Looking to #Lebanon for a peacemaker’s balancing act

| September 6, 2019

International attention fell on Lebanon once again this week, with Israeli strikes on Iranian-backed militia offices in Beirut and eastern Lebanon. Lebanese officials have in turn accused Israel of violating the agreement that ended the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. 

The situation deteriorated further when Hezbollah then launched an attack on Israeli military positions and drew heavy return fire in the first cross-border clash for years between the longstanding foes. 

These developments, seen as Israel’s ‘shadow war’ with Iran, show that Lebanon remains the small state seemingly always vulnerable to the volatile politics of the region. But perhaps the international community can learn some lessons from the eternal balancing act that the country must always play?

Lebanon may at first seem a surprising place to look for inspiration in how to resolve unresolvable conflict or bring rivals to sit at the same table and find compromise. 

A tiny country, no bigger than Wales, it has seemed perpetually on the brink of conflict, vulnerable to its influential neighbours in the region as a battleground on which to play out their power games and rivalries. 

But there is much to learn from the methods used in this small country to navigate the fault lines of Muslim and Christian, Sunni and Shia and the competing powerbases within the Christian part of the population.

The phrase ‘No victor, no vanquished’ (la ghalib wa al-maghub) speaks volumes about the delicate balancing act of compromise required to strive for peace in Lebanon. 

The country has an unparalleled capacity both to suffer and struggle and then to somehow find a solution. As recently as 2016, Lebanon seemed to have backed itself into a corner once again. 

The post of the President had been vacant for 20 months, with candidate Michel Aoun needing seemingly impossible support to clinch the presidency. Rival politician Samir Geagea, against whom he had fought in the 1988-1990 fratricidal war surely could not back him, when the country’s Christians had been so bitterly divided for so many years?

 Geagea and Aoun had again been on opposite sides of the Lebanese political divide since Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2005. Aoun was part of the ‘March 8 alliance’ dominated by the Iranian-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah and Geagea was part of the ‘March 14 alliance’ led by Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri and backed by Saudi Arabia.

Somehow, Geagea was moved to back Aoun for the presidency, a feat many believed was unthinkable. Decades of division within the Christian community seemed to have been overcome. 

Indeed, the two men sat side by side at a press conference and Geagea explained that he had acted to rescue Lebanon from its political crisis, to bring the country back from being on the verge of the abyss.  

The move was even more remarkable given that Geagea himself had been a contender for president and that this move meant an apparent break with his Saudi-backed allies and aligned him with his civil war era enemy, a man supported by Hezbollah.

Such golden moments in politics do not come out of nowhere. Usually there is some skilled and tireless diplomacy going on behind the scenes.  In this case, it is widely understood to have been Melhem Riachy, the former communications minister from the Lebanese Forces party, who brought the two men to this momentous step.  

Riachy is a writer and a scholar in Middle East affairs and strategic negotiations, he is understood to have assisted both men in compromising and acting in the Lebanese national interest. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he is also well-regarded as a peacemaker and a professor of Geostrategic communications in the Holy Spirit University.

Back in the present day, the need for eternal compromise and cooperation in Lebanon continues. 

As Israeli attacks on Iran-backed Hezbollah bases are in the headlines and debate rages about the effectiveness of the United Nations peacekeeping forces in southern Lebanon, it seems the situation is ever fragile, with statesmanship and diplomacy always in demand. 

It is to be hoped that the country can once again draw upon the skill and goodwill to compromise and build bridges that was shown in 2016 by Aoun and Geagea and helped along by Riachy. 

Perhaps other nations, with so-called intractable problems and conflicts, can take inspiration from those in Lebanon who have a seemingly relentless commitment to both survive and strive for peace in the volatile conditions that their region and the make-up of their population bring.

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Category: A Frontpage, EU, Lebanon

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