Strategic Europe continues its Capitals Series exploring how EU foreign policy is viewed by ten countries in Europe’s Southern neighborhood. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of the EU’s approach toward their country, with a ranking on a scale from “irrelevant” to “helpful.” This week, the spotlight is on Lebanon.
Lebanon is a country in waiting. From delayed parliamentary and presidential elections to protests about uncollected garbage, Lebanon is in limbo. Fortunately for the Lebanese, the country has lost its status as the prime locus of proxy and sectarian wars in the region. This unfortunate privilege has been awarded to Syria and Iraq. The only Lebanese political player with serious military capabilities, the Iranian-backed militia Hezbollah, is heavily involved in the Syrian war. Other players are waiting on the sidelines for the outcome of the conflict to determine their political prospects.
In the meantime, Lebanon has no choice but to provide shelter for over 1 million Syrian refugees. Their conditions are far from satisfactory, but so far both the refugees and the country are holding on. Tensions between the refugees and local communities do exist but do not yet give cause for alarm. Aid to the refugees—from various sources, particularly EU countries—is vital to avert a humanitarian and, possibly, a political catastrophe. EU countries should continue and enhance their activities in this regard, both for moral reasons and to avoid further waves of northward migration.
Recently, however, Lebanon has been facing a new type of pressure. The Saudis have grown understandably impatient with the fact that Lebanon, and especially its armed forces, is under the hegemony of Hezbollah. For the first time, the Saudis are playing hardball in their dealings with Lebanon, deciding on February 19 to cancel about $4 billion worth of aid to the Lebanese army and internal forces. Moreover, Arab Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia have declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization. These two developments, and other similar moves looming on the horizon, are likely to exert serious pressure on Lebanon’s economic and political stability.
So far, the EU’s approach toward Lebanon has been largely confused. The union has a strong interest in preventing a collapse of the country. Doing so, however, would require full engagement in the political affairs of the wider region, not only Lebanon. For that, the EU needs to abandon its established practice of almost universal appeasement. EU countries should refrain from acting like big humanitarian NGOs and should behave instead like serious powers with effective sticks and carrots.
Unfortunately, EU countries have grown accustomed to leaving tough political and military decisions to the United States, even when direct European interests are at stake. So when the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama decided to take the backseat and lead from behind in the Middle East, the Europeans were not ready to step into the front seat.
Consequently, the region, which was starting to undergo a long-awaited political change, became an open battleground between traditional U.S. partners (Turkey and Saudi Arabia), which felt the need to fend for themselves, and longtime U.S. foes (Iran and Russia), which sensed an opportunity to expand their powers and protect their allies.
If acting like a big humanitarian NGO is a suitable stance for the EU to adopt toward Lebanon, that is hardly true in Syria, the country that has the most impact on Lebanon. There, the EU has failed since the start of the war in 2011 to realize that it needs to make tougher choices. Opportunities for earlier and more effective intervention have come and gone. The options now available are narrow indeed.
It is critical to understand the demographic aspect of the Syrian war. The relatively meager demographic presence of Alawites, who form the main backbone of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has made it difficult for Damascus to win the conflict, despite its superior firepower. This same demographic deficiency makes it unlikely that the regime will accept a settlement that would include any form of genuine democratic elections.
One option for ending the war is to take sides with Russia and try to tip the balance even more in favor of Assad. But in addition to the moral cost of supporting a genocidal dictator, a looming victory for the regime is likely to lead to more mass migration of Syrians, putting further pressure on EU countries.
The contrary option—helping the armed opposition win the military confrontation with the regime—might have been the right thing to do at an earlier point. But as things stand now, this path requires direct confrontation with the Russians, which is not a choice for EU countries.
Leaving aside the above extreme options—and also that of doing nothing except providing humanitarian relief, which is the current EU policy—there is one option remaining: lowering the intensity of war to allow a seminormal life to emerge in various parts of Syria. The vast majority of people living under regime-controlled areas are currently out of harm’s way, except for those enlisted in the fighting forces. This is mainly due to the fact that the armed opposition does not have the capacity of aerial strikes in the regime’s heartland.
This is not true of the regime. Assad’s air strikes and barrel bombs have been the main threat to civilians residing in areas outside the regime’s dominion. It follows that what is needed is the establishment, most likely in collaboration with Turkey and Jordan, of no-fly zones for civilians living in rebel-held areas. Such safe zones would concentrate the military confrontation on the front lines and thus help significantly reduce civilian casualties, provide safe shelter for refugees, establish a precondition for local governance, prevent further collapse and radicalization of communities, and allow the moderate armed opposition to devote more effective effort to fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
To help establish these safe zones, EU countries must first address the U.S. administration, stressing the need to avert the refugee crisis, which is threatening the EU’s cohesion. The Europeans need to take a much tougher stand against the Russians, who will do their best to hinder or block the establishment of safe zones. Most importantly, the EU (and preferably NATO) needs to coordinate with Syria’s willing neighbors on the implementation and operation of such zones.
These are not easy tasks. Sadly, it is doubtful that the EU can muster the will and unity to pursue them. The alternative is to wait until a new U.S. administration considers stepping into the driver’s seat again. In the meantime, one can expect at least another year of raging hell in Syria. That will mean spillover effects for Lebanon and an ever-amplified refugee crisis hammering at Europe’s doors and shaking the EU’s political life and values.
Bashshar Haydar is a professor of philosophy at the American University of Beirut.