Lebanon, strategic for many but not for everyone

(To Gino Lanzara)
29/06/21

The Mediterranean, a restless sea that has held civilizations, philosophies, religions to baptism, a brackish father who has welcomed peoples whose followers still populate its shores. Who knows with what spirit the Phoenicians would now look at their land, stripped of the cedars left in effigy only on the flag.

The Maronite Khalil Gibran wrote that "If Lebanon hadn't been my country, I would have chosen it anyway", while a widespread one joke asserts that God created Paradise in Lebanon but, remembering that he reserved it for the hereafter, he then generated small and large embers of hell around it.

Ferlinghetti, inspired by Khalil Gibran, wrote: Mercy for the nation whose men are sheep, and whose shepherds are bad guides, Mercy for the nation whose leaders are liars, whose sages are silenced, Mercy for the nation that does not raise its voice except to praise the conquerors, and hail the bullies as heroes ... are verses that, unfortunately functional for many, too many contexts, never more suited to today's Lebanon, devastated by an unprecedented financial crisis, comparable only with Mugabe's abyss of Zimbabwe; Lebanon, wounded by the gullibility of a state that, forgetting thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate in a silo for years, remains a political incongruity, if one thinks of its survival hanging in the balance between Syria, desperate for funds to reconstruction, to Israel, to the appetites of the great powers, and to the fact that it has always been the indicator of all regional conflicts. An example: the dialogue with the Kremlin, which recognizes Hezbollah, is functional to the expansion of Russian influence from Syria to the eastern Mediterranean.

In any case, Lebanon1 it remains a strategic country for many: for France, for its historical ties, but also for Italy, which remains, in Europe, one of the main suppliers of products, and is at the head of the UNIFIL mission.

Modern Lebanon was born in 1943 and, since then, the main institutional offices2 were entrusted to the three great national communities: Maronite Christians, Shiite and Sunni Muslims, while the parliament was divided on sectarian lines by providing for different religious beliefs in a melting pot which, since 1990, has preserved political power through a patronage system.

Once a flowing financial center, characterized by an all too varied density of confessions and ethnicities, Lebanon has seen its future vanish amid the smoke of a civil war that lasted 15 years, followed by a division of power which, while guaranteeing a confessional consociative democracy has safeguarded a complex of sectarian interests that still prevent institutional and financial solutions.

Any loan from the IMF imposes reforms that require the restructuring of both the debt and the current architecture of power, intervening on a system so distorted as to allow the legitimacy of a party which, in creating its own social and military network, has become it. same state: the Shiite Hezbollah, in permanent conflict with Israel and dependent on Tehran, politically rooted in a region crossed by violent internal conflicts3; a strategic choice that accompanies the declarations of Hassan Nasrallah who promises Beirut to the Chinese, forgetting how little they are paid for charitable interventions. It is no coincidence that the economic activities of Hezbollah, raised as a symbol of opposition to IS, extend to Africa and South America, with pervasive control over Lebanese ports where, despite sanctions, Iranian oil is arriving; all pending the outcome of the JCPOA negotiations between Iran led by the new President Raisi and the Biden administration, while Saudi Arabia, which seeks to reconnect with Syria, remains in the background undermined by Qatar.

In fact, Hezbollah, in wanting to shape the new Lebanon in its image, has entered into competition with the FA, and is expressing its opposition to Western financial intervention, enjoying the schizophrenic support of a political class attentive to the preservation of power.

The association should not be overlooked al Qard al Hasan4 hacked in December 2020 by the anonymous group SpiderZ, which highlighted its relevance as a financial arm of Hezbollah, and which provides interest-free loans against collateral, such as gold or third party guarantees, with a volume of loans increasing despite sanctions5.

The US Treasury Department has punished AQAH as early as July 2007, noting how the financial activity of the Association gave to Hezbollah "access to the international banking system". Hezbollah has effectively used exchange offices as a gateway to transfer proceeds from its businesses6in the Lebanese banking sector, where funds are laundered thanks to Hawala, a parallel remittance channel that allows you to transfer money, without moving it, through a system that records credit and debit transactions. The Lebanese exchange agencies therefore ensure a service both to the BAC7 both commercial banks and accomplices prefer these intermediary institutions to handle bulk cash deliveries. Moreover, the institutional structure that has emerged in recent decades has been substantiated in a confessional government conceived to meet the needs of the individual parties; it is no coincidence that the World Bank has estimated at 9% of GDP the expenses induced by the divisions sectarians, from corruption, from the influence exerted by Hezbollah on which the government relies.

