Lebanon Clarifies Dissociation, Declaring No Neutrality on Israel

Lebanon Clarifies Dissociation, Declaring No Neutrality on Israel

By David Daoud

While the world’s attention was focused on developments in Syria and gripped by fear of a regional war last week, Lebanon’s clarification of its dissociation policy went virtually unnoticed. Responding to an Israeli strike on Syria from within Lebanese skies, Beirut’s Cabinet said its dissociation would not mean neutrality on Israel generally, or remaining silent in the face of such continued Israeli violations. Though directed at Israel, this decision will have more impact on Lebanon, demonstrating the malleability of its neutrality, with all of the attendant dangerous consequences that this implies.

Lebanon’s neutrality policy grew out of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s surprise resignation last November, televised from Riyadh, in protest over Hezbollah’s domination over Beirut’s foreign policy. He returned home after two tense weeks, agreeing to resume his post only if Lebanon officially committed to regional neutrality. Despite Hariri’s show of force, the outcome was an ambiguous and underwhelming “policy of dissociation” that committed Lebanon to neutrality in inter-Arab conflicts, reaffirming Beirut’s commitment to the 1989 Taif Agreement generally, but particularly Article 2’s emphasis on Lebanon’s Arab identity.

Israel tested Lebanon’s dissociation last week by again using its airspace to strike in Syria. Two F-15s flying over Baalbek bombed the Syrian regime’s T-4 Airbase in Homs – where Iran is allegedly establishing an air force base and from which it launched an armed drone into Israel in February – pitting Lebanon’s alleged neutrality against its commitment to Syria.

Israel uses Lebanon’s airspace to strike Syria routinely, and almost daily violates its skies to monitor Hezbollah’s virtually unimpeded activities. Beirut’s complaints, including to the UN, are routine. Lebanon’s response was initially boilerplate this time as well. The Foreign Ministry protested to the Security Council, and condemned the strike’s use of Lebanese airspace. Hariri separately clarified that, beyond that, Lebanon was committing to dissociation.

However, Israel’s timing soon caused a heightened Lebanese reaction. Its strike on T-4 came amidst rising international tensions over the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons attack in Douma, exacerbating matters just as the West mulled retaliation. The Lebanese feared a regional war could erupt, with their country sandwiched in the middle.

Hezbollah remained silent on this matter. However, Lebanon’s other pro-Syrian politicians  – likely prompted by Syria’s ambassadorsoon attacked dissociation’s inadequacy, demanding its reinterpretation to disallow targeting Syria from anywhere within Lebanese territory. Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil even called for the Lebanese Cabinet and Higher Defense Council (HDC) to take the “appropriate political and military measures,” if Israel persisted in its actions. Amidst this, Hariri was silent, and the only dissenting voice was Samir Geagea, chairman of the pro-Western Lebanese Forces party, who cautioned against prioritizing Syrian interests over Lebanon’s.

The HDC never met, but the Cabinet – led by Hariri and President Michel Aoun – convened to unanimously condemn Israel, saying Lebanon would not allow the IAF to strike Syria from its airspace, or anywhere else in its territory. Lebanon even carried this objection with it to the 29th Arab Summit held in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Practically, unless Lebanon obtains advanced anti-air systems, its decision will barely impact Israel or its freedom of action in Lebanese skies. There’s even less chance it will affect the Western countries bankrolling Lebanon’s army and economy through the Rome II and CEDRE conferences, respectively. Perhaps counterintuitively, however, it poses a greater danger to Lebanon, laying bare the weakness of its dissociation.

The policy’s first flaw is reaffirming the Taif Agreement in its entirety. Though this accord ended Lebanon’s civil war, it also intertwined Lebanon’s defense and foreign policy with Syria’s, subordinating Beirut’s independence to Damascus’ national security interests. Just as it did this time, this reaffirmation gives legal standing for those Lebanese factions who want to pull Beirut in a more pro-Syrian direction, all the while claiming to uphold the true meaning of dissociation.

The dissociation also policy places no explicit limits on Hezbollah, nor does it define Beirut’s position vis-à-vis the Israeli-Arab conflict. Now, senior Lebanese officials – including Bassil and Aoun – have shifted Lebanese neutrality’s goalposts to exclude matters related to Israel, the Palestinian cause or Jerusalem. Hezbollah will thus have more leeway to drag Lebanon into regional conflicts – either with Israel or even Arab countries whose actions are seen as detrimental to the Palestinian cause – to serve its own or Iran’s interests.

Finally, the policy is totally silent on Lebanon’s relationship with non-Arab countries, including its Western political and financial patrons. In fact, ahead of the Cabinet meeting, several voices said neutrality on Western countries striking Syria amounted to complicity in the attacks, particularly if they used Lebanese airspace. Though the West’s strikes ultimately steered clear of Lebanese skies, the Foreign Ministry nonetheless condemned them. Perhaps the pro-Western Saad Hariri’s leadership was the only factor preventing a harsher Lebanese response. But his premiership will not last indefinitely. If he fares poorly in the upcoming parliamentary elections, he could be replaced with a pro-Hezbollah prime minister, who could further revise Lebanese dissociation to strain Beirut’s ties with the West.

Saad Hariri’s oft-repeated mantra is that he wants to protect Lebanon from the region’s raging conflicts through neutrality and dissociation. Reportedly, however, even his Saudi allies still think he and Lebanon are falling short in adhering to the dissociation policy. But the problem isn’t in the application. It’s in the policy itself. Unless Lebanon strengthens its dissociation policy, filling in the ambiguities and gaps that could to drag the country into Iran’s orbit, Beirut will once again find itself at odds with its natural allies – the West and the Gulf States – who may not provide the country another chance to steer a proper course.

David Daoud is a Research Analyst on Hezbollah and Lebanon at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).