Lebanon struggles to escape Middle East turmoil

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Lebanon has been without a President since May 2014, and is increasingly under strain from the conflict in neighbouring Syria. (Image Source: Wikipedia, craigfinlay)

Amidst the chaos of its surrounding region, Lebanon has been an anchor of relative stability in the Middle East over the past few years. However, recent developments suggest the upheaval is finally beginning to take its toll on a state which is showing increasing signs of fragility under the strain of overwhelming internal and external pressures. The devastating civil war in neighbouring Syria has worsened the existing political deadlock in Lebanon, which has left the country of 4.5 million people without a President for more than two years. More worrying than the lack of an elected government figurehead, is that the political vacuum is leading to economic stagnation, and contributing to a rise in sectarian tensions 26 years after the end of Lebanon’s own civil war.

The current political situation has been steadily worsening since President Suleiman’s term in office came to an end in May 2014. Since then, political paralysis has gripped the country as Lebanon’s power-brokers have failed to reach consensus or find a way forward. In a nation of more than 18 predominant religious groups, it may come as little surprise that a collective agreement has been difficult to reach. The political system put in place in Lebanon after the end of the civil war is based on the principle of power-sharing, and dictates that the President must be a Maronite Christian and the Prime Minister must be a Sunni Muslim, whilst the Parliament Speaker must be Shia.

Sectarian divisions have played a prominent role in the political stagnation, with the parliament being unable to elect a president – despite attempting to do so on more than 40 occasions – primarily due to resistance from Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanese politics. To fill the void, Prime Minister Tammam Salam has operated as the country’s de-facto leader for the last two years, taking up the role of ‘Acting President’ whilst the current situation remains unresolved. Over that period, Lebanon’s infrastructure and public services have rapidly deteriorated, with the government unable to provide basic services such as refuge collection for 6 months up until March this year. Economic activity has also suffered greatly: exports have decreased, whilst national debt and the government deficit have risen sharply, with the situation unlikely to improve as long as there remains no new national election on the horizon.

The current crisis is not just a result of divisions within the current legislature, but also a product of Lebanon’s complex historical domestic politics and the wider regional context. For decades, Lebanon has been viewed as the site of a ‘proxy war’ between two regional powerhouses: Saudi Arabia (which along with the other Gulf States, has been a supporter of Lebanon’s Sunni political movement); and Iran (a supporter of Hezbollah and the wider Shia population). Whilst this divide has long been a feature of Lebanon’s domestic politics, tensions were heightened significantly after the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in a bomb attack in the capital, Beirut, which has repeatedly been blamed on Hezbollah.

Hariri’s death led to mass street demonstrations across Lebanon which became known as the ‘Cedar Revolution’. The protests resulted in the complete withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanese territory, and the establishment of an international tribunal to investigate Hariri’s assassination. In the immediate aftermath, Lebanon’s political parties effectively split into two competing camps: the 8th March Coalition, which is largely Shia and pro-Iranian; and the 14th March Coalition, which is predominantly Sunni and has the support of Saudi Arabia. The upheaval after Hariri’s death retains a lasting legacy today, visible in the partial polarization of Lebanese society and the division which still characterizes its domestic politics.

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Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in Beirut on 14th February 2005 – his death had a lasting impact on the country’s politics. (Image Source: Wikipedia, st1ke)

The ongoing five-year-old civil war in neighbouring Syria has further complicated the situation. Hezbollah – which can be labelled as both a political party and militant organization, and is also designated as a terrorist group by the United States – has become deeply involved in the conflict, supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. More than 1,200 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria since the start of the conflict, including their commander Mustafa Badreddine who was killed in an explosion in Damascus earlier this year. Hezbollah’s involvement, along with Russian air support for the Assad regime, may have helped push the threat from ISIS further away from Lebanon’s border; however there have also been negative consequences in the form of retaliatory terrorist attacks on Lebanon’s soil. The deadliest atrocity came on 12th November 2015, when ISIS launched a double suicide bomb attack in Beirut, killing 43 civilians and injuring more than 200 people.

Lebanon is also struggling to cope with the unprecedented number of refugees crossing its borders. In addition to 500,000 Palestinian refugees, an additional 1.6 million refugees from Syria have streamed across the border over the last five years, fleeing the violence of ISIS and numerous other militant groups. The overwhelming number of new arrivals – which now make-up more than 1/3 of Lebanon’s total population – has put significant strain on Lebanon’s crippling infrastructure, whilst adding to the existing problems of high unemployment, poverty and limited service provision. Amidst division in Europe over how to handle the refugee crisis, Lebanon, along with Jordan, is struggling under the burden of accommodating the highest per-capita concentration of refugees anywhere in the world.

In light of the upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa over the past few years – particularly in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Egypt – Lebanon has served as an example of stability and relative peace. Despite the recent strain from unprecedented internal and external pressures, Lebanon is still remarkably managing to hold itself together as a functioning sovereign state, amidst nations which appear to be splintering into pieces. However, facing the pressures of an expanded population and sectarian divisions whilst still experiencing continuing political deadlock, the country may not be able to cope for much longer. The United Nations Security Council recently expressed concerns over the ‘’security, economic, social and humanitarian challenges’’ facing Lebanon, and called on all Lebanese political leaders to put ‘’stability and national interests ahead of partisan politics.’’ If the political impasse can soon be ended and a new President put in place to unite the country, there remains a chance for Lebanon to avoid the large-scale violence which has engulfed its neighbours, and continue to serve as an example of stability and pluralism at the heart of the Middle East.