Taking into account that the crisis of 2019, made official with the default of 2020, was induced by a speculative bubble determined by the Central Bank, it seems increasingly difficult that the situation can be unlocked with simple external aid or with loans from the IMF, skeptical about the chances to settle their debts, given that, in fact, the road taken is rapidly leading to a disastrous Venezuelization, symbolized by the recent shortage of fuel and the intermittent supply of electricity.

Taking into account that even during the civil war Lebanon still complied with its payments, it must be said that the Banque du liban it financed budget deficits by selling to the domestic banking system8 public debt and Eurobonds in exchange for the foreign currency deposited with it, and on which very high yields were recognized, which made it possible to find the necessary resources by ensuring the fixed exchange rate with the greenback; however, starting from 2019 local banks have restricted access to hard currency, first provoking the classic bank run, then the suspension of the withdrawal on deposits.

Little did the Revolution of the cedars, triggered by the 350 kg of C4 which, placed in February 2005 under the road surface, tore apart Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri according to the same script adopted in 1992 for Judge Falcone: despite the Syrian removal that took place after the attack, the current events show the return of a dangerous Damascus empathy.

In 2016, the troubled election of the Maronite Aoun to the Presidency of the Republic led to an incoherent government, with the Syrian conflict in the background, which more than once was on the verge of engulfing Lebanon in a devastating spiral; the International Crisis Group has launched very specific alarms, according to which the dynamics of today show a strange resemblance to those that preceded the civil war, and according to which Lebanon, dependent on imports, it has run out of foreign currency needed to liquidate consumption, and is unable to honor public debt, with non-existent primary services, an estimated unemployment between 30 and 40% and the poverty rate at 50%.

If left to itself, the economy will generate a further emigration of skilled labor resulting in the closure of businesses; the currency will not be anchored, while hyperinflation will wipe out income and wealth causing an armed conflict worse than those already experienced. The Lebanese GDP went from USD 55 billion in 2018 to almost 33 billion in 2020, with a decrease of almost 40%, which was joined by the fluctuation of the exchange rate of the lira against the USD which touched 17.000 lire with a 85% increase in inflation9, the result of a political inertia that has led to a situation further exacerbated by Covid, barely contained and with a vaccination campaign largely managed, such as the distribution of food, by political groups, and by the explosion that, in August 2020, devastated the port of Beirut.

Given that the initiative promoted by President Macron to revive the Lebanese economy has effectively failed, JY Le Drian10 he was obliged to inform Lebanese politicians that, in addressing the stalemate involving Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement and son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, and Saad al-Hariri, prime minister-designate who does not enjoy the Saudi support he favors Nawaf Salam11, they would be alone; alone in a competition that sees political actors who, struggling not to drown in irrelevance, make the formation of a government impossible. Bassil, is not in a better position than the antagonist Hariri, who however continues to rely on the support of Ryadh and the UAE, and aims at the succession to Aoun, despite running into the handicap of US sanctions and poor popular consideration.

Finally, we should not forget Nabih Berri, president of parliament since 1990, who opposes the efforts of Aoun and Bassil to form a government in their favor. The French strategic interest is opposed to that of Ankara, which aspiring to re-propose itself in the Cypriot energy quadrant, has on the one hand promised all Lebanese of Turkmen origin Turkish nationality, and on the other hand has encouraged the sending of weapons to the north of Lebanon in Wadi Khaled and in Tripoli, a city full of associations promoted by the Turkish Agency for Cooperation and Development. In a kind of beauty contest demagogic, to try to break through public opinion, the parties continued to rely on the political principle of identity, and on interests affected by the collapse of the exchange rate and the imminent withdrawal of subsidies.

In the meantime, the smuggling of goods to Syria continues, managed by Hezbollah, according to a party game that, among the highlander survivors of the Beqaa, will not see the FPM12 on the one hand, and the FM13 Hariri on the other. This leads us to consider three aspects: the first is that politics is preparing for a tough socio-economic season; the second that the party system is trying to impose a compromise between loyalty and misery on a society hit by the depletion of human capital and ready for sensational actions; the third is that the state has completely lost its raison d'etre. This provided that, in 2022, the policy allows the planned legislative and presidential electoral round, that it is possible to determine the extent of the actual popular approval of the current majority 14 also in relation to the sanctions imposed in accordance with the Global Magnitsky Act15, and that Lebanon does not become a proxy to be sacrificed in the confrontation with Iran, favoring instead the key institution that transcends sectarianism: the Armed Forces, the backbone of the country.

