Why Beirut Matters Too

Last week's other ISIS attack highlights Lebanon's continued relevance to regional security.

Along the dusty main road that runs through Zahle in the predominantly Shiite Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, larger-than-life billboards extoll Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei and Hezbollah’s leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah.

So there’s a bit of intercultural vertigo when you step into the Ksara winery, a Bordeaux-style chateau that has been producing wines since 1857, long before anyone had heard of Hezbollah—or the independent state of Lebanon, for that matter. Putting aside the winery’s turbulent history, the experience of a wine tasting there wouldn’t feel out of place in Bas-Médoc, most of all because so many of Lebanon’s grape varietals are French. Though Lebanon has been growing wine since the time of the Phoenicians, Jesuit priests established the vineyard with French technology and experts from French-controlled Algeria, and it flourished in the early twentieth century during France’s colonial “mandate” for the post–World War I Middle East.

Though the vineyard represents one of the more sublime ties between France and Lebanon, relations have not always been so harmonious. François Georges-Picot, a Frenchman, gave his name to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which carved the Middle East into the arbitrary and highly problematic national borders of today’s Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. After last week, the two countries now share another tragic link: just one day apart, both countries suffered terrorist attacks within the same twenty-four-hour period, both at the hands of the hard-line Daesh/Islamic State, whose control of eastern Syria and western Iraq is scrambling the borders that Picot once carved.

Last Thursday’s Beirut attack has been overshadowed, at least in the American and European media, by Friday’s even more deadly Paris attacks. Yet as the world mourns the victims of both attacks, there’s a risk that the lessons of the Beirut blasts—by far the worst since the beginning of the civil war in neighboring Syria—will go unheeded.

Just as the Paris attacks are changing the nature of the Western response to IS/Daesh, so should the Beirut attacks change the nature of Western engagement with Lebanon.

Lebanon’s resilience over the past four years is as impressive as it is surprising. It’s a modern miracle that Lebanon has so far avoided being dragged into the Syrian morass, and the Lebanese have accomplished it, more or less, on their own. Though its confessionally based politics are far from perfect, Lebanon since 1989 has become an oasis of consensus-based government and an aspirational democracy in what stubbornly remains a region of thugs, gangsters and autocrats. Moreover, the attack on Beirut reinforces the reality that the fight against global terrorism is more complicated than just “West” versus “East” or Christian against Muslim.

Gebran Bassil, Lebanon’s foreign minister, a Maronite Christian allied with Hezbollah, argued that the timing of the two attacks suggest they might even be linked, as he called for a concerted international response to the dual attacks at a weekend meeting in Vienna of foreign ministers.

“[The] nature of the two crimes and their timing, which is few days after the Russian airplane incident and ahead of today’s meeting, confirm that they are sending us a message that terrorism is capable of waging wars and coordinating systematic attacks at the same time wherever they want,” Bassil said on Saturday.

For centuries, there was no formal distinction between what is today Syria and the coastal region that is today’s Lebanon. An old joke asks: “What’s the best part of Syria?” The answer is Lebanon, with its sparkling Mediterranean coastline, two sets of mountain ranges and Beirut, its cosmopolitan and prosperous capital. Carved out of greater Syria by the French as an enclave for the region’s Maronite Christians, Syria’s presence looms large in the modern state of Lebanon. Syrian troops entered the country in 1976 as the Lebanese civil war began, and the Assad regime (both father’s and son’s) routinely interfered in internal Lebanese politics for decades. Syria’s shadowy role in the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri sparked so much outrage that Syrian forces were obliged to withdraw from Lebanon, dividing the country into what settled as a nominally anti-Syrian “March 14” camp and a nominally pro-Syrian “March 8” camp.

When Syria’s civil war began, it wasn’t hard to believe that tiny Lebanon would be drawn into the fighting, and the war has indeed profoundly affected the country, most notably with a humanitarian crisis resulting from the influx of 1.12 million refugees, representing roughly a quarter of Lebanon’s 2011 population. But the Syrian war has also strained the Lebanese government, causing a political stalemate between the two major Lebanese coalitions. Since former president Michel Suleiman stepped down from his six-year term in May 2014, Lebanon’s parliament has tried and failed thirty-one times to select his successor, most recently last Tuesday. Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s caretaker government, which was supposed to last weeks or months at most, will mark its second anniversary in February 2016 and no sign of long-delayed parliamentary elections.