In Beirut: Fractured Summit, Deadlocked Government

Minister of Economy and Trade, Raed Khoury, presides over preparatory meeting for the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit (Government of Lebanon)

by Ghassan Michel Rubeiz

The Arab Economic and Social Development Summit, which ended in Beirut on January 20, was trivialized by politics. Lebanon convened this important regional event before forming a new government that has been in the making for eight months, which meant that a battered caretaker government was in charge of the planning. Moreover, regional tensions around Syria hampered the attendance of state leaders and diluted the agenda of the conference.

In the end, only the president of Mauritania and the emir of Qatar attended the fourth gathering of an Arab League event that was supposed to confront pressing economic, humanitarian and developmental issues. The hurdles were not purely local and regional. Washington’s aggressive diplomatic maneuvering also contributed to the demise of this summit.  

A week before the start of this conference its planners suddenly shifted from focusing on the agenda to struggling with the political question of Syria’s participation in this meeting. Inviting Syria would have confirmed President Bashar al-Assad’s return to the Arab fold. But for many, not inviting Assad was considered a provocation.

During the early years of the Arab Spring, Libya and Syria were suspended from the Arab League for their heavy crackdown on Arab Spring protesters. Libya was readmitted after Gaddafi’s regime fell, but Syria remains suspended.

The Arab League Summit planning committee decided to deny the invitation to Damascus. The exclusion of Syria from this summit cast a shadow over the meeting and discouraged the attendance of several Arab leaders. Libya refused to send its delegation when it learned that it was not welcomed by Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s speaker of the parliament. Berri was unhappy with the current Libyan leadership for not helping to unravel the mystery of the disappearance of Imam Mousa Al Sadr while visiting Libya four decades ago. Al Sadr founded the Amal Shiite movement, headed since Sadr’s disappearance by Berri, which is now close to Hezbollah.

The conference was a diversion from the agonizing process of forming the long-awaited Lebanese cabinet. But the two issues, the summit and the cabinet, are inseparable. It may take a few more weeks for the Lebanese to come to an artificial compromise over their views on  the Syrian regime to be able to form a new government. Whichever way the new Lebanese cabinet will be formed, the new product will not be an improvement over the previous one. Neither the composition nor the dynamics of the new cabinet will change significantly.

Syria’s influence on Lebanon is slowly growing, and Lebanese watch Syria’s politics anxiously. Adding to the challenge is Hezbollah’s growing involvement in domestic and regional Lebanese politics. As a result, the Shiite-Sunni tension might reach a boiling level over the next few years. As Hezbollah assumes an ascendancy position in Beirut affairs, Israel too may complicate matters.

The return of Assad to the Arab fold looks a bit harder now than it did a few weeks ago. In late December, the United Arab Emirates suddenly reopened its embassy in Damascus. Other Arab states showed faint gestures of reconciliation with the Syrian regime. A separate but relevant strategic surprise followed from Washington: President Trump announced the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.

But then the political currents affecting Damascus reversed direction. Washington’s political hawks, led by  National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, instantly reacted to Trump’s unexpected move on Syria. Pompeo and Bolton pressured Trump to slow the troop pullout from Syria. Bolton assured Israel not to worry about being left alone in confronting Syrian presence in Iran, and Pompeo rushed to Cairo to declare maximal U.S. solidarity with the Sunni Arab world, pointing the finger at Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah as the real sources of all “trouble in the region.”

Pompeo looked to the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit as a likely occasion for discussing the prospect of Syria’s return to the Arab League. He sent David Hale, one of his deputies, to Lebanon to warn the attendees against any opening toward Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran.

A U.S. policy demonizing Iran and embracing Saudi Arabia along with other Sunni rulers is bound to make things worse for Lebanon and the region. Such an approach fuels sectarian tension, avoids the real issues of the region, and overlooks the long term interests of the US.

Lebanon will not be able to sustain its unity for long should current trends continue. The only source of independent leadership that Lebanon may have is in its diaspora. There are more Lebanese abroad than at home. The political resources of the Lebanese abroad have never been tapped. Right now, Lebanon needs a political renaissance, perhaps facilitated by this diaspora, to save it from self-serving politicians, regional sectarian tension, and international intervention.

The Arab Economic and Social Development Summit, which was supposed to give Lebanon a boost, regrettably, turned out to be a disappointment for the Lebanese and the rest of the Arab world. The planning for this event showed how deeply the country is divided, how closely it is still tied to Syria, and how far Washington is willing to go to set limits on Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.

Ghassan Michel Rubeiz is former secretary of the Middle East for the World Council of Churches. His publications cover the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Arab Spring, interfaith issues, and the sociology of religion. He has previously published in the Christian Science Monitor, Search for Common Ground, Palm Beach Post, Daily Star (Lebanon), Arab American News, Arab Daily News, and The Progressive.

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