The Army remains the only guarantor of stability, even if by now in close competition with Hezbollah, in a general context that has led General Joseph Aoun, received at the Elysée as the most reliable interlocutor of party representatives, to take a position divergent that politics. This is where Western diplomatic and financial action will have to direct its efforts: to keep the Lebanese Army operational16 it is the only immediate solution that can prevent the undoing of a region and a state that the West cannot afford the luxury of collapsing by making it a gift to the Shiite theocracy.

Conclusions. At the moment only 4 scenarios are conceivable: a continuation of the crisis that will produce the transition to the other 3, or an unlikely improvement due to a technical governance; the definitive conquest of power by Hezbollah; the more than likely civil war.

Italy. From a country where the Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs, while the death toll from the Beirut explosion is still ongoing, confuses Lebanon with Libya, it is difficult to draw positive auspices, especially since, in recent days, the main stream it is invaded both by paeans dedicated to the pedestrian art of perennial rich and spoiled adolescents who demagogically throw away the magical bottles that ensure them a scandalously golden existence, and by the epistemology of nihilistic genuflection.

It is trivial to say that Lebanon is important for Italy, both in economic terms and in terms of intelligence activities, but so be it: the complex art of foreign policy remains the prerogative of a few, and perhaps in Italy there is not yet any. circumspect.

Lebanon is a coup de théâtre, a trick that has allowed a territorial extension as large as Abruzzo to float in a stormy ocean, where even France remains forbidden, and where perhaps the only viable path is that of war, as indeed happened in the Sahel. A conceptually unacceptable path beyond the Alps if it is true, as it is true, that the sole use of the logistical support of the FA for anti-covid vaccinations has triggered obscure ancestral fears. The poles of power have changed, and staying on the edge of the game board for the umpteenth time can only condemn Italy to irrelevance, given that Lebanon risks becoming the portal to chaos, and where on the crisis Syrian Foreign Minister called last October to do "a - indefinite - very small step forward " towards Assad.

Staying within the seemingly safe rhetorical fence of chatter about peace will not preserve anyone in the long run; Khalil Gibran wrote: “Nothing will stop the sun from rising again, not even on the darkest night. Because beyond the black curtain of the night there is a dawn waiting for us. " At dawn, however, if possible, it would be appropriate to get there unharmed and visible.

1 Lebanon hosts around 1 million Syrian refugees out of a resident population of around 6 million

2 President of the Republic, President of Parliament, Prime Minister

3 Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq

4 Literally benevolent loan

5 from $ 76,5 million in 2007 to $ 480 million in 2019. The total scope of the Association's activities from 1983 to the end of 2019 amounted to $ 3,5 billion

6 Including drug trafficking, particularly Captagon, which produces loss of judgment, resistance to fatigue, euphoria and abandonment of all inhibitions; it gives a sense of omnipotence that makes one feel invincible; under its effect he may not eat or sleep for days.

7 Hezbollah's Business Affairs Component

8 second in the world by size in relation to GDP and whose assets were worth 420% of GDP

9 Taking into account that Lebanon is included in the Hanke Krus table relating to hyperinflation, the only feasible option is the establishment of a currency committee or Currency Board, which issues currencies convertible on demand into a foreign anchor currency at a fixed exchange rate. . The Board would have no discretionary monetary powers and could not issue credit having only an exchange but not a monetary policy. The most important modern currency board is that of Hong Kong, set up in 1983 to combat exchange rate instability.

10 French Foreign Minister

11 former ambassador of Lebanon to the United Nations and now judge of the International Court of Justice

12 Free Patriotic Movement

13 Future Movement

14 Hezbollah and its two main allies - the Amal Movement and the FPM

15 it takes its name from the Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who in 2007-2008 denounced a tax fraud in his country that involved police officers, magistrates, tax inspectors, bankers and mafia-type organizations. Following his complaints, he was arrested and, after eleven months of detention and without trial, he died in 2009 at the age of 37. The American W. Brownder, his client, launched a campaign to impose sanctions on the officials involved, aimed at preventing their entry into the United States. In 2012, Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, which provided for individual sanctions, in particular the freezing of assets and the refusal to issue an entry visa to the USA.

16 In addition to France, the US discussed the increase in subsidies for the Lebanese Armed Forces of approximately US $ 120 million, in addition to attack helicopters, Hellfire missiles and TOW counter-tank missiles. Italy was also present in a recent virtual meeting. The aim remains to guarantee logistics and efficiency, but without participating in the salaries of the military.

Photo: Twitter / web / Lina Garrana