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French plan to aid Lebanon lost in internal disputes, new Mideast dynamics

French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian came to Beirut, Lebanon, on May 6 with a firm message against those hindering the formation of the new government. File Pool Photo by Aris Oikonomou/EPA-EFE
French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian came to Beirut, Lebanon, on May 6 with a firm message against those hindering the formation of the new government. File Pool Photo by Aris Oikonomou/EPA-EFE

BEIRUT, Lebanon, May 17 (UPI) -- France, which has been trying for nine months to help end Lebanon's political deadlock and rescue the country from its economic crisis, might have reached a bitter conclusion: Its stick-and-carrot approach seems unlikely to shift intransigent political leaders who are betting on regional changes for their own advantage.

Despite promises by French President Emmanuel Macron to organize an international donor conference for Lebanon on the condition that a reformist government is formed, the political leaders -- widely accused of corruption and mismanagement -- remained unmoved and continued to quarrel over the shape and size of the new Cabinet.

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Reforms threaten their interests -- and their very existence, observers say. The situation has proven to be complex.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian's visit to Beirut on May 6 culminated months of disappointment, harsh criticism and failure to force change on Lebanon's ruling class. Le Drian came with a firm message against those hindering the formation of the new government and in his pocket punitive measures targeting those implicated in the political blockage or corruption.

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No details were released about France's sanctions or the targeted Lebanese officials, except that they will not be granted visas and thus will not be allowed to enter its territories. Meanwhile, a more coordinated effort with the European Union is underway to further pressure the political class, by enforcing the travel ban and through asset freezes.

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"It is a message that they are going to penalize those people, but how they will do that? They are still discussing the broad lines and a European decision in this direction needs an agreement," said a former Lebanese diplomat, who spoke to UPI on the condition of anonymity.

The diplomat referred to hurdles that might obstruct imposing sanctions on Lebanese officials who have the French nationality or those with Schengen visas. "So how would you then prevent them from entering France?"

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Ironically, Macron, who cautioned U.S. President Donald Trump in August against sanctioning Hezbollah on grounds it would play into Iran's hands, found no other alternative to deal with the Lebanese officials but to adopt the same approach, according to observers.

If France fails to secure a European Union consensus over Lebanon's sanctions -- and this what will most likely happen -- unilateral sanctions by major European countries are to be considered.

However, resorting to such punitive actions mean that last September's French initiative, which meant to break the political stalemate and included a roadmap of urgent reforms to unlock billions in international aid, "has received big blows and added fuel to the fire," Amin Kammourieh, a political analyst and independent writer, told UPI.

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Selim el Sayegh, deputy president of Lebanon's Christian Phalange Party, argued that the French officials have "underestimated the [political] deadlock in the country and that those in charge of the country are so entrenched in corruption and so committed to [external] agendas...they have also overestimated their influence over Iran."

Iran-backed Hezbollah has refrained from putting pressure on its Christian allies, President Michel Aoun and his ambitious son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement, to ease their demands and allow Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri to form the new Cabinet.

Hariri, a Sunni leader who enjoys the support of Hezbollah six months after he was named to head the new government, remained firm on not giving in to Aoun-Bassil demands to name all Christian ministers and secure a blocking majority within the Cabinet.

In the meantime, the crisis-stricken country is accelerating toward a painful crash, with the Central Bank unable to continue subsidizing basic commodities because of its dwindling foreign currency reserves and living conditions set to further deteriorate due to an expected dramatic increase in price of gasoline and other essential products.

None of the conflicting parties in Lebanon seem in a hurry to make any compromise to start rescuing the country, awaiting the outcomes of ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and the United States in Vienna, the fresh Saudi-Iran normalization process, Saudi-Houthi negotiations to end Yemen's six-year brutal war and new Arab overtures toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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"Everybody is waiting to see what will happen to the U.S.-Iran negotiations, Saudi-Iran talks ... It is the beginning of a long process [in the region], with all its complexities, unpredictability and many variants," said the Lebanese diplomat. "The problem in Lebanon is that every party is betting on an outside power to change the [internal] equation. But Lebanon, unfortunately, is not a priority like Syria, Iraq or Yemen."

Such a situation, the diplomat said, is making certain actors in Lebanon "more intransigent," blocking efforts to put in place a new government that would start long-awaited negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to help the country out of its worst crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.

Le Drian, who held separate brief meetings with Michel Aoun, Hariri and House Speaker Nabih Berri, sat for two hours with representatives of the emerging civil society in a move showing increased interest in alternatives to the ruling class.

"The French decided to meet different forces of change in Lebanon and granting them some recognition...to say to the Lebanese and international community that there is serious possibility for alternatives, a way out," said el-Sayegh, whose Phalange Party was represented at the meeting with Le Drian by its president, Sami Gemayel.

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Although civil society actors and groups that emerged following the Oct. 17, 2019, anti-government street protest have failed to form a unified opposition front because of disagreement over priorities, el-Sayegh emphasized that "the dynamics of change are there, and they are not going to change or disappear."

Until the new opposition forces gain enough strength to challenge the ruling class, it is yet to be seen how the new dynamics in the Middle East will impact Lebanon.

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