Lebanon’s corrupt elite are running out of options

In devastating testimony to a US Congressional hearing this month, a Syrian man known only as “the gravedigger” described the atrocities he witnessed when he was forced to work at a mass grave in Syria from 2011 to 2018.

His evidence — of trucks arriving twice a week with up to 600 bodies of the victims of torture, shelling and slaughter, and at least 40 bodies of civilians who had been executed in prison — is the final blow to those in the US who want to rehabilitate Bashar Assad, and to hopes of supplying gas to Lebanon through Syria.

Lebanon will plunge into darkness after the summer. The deal under which Iraq has supplied the country with a million tons of fuel oil over the past year expires soon, and Baghdad does not want to renew it. In the Lebanese parliament, despite the relative success of protest candidates at the election in May, the established elite will block any attempt to enact the reforms required by the IMF to trigger a desperately needed financial bailout.

The election delivered a fragmented parliament that cannot reach a consensus on anything. Though the protest groups are supposed to work as a bloc, they are divided on several issues, primarily Hezbollah’s weapons — which some want to tackle as a priority, while others see it as a regional issue and prefer to tackle the challenges that affect the day-to-day life of the average citizen. This division was shown in the vote for parliamentary Speaker, which resulted in Nabih Berri’s retention of the role.

The Lebanese elite had pinned their hopes on a deal signed last September for Egyptian natural gas to flow to Lebanon via the 20-year-old Arab Gas Pipeline through Jordan and Syria, but that would require the US to ease or lift sanctions imposed on the Assad regime in Syria under the Caesar Act — and the testimony of “the gravedigger” has buried those hopes.

In addition, the composition of the US Congress will probably change after the November mid-term elections, making it less likely that the “frozen conflict” policy — which indirectly includes a certain level of rehabilitation of Assad — will work. Advocates of this policy in Washington hoped that neutering the Caesar Act with so many exceptions as to make it devoid of content would be a shortcut to stabilizing Syria by accepting Assad as he is, but the new evidence against the Assad regime makes that impossible.

Meanwhile Jordan, which had been lobbying the US government to accept Assad, has changed its position after pro-Iran Assad forces were caught smuggling drugs into the country. As for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the Assad regime has been displacing and persecuting the Kurds for decades and will not give them the autonomy they want, and negotiations with Damascus have been fruitless. The SDF has asked the regime to protect the northeast and use its air defenses against an imminent military incursion by Turkey, but the regime does not want to confront Turkish forces — so the entire premise of agreement between the regime and the SDF falls apart. Therefore, the only remaining viable US policy is to maintainsanctions on the Assad regime and hope that “maximum pressure” will one day bring it down.

None of this is of any comfort to a Lebanese elite that is to a large extent linked to the Assad regime. The political class that has been resourceful in blackmailing the international community to keep itself afloat is running out of options. Hezbollah had hoped that gas via Syria would generate enough electricity to appease popular discontent, but the US is now more likely to enforce the Caesar Act than to weaken it.

Another possible lifeline is the extraction of gas from disputed fields in the Mediterranean, but that is a long shot. Viable extraction takes years, so even if the maritime border dispute with Israel is resolved, it is not a solution to Lebanon’s immediate problems.

Lebanon’s political elite are trying by all means to avoid the true reforms that would expose them. They are holding on to the status quo and banking on stop-gap solutions to prevent a total crash — for example, pricing goods and services in US dollars to extract as much hard currency as possible from the Lebanese expatriates who will come to visit their families this summer.

None of these crooked tricks will save Lebanon. It is important that the international community stands firm against the country’s political establishment, as accommodating them means the disintegration of the country. They might have a space to float during the summer, but a reckoning is coming in September and the US and the rest of the world should be ready to increase the pressure then.

In the end, either Lebanon’s corrupt political elite will crack, or the country will.

• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II.

Read the article on the website of Arab News