supporting civil society, small businesses, education media, economic development, and other institutions that are in opposition to Hezbollah and its objectives. Part of this also includes investment in the development of Lebanon’s Shia community since Hezbollah claims to represent this population. In particular, there needs to be an increase in independent Shia voices who can speak openly and critically of world affairs. None of this is easy or safe but attempting to build up a counterweight to Hezbollah could bring about equilibrium and thus true neutrality for the country. Hezbollah will not willingly give up its hegemony, but this is a cause worth fighting. At the same time, the U.S. must continue its urgent response to the current humanitarian crisis caused by the August 4 explosion in Beirut to curtail the growing westward Christian exodus.
The task that lies ahead for Lebanon is a challenging one and it would be all too easy to abandon Lebanon as a forlorn, lost cause. This should not happen. American on-the-ground engagement is essential in attempting to balance Lebanon’s political system and making “Active Neutrality” a real possibility.
The beauty of Lebanon can be found in its message of coexistence; the horror of Lebanon can be seen in its brutal fifteen-year civil war. Time is running out. The U.S. must ensure this beacon of religious pluralism, and the last bastion of Christianity in the Middle East, does not implode.
Toufic Baaklini is the president and chairman of the board of directors for In Defense of Christians. To this end, he has committed years of service to preserving the historic Christian communities of the Middle East. He has testified before Congress, briefed officials at the State Department and National Security Council, and met with other high-ranking leaders.
Ambassador Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) and a member of IDC’s Board of Advisors. He was a career foreign service officer for 32 years, serving in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America and is a frequent writer and researcher on the historic Christian communities of the Middle East.