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An Overview: The ‘New Media Environment’ and Conflict in the 21st Century

In the early 21st Century, a new type of global geopolitical conflict has emerged. Whereas the defining ‘old wars’ of the 20th Century were often fought between two clearly distinct sides, with states as the main protagonists (such as WWI, WWII and the Cold War); conflict since the turn of the millennium has seemed far more complex. These ‘new wars’, have blurred the boundaries between civil and inter-state conflict, involving many disparate actors with diverse and competing aims. The number of fighting units has increased dramatically: for example in the current conflict in Syria, there are estimated to be over 80 separate rebel groups, fighting the Assad regime, ISIS, and each other. To add to the already confusing picture, many external states have become involved in the conflict: the US-led coalition conducting air strikes, along with the further involvement of Turkey, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

These contemporary conflicts are driven by the conditions of globalization; enabled through new technologies of communication and aided by cross-border flows of weapons, people, information and ideas. The boundaries between war and organized crime have also become blurred: whereas previous wars were funded primarily by the nation-state, today’s conflicts are funded through private donors, resource exploitation and the smuggling of people and weapons. This new type of conflict is characterized by increasingly extreme levels of violence towards civilians, with groups aiming to spread fear and terror in order to achieve their political and ideological aims. In the Syrian civil war, as well as in many recent conflicts throughout the Middle East and Africa, this has been materialized through tactics including torture, beheadings, executions, destruction of heritage sites and the use of mass rape as a psychological weapon of war.

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Image Source: Christian Triebert

Across the same time period, media coverage of conflict has undergone dramatic and extraordinary changes. Whilst traditional ‘Old Media’ was based on a few-to-many model, with TV bulletins and newspapers being the primary modes of consumption; ‘New Media’ technologies have facilitated a de-centralized media environment based on the internet and multi-platform reporting. As a result of these changes, coverage of conflict has become almost immediate. Coverage is now exhaustive and event-driven, typified by the emergence of 24-hour news channels such as CNN, Fox, Sky News and Al Jazeera, along with the rapid growth and popularity of online news websites. This shift has been pushed even further in recent years, with the increased popularity of blogging and the emergence of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

Another important trend has been the rapid expansion of ‘Citizen Journalism’. Civilians in the world’s conflict zones are now able to capture events first-hand on devices such as smartphones, and upload their content to social media. This allows the dissemination of witness accounts to a mass audience, in almost real time – further increasing the diversity of material available, and helping to ‘fill in the gaps’ in areas which are difficult for journalists to access. Such citizen-produced content has increasingly been used by mainstream news organizations in their reports, with news bulletins on Syria now being typified by shaky, grainy images and first-hand accounts from within the conflict zone.

The rapid changes which have taken place in the media over the last few decades have resulted in coverage of conflict becoming more immediate, in an event-driven media environment based around ‘breaking news’ and the use of dramatic, compelling footage. Images have become an increasingly important medium through which audiences visualise and understand contemporary conflict: increasing the reality of the situation and enabling viewers to gain a clearer picture of events on the ground. ‘Iconic images’ now play an increasingly important role in perceptions of conflict, as they act as a visual marker in the viewer’s mind: for example, the image of Saddam Hussein’s statue being toppled in Baghdad, George Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech, and the Abu Ghraib torture photographs have become symbolic of the Iraq war. In the current context, camera-phone images of Colonel Gaddafi’s body being dragged through the streets of Libya in 2011, and horrific images of ISIS beheading western hostages have become gruesome icons of the current upheaval in the Middle East. In this sense, images in the media have become a powerful weapon in shaping public perceptions of conflict.

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Image Source: Magharebia

So what is the result of this new age of conflict, combined with the corresponding explosion in media coverage? Firstly, the power of the media is obvious: it is the primary medium through which audiences make sense of the increasingly complex conflicts of the 21st Century. The media has significant power to highlight the devastating nature of conflict, influence mainstream public opinion, provoke emotive responses, and pressure governments in to taking action. However, dangers emerge as a result of the almost incomprehensible level of coverage: already-complex conflicts can seem even more confusing to viewers, and the real stories of conflict can be left untold. Coverage may be saturated; yet debate is often limited. Conflict is simplified and the dominant perspectives are left unquestioned, resulting in misunderstandings and misperceptions.

There is a desperate need for coverage to do more than just report on daily events as they happen. Media coverage must strive to ask the more difficult questions, acknowledge the complexities of conflict and explore the contradictions which underpin the dominant narratives. For example, the current war in Syria must be located within its historical, socio-economic and geopolitical context, with more critical and controversial questions being asked of actors on all sides of the argument (for example: ‘what has been the role of the Western arms industry in fuelling conflict in the Middle East?’, or ‘Is it morally defensible for western governments to trade with extremist regimes, at same time as being publicly committed to fighting extremism?’). Only once questions such as these enter the mainstream debate, will governments more-fully be held to account, and more in-depth understandings of modern-day geopolitical conflict become possible.