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New President in Lebanon is a victory for Assad, but a defeat for British diplomacy and the Obama legacy

MARTIN JAY @MartinRJay
ISTANBUL
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Lebanese President Michel Aoun
Lebanese President Michel Aoun

A new Lebanese president, aligned to Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, is not expected to pull off any radical changes. But could this tiny country spark talks again between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

The Middle East is changing. It is no longer ruled by Gulf Arab states and their tenuous links with America and other Western countries dependent on oil. Diplomacy and journalism are also looking like outdated professions in a region which looks at times as though it invented fake news, with many Arab journalists proudly doubling up as "activists" as well. Are diplomats also stepping over boundaries as well?

What happened in Lebanon in October was remarkable. Not because the only compromise candidate in town seemed to be an 81-year-old "warlord" but because it was as a result of so called "naked diplomacy" quickly getting dressed and hitting the road. Many in Lebanon are grumbling that Saudi Arabia and Iran have resolved their differences over Lebanon.

In fact, they hadn't. It was more about Saad Hariri losing his patience with a plan to offer a shared power deal between himself and Suleiman Franjieh, the idea a brainchild of the former U.K. ambassador in Lebanon, Tom Fletcher – a man who remarkably told me in an interview that he believed in the power of diplomats, even today and appeared to have caught some kind of addiction to social media that even his dear wife, a shrink, could not cure him of.

But a new president in Lebanon called Michel Aoun should send a clear message to the British prime minister and other Western leaders who are worried that the next U.S. president is going to bang on about regime change in Syria. Even in the twilight days of Barak Obama's period in office as U.S. president, the words "regime change" seem to have been airbrushed out.

Yet after almost three years of sedate wrangling between Iran and Saudi Arabia about who gets the small, but significant, seat of president of Lebanon, both have reluctantly settled on Hezbollah's Gen. Michel Aoun. A former prime minister, briefly, Aoun, at the ripe age of 81, is not known for his charisma nor political dynamism. While many Lebanese are quick to point out how quickly he scarpered out of Lebanon once the Syrian army invaded in 1990, some point to his ability to change sides in the geopolitics of the region without losing political support. This is considered a talent in this part of the word. He also doesn't really have much regard for the fourth estate – once suing a Lebanese journalist for merely making fun of his name.

So how will he run Lebanon on behalf of Iran through its local proxy Hezbollah? It's hard to say as the move by Saad Hariri – the West's man in Lebanon – to agree to let him run as president (while Hariri takes the post of prime minister) shocked everyone, in that it has placed what Washington still considers to be a terrorist organization firmly at the helm of this tiny country which hosts close to 2 million refugees and is home to fighters in both sides of the war in neighboring Syria.

Yet the fact that both Saudi Arabia and Iran have huge demographics of supporters straddling tiny Lebanon may prove to be a feather in the cap of this tiny country.

But it nearly didn't happen after Fletcher attempted to influence the proceedings, trying to install a rival candidate to Aoun, in a country which does a roaring trade with the U.K. in Jaguar cars and Scotch whisky but whose embassy in Beirut airbrushes Hezbollah out of its daily business.

Things at the British embassy in Beirut might have to change.

A president who is openly servile to the Shiite group is new ground and there's a lot of cautious optimism here to save the country from the abyss after five years of war in Syria which desecrated the economy, left the government ministries bankrupt and has led many to talk of Lebanon as a failed state.

WINNERS AND LOSERS

For many, the shift is significant in that it has not so much showed us all how somnolent the Saudis have become about Lebanon, but how the power bloc of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Russia is gaining ground in the entire region. There is some tenant of truth in the argument that the Saudi royal family has given up playing geopolitics in Lebanon as they were sanguine about a victory for Hillary Clinton on Nov. 9, which would have reinstated them as a super power, in name and prestige at least. Or at least they were.

Nevertheless, it's a small step of defeat for the Washington, London and Saudi Arabia that they are losing the ground in Syria and Yemen. And now tiny Lebanon. Even in Iraq, when the U.S. and British soldiers liberate Mosul, it's important to remember that the country is run by a Shiite minority. Iraq is the fourth leg of a Shiite tower of strength in the region - Syria, Iran and now Lebanon as one of the Shiite satellites to galvanize its influence in the region. Iran is growing and becoming the super power which it needs to be and Saudi Arabia has only Trump's Iran-haters to look to now and the vague hope that some economists might be right about a slight rise in oil prices next year to save their floundering economy. Even the Saudis have appeared to have given up on Hariri who has become a media shy figure, sporting a new beard to emulate the new king in a country which a British minister recently asserted was a misunderstood democracy when confronted by Owen Jones. Hariri as prime minister will have to be the stop gap to Hezbollah power both in Lebanon and in Syria or lose his Sunni support to a more hard core Sunni justice minister from Tripoli who sees Hezbollah as an enemy that needs slaying, not a movement which can no longer be ignored.

Over the weekend before the election in the parliament (members of European Parliament vote for the president here) many Lebanese bloggers were joking on social media that they only have a matter of hours left to mock Aoun, given that few doubt he will carry out sentences on journalists and pundits who ridicule him, albeit in the name of free speech in a country which was once noted for being the beacon in the region for its advancement. But if Aoun carries out his promise – to rebuild relations with the Saudis – then he would be laying down a path which others, even Iran, can follow. He would have succeeded where the British had failed.

Some would argue that's a price worth paying in that, ironically, a Hezbollah agent coming to them and acknowledging them as the most important regional power would give Riyadh a minor victory in times when they have only endured relentless defeat. That is of course if foreign office socialites can stay out of it.

* Beirut based freelance journalist working for a number of British titles as well as Deutsche Welle TV.

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