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Competing for influence in post-explosion Beirut could lead to conflicts

Competing for influence in post-explosion Beirut could lead to conflicts
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Lebanon’s population has been traumatized by the massive explosion in Beirut in early August, and Lebanon’s government has resigned. The disaster left more than 150 dead, thousands injured and tens of thousands with ruined homes. It will cost billions of dollars to rebuild, and Lebanon already faced a financial crisis and bailout that could cost almost $100 billion. Now, competition is growing among countries to help rebuild Lebanon and acquire influence in its post-explosion politics. This could lead to conflict over who has control of the region’s landscape.  

Lebanon long has been at the crossroads of conflicts in the Middle East. A diverse country, it includes religious and political movements from across the region, making it a place for proxy conflicts between larger powers. Once under French rule, it was rocked by political and religious violence in 1958 that led to a U.S. intervention. The 1958 crisis pitted pro-Arab nationalists against pro-Western voices rooted in the Christian community. Later, the country fought a brutal civil war and was occupied by Syria after 1976. An Israeli invasion in 1982 also led to a long-running insurgency and the rise of Hezbollah, the terror group rooted in the Shiite community of southern Lebanon. 

These historic and overlapping conflicts have placed Lebanon on edge. For example, 2008 clashes between Hezbollah and activists loyal to Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri led many to fear renewed civil conflict. Instead, Hezbollah and its allies in parliament grew in power, securing influence over the presidency in 2016 with the election of Michel Aoun. That means whoever steps in to help rebuild Beirut will not only be competing for influence but will need to juggle these different political and religious communities.  

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In the wake of the explosion, aid flights have arrived from around the world — from Egypt, Morocco, Russia, Saudi Arabia and 30 other countries within the first week. French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronTrump addresses virtual G-20 summit, heads out before session on pandemic G-20 leaders stress importance of united response to coronavirus pandemic Czech president says Trump should quit after election loss and 'not be embarrassing' MORE was the first leader to arrive, cheered by crowds as he toured Beirut. As the former colonial power over Lebanon, France will be key to helping broker the country’s political future. Macron has made it clear that he is keenly interested in what comes next. 

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also arrived in the days after the explosion, promising to help rebuild the port and offering citizenship to Lebanese of Turkish origin. Turkey already is vying for influence in Syria, Iraq and Libya, through military operations and support of proxy groups. But in Lebanon, Turkey’s strategy is more complex; Sunni religious leaders met the Turkish delegation, and it appears Ankara wants to increase its influence through religious networks in the country. 

Iran, which supports Hezbollah, also wants to play a role in Lebanon. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif arrived in mid-August and criticized the Western response to the explosion. Iran also sent aid flights, at least one of which was aboard a 747 that is under U.S. sanction. While Washington is pushing a maximum-pressure campaign against Iran and doesn’t want it expanding its tentacles into Lebanon, Israel is concerned that Iran is transferring precision-guided munitions and other weapons to Hezbollah. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which just agreed to normalize relations with Israel, there is also concern that Hezbollah is growing its influence.  

Although France, Turkey and Iran appear to be the major players, Saudi Arabia also wants its influence in Lebanon to remain prominent. Riyadh brokered the Taif Agreement that ended the Lebanese Civil War in 1989, and backed the former Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri. In addition, Russia and China both have interests in Lebanon. Russia, a key backer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus, is growing its influence in the Middle East, seeking to displace the United States. China is looking to make investments that could give it a leading role in Beirut.  

Lebanon’s emerging landscape will be shaped by not only investment in reconstruction, but also these countries seeking greater influence. Protests after the explosion challenged the status quo, but most countries will work through existing political parties such as Hezbollah. This may cement Hezbollah’s leadership and could set up Lebanon for another crisis, especially because Hezbollah continues to threaten Israel. Both Turkey and Iran oppose the recent peace deal between the UAE and Israel, potentially leading to more anti-Israel sentiment. 

It’s important to pay attention to states that may try to leverage the explosion for their own ends. If they enter Lebanon and cannot work well together, Lebanon could become a powder keg and the explosion will be the foundation for new conflict in the Middle East. 

Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a Ginsburg/Milstein writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.