Mohamad Chatah, former Lebanese ambassador to the United States, discussed major changes in the Middle East and some of Lebanon’s concerns about a spillover of external conflict into domestic arenas.

On September 21, the Middle East Program hosted a meeting on “The Middle East in Transition: A Lebanese Perspective” with Chatah. Michael Van Dusen, Executive Vice President and COO of the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Chatah opened his presentation by noting the global implications of the “major regional drama” unfolding in the Middle East, identifying two basic transitions currently underway. The first of these is a transition to democracy which he broadly defined as giving more participation and inclusion to groups and minorities within the Middle East. In this transition, Chatah sees the region following “most countries in the world” in the positive shift to democracy. The second transition he identified is that of political Islam’s internal changes, not necessarily prompted by the Arab Awakening. According to Chatah, “Islam is undergoing a transition of its own,” slowly adapting how it views the world, how it operates, and how it resolves internal issues; it is turning to address “basic, universal human values” that are fully compatible with the tenets of Islam. While noting that these changes are difficult but ultimately positive, Chatah stated that “Lebanon is a beneficiary of these transitions.”

Chatah also addressed the difficulties Lebanon faces as a result of change in the Middle East, emphasizing that it is “itself a fragile country in makeup” that sits on geopolitical “fault lines.” He stated that the “basic agenda” of the Lebanese government, in particular the March 14 Movement, is “to prevent Lebanon from being used as a convenient theater – or worse, a front line” in ongoing regional conflicts. 

Primarily, Chatah focused on the Lebanese concerns arising out of the civil war in Syria and the international debate over Iran’s policies. Syria, being “right next door,” takes advantage of weakly-policed borders to pursue its own agenda in Lebanon. Chatah suggested that the Syrian regime would benefit from increased turmoil in Lebanon, which would help their own domestic position that “the regime is the best bet to have control, to have stability” in the face of chaos and extremist groups. At the same time, he said a weak Lebanon with divided politics would allow Syria to draw more groups into their conflict, a scenario the Lebanese government is trying its best to avoid.

In addition, Lebanon is seeking to protect itself from Iranian influence, Chatah said. Although the Lebanese are “not necessarily enemies with Iran” and many may have affiliations or sympathies with the Iranian people, very few want to be drawn into “Iran’s war against its enemies,” a scenario Chatah deemed “not acceptable.” He noted that Iran has a presence in Lebanon through Hezbollah, which he considered an illegal military operation that undermined the Lebanese state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Chatah expressed concern that in the case Iran got into a shooting war over its nuclear aspirations, Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon would bring Iran’s conflict into Lebanese territory, stating “we don’t want Lebanon to be devastated again.”

Chatah described Lebanese politicians as very “vocal,” challenging Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria on these issues. But he felt that more still needs to be done to increase domestic security levels, police borders, and renegotiate diplomatic agreements with regional powers to “send a clear message” that Lebanon wants no violation of its borders or security while the rest of the region continues to undergo its own transitions.

By Laura Rostad, Middle East Program