In its economic heyday Lebanon was touted as the example of what a modern, Middle Eastern progressive and outward-looking nation with a free market economy should look like. Today, as other nations in the region, among them Syria, face similar problems to those that plagued Lebanon during its 15-year civil war, the country is again being pointed to as the example to follow.
The civil war and its outcome is being looked at as proof that minorities cannot survive on their own and strive as successful modern nations in a competing global economy. If the concept of micro-states based on ethnicity and/or religion would have been feasible then the Lebanese Christians would have followed through. The idea lost momentum as it became clear that a small Christian nation would have a very hard time surviving economically and politically.
Such a country would have to rely heavily on Western subsidies and/or donations and military assistance, as does Israel. It would have to be a mirror of the Israel model minus the Jewish lobby and the worldwide support the Jewish state received from the U.S. and the diaspora.
After some hesitation the Christian leadership realized that despite support from the West, they remain geographically and geopolitically very much in the East. As a mixed Muslim-Christian nation a unified (rather than united) Lebanon could also call on Arab support when needed. Similarly, Lebanon's Muslims feared they would be gulfed up by larger Muslim states and would risk losing their independence.
Furthermore, the war in Lebanon proved that one community could not impose itself on the rest of the country even if today it was militarily superior. The wheel turns in Lebanese politics relative fast. The realization on all sides was that all sides needed to work together despite the fact that they didn't like, trust or want to be with the others.
It took the Lebanese 15 years of war, the destruction of their country, the murder of about 150,000 citizens and the grounding of the economy for the antagonists to realize the obvious. In the end we have a Lebanon where alliances are made across religious lines, such as the ones in place today.
And now Iraq, emerging from its long war a la Libanaise, is trying to enter a similitude of peace, still following the Lebanese example. President George W. Bush took the United States into a war in Iraq for a multitude of reasons, one was to bring democracy to Iraqis. At times it seemed as though Washington's foreign policy for the region was drafted by people who believed that if you wished something hard enough it would materialize. Some in the Bush administration believed they could install a sort of Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq cutting across sectarian lines. The result is that Iraq today looks much more like Lebanon than Washington. The Iraq scenario is indeed very similar to that of the Lebanon example.
And this brings us to Syria and the current crisis. All those who initially believed that this would be a quick people's revolution a la Egypt, Tunisia or even Libya, were highly mistaken. There is no quick fix for the crisis in Syria. You want to know what is in store for Syria, look at the Lebanese example, both in war as in peace.
Says Professor Joshua Landis, the author of Syria Comment, the highly informed and informative blog and one of the leading experts on what goes on in Syria: "Assad is likely to treat Syria as he did Iraq and Lebanon," meaning that he will not hesitate to dismantle and break it apart if that is what it takes to survive.
Landis cites a friend once close to the regime in Damascus telling him that President Assad confided some years ago that he was convinced he could defeat President Bush's attempts to bring about regime change in Syria. Assad is reported to have said if Bush thinks he can use Iraq against Syria, he is mistaken because "Iraq is not a nation. We will help turn its factions against the U.S. It will turn into a swamp and suck in the U.S. This is what we did to Israel and the U.S. in the 1980s."
Adds Landis: "Today, Assad will treat Syria as he did Lebanon and Iraq earlier. He will gamble that it is not a nation and will work to tear it apart."
The Assad regime does not have failure as an option. It must survive or risk seeing the Alawite sect wiped out in massacres resembling those that took place in Lebanon during the civil war. No Alawite leader will ever agree to this, so his only other option is to survive and in order to survive he must fight. Syria will become a mirror of Lebanon, a fractured country where no single community will be able to impose its diktat. Much like President Suleiman Franjieh who lost Lebanon as a country but maintained a semblance of a state with it institutions, Assad today may well lose Syria but will remain a key actor in the country's politics.
Like the Christians in Lebanon, Assad may toy with the idea of an independent Alawite state comprised of the mountainous areas around the port of Latakia with its main source of revenue deriving from the Russian Mediterranean fleet's use of the Syrian ports and little else, but again, they simply have to look at the Lebanese example.
Despite the years of fratricide killings -- more than 150,000 dead -- the Lebanese put aside their differences. Many of those who in other parts of the world would have been brought before a high court for their responsibility in the madness that caused the deaths of more than 150,000 find themselves today sitting in parliament. To cite Landis again, "Today, Junblatt [sic], Geagea, Gemayyal, Franjia and other warlords are respected members of parliament and society."
In war as in peace, for better or for worse, that is the Lebanon example. Like Churchill said of democracy, it is far from perfect but it is better than everything else we have tried.
Claude Salhani, a specialist in conflict resolution, is an independent journalist, political analyst and author of several books on the region. His latest book, 'Islam Without a Veil,' is published by Potomac Books. He tweets @claudesalhani.
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