Fayrouz and Macron
Macron meets with Lebanon's diva Fairuz, one of the Arab world's most popular singers, in Rabieh, north Beirut on August 31, 2020. Image Credit: @FayrouzOfficial

Exactly a 100 years ago, a French general, Henry Gouraud, known for his racism and extreme religious zealous arrived in Lebanon with a mandate to rule over the Levant. One hundred years later, another Frenchman, President Emmanuel Macron, arrived in an independent Lebanon with a plan to bring the Arab country back in line because, he thinks, it has since deviated far away from the original plan.

The arrival of General Gouraud in the summer of 1920 ushered in the French mandate in Syria and Lebanon, as per the secret pacts of Versailles and Sanremo between France and Great Britain to divide the Arab region between them following the fall of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in the First World War.

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In July 1920, he issued his famous ultimatum to Prince Faisal Bin Sharif Hussein, who had declared himself king of Syria, which then included all of Lebanon, to step down or France would attack Damascus. The Syrians rejected the ultimatum and fought bravely in the battle of Maisaloun but were outnumbered and outgunned by the modern French army. Eventually, Damascus fell to the French and Faisal was forced into exile in Palestine.

As the French stormed the gates of Damascus, Gouraud, reportedly, went straight to the tomb of Salahuddin, the great Muslim leader who defeated the crusades in Jerusalem in 1187. Gouraud reportedly kicked the grave and said: “Awake, Salahuddin. We have returned.” He was referring obviously to the defeat of his ancestors at the wall of Jerusalem.

The battle of Maisaloun is considered the beginning of the European colonial rule in the Middle East, which led to the division of the Levant and other Arab lands into smaller states such as “the State of Greater Lebanon.” Macron celebrated the centenary of “Greater Lebanon,” during his visit to Beirut last week.

Lebanon has no say in this [French plan to reform Lebanese system] as Macron waved high the stick of international sanctions as the only other alternative...What is clear from the Macron’s Lebanon trip is that the Europeans are back.

- Mohammed Almezel, Editor at Large, Gulf News

Gouraud came to this region with crude power, the full force of France. Macron, on the other hand, has come waving his country’s soft power. This probably explains Gouraud’s discourteous call on Salahuddin’s tomb and Macron’s late dinner at the house of the iconic singer Fairuz on Monday. Nevertheless, the outcome might not differ much.

France was given Lebanon and Syria as per the Versailles agreement 100 years ago. Apparently, Paris has been entrusted by the Europeans today with the ‘Lebanese dossier’, which is the only logical explanation to his overly hands-on intervention in the latest Lebanon crises, including the task of naming a new premier as well as members of the upcoming cabinet. The trigger was the catastrophic explosion in the Beirut port that left nearly 200 people dead, and the reluctance of key Arab states to help Lebanon come out of its financial and political misery.

Without a doubt, there is a strategic shift in our region. Most of us are fully aware of the wider manifestations, as we learn daily from the news headlines, but many are indeed oblivious to the ‘big picture’. This shift may very well take us back about 100 years.

Macron in Lebanon
Image Credit: Gulf News

Waning US interest in the Middle East

In not so much subtle a threat, the French president warned Lebanese politicians last week that they should enact serious structural reforms and “sort things out” before the end of the year. He stressed, the new United States administration, regardless of who is going to be a president, “will not be as diplomatic as France.” He issued an ultimatum to Lebanese leaders: substantial reforms in three months or face possible sanctions.

The US administration is currently trying desperately to secure the reelection of President Donald Trump, who is trailing his Democratic rival Joe Biden in the polls.

The Trump administration has decided early on to disengage from the Middle East and gradually withdraw its forces from the region’s hotspots. This will, of course, continue if Trump wins in November. The Europeans have mixed feelings about that as they are somewhat sceptical of a complete American exit, which could leave them with a huge vacuum to fill, a task for which they might not be fully prepared. At the same time, they don’t have much faith in Trump’s foreign policy decisions.

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On the other hand, if Biden wins, he might choose to restore the US engagement in the region, albeit in the wrong direction — Iran, as Barack Obama did. Fortunately for us, Trump stopped that bizarre move.

The US became heavily involved in the Middle East after the exit of Great Britain at the end of the 1960s. France exited the region 20 years earlier as it became busy rebuilding its cities and international image following its destructive and humiliating occupation by the Germans during the Second World War.

Today, it looks like it is time for a change of guard. Europe is preparing to fill the void left by the American disengagement in the region. One can easily see that the hotspots in which Europeans appear to be moving quickly today are starkly similar to those chosen by the same powers 100 years ago. The Italian foreign minister was in Libya a few days ago to oversee the progress of the recently announced ceasefire. The British ambassador in Yemen is shuttling between Aden and Sana’a to secure a truce that could pave the way for a political solution to the war. And Macron had to be in Lebanon — where else?

The Europeans are back

Europe, which claims to have borne the brunt of the recent conflicts in the region, especially the influx of refugees and several terror attacks related to those conflicts, may feel compelled to help re-engineer a new reality in the region through direct non-military intervention.

Much has been written about Macron’s meeting with Fairuz. Most of us were mesmerised by the photos of them smiling and conversing. The pictures went viral on social media. We live in the time of virals anyway. But few paid attention to what the man said at his press conference hours later, especially his explicit reference to the French plan to restructure the Lebanese system. Lebanon has no say in this apparently as Macron waved high the stick of international sanctions as the only other alternative. He even told his Lebanese hosts that the Iran-backed, heavily armed Hezbollah was good for them. What is clear from the Macron’s Lebanon trip is that the Europeans are back.

As Macron met Lebanon’s leaders at the Palais des Pins, the French ambassador’s official residence there hangs on the main hall’s wall a large painting of General Gouraud, surrounded by Lebanese leaders as he announced the birth of the Greater Lebanon on September 1, 1920. I am not sure of Macron’s reaction as he spotted the painting. But I suspect he may have smiled and thought to himself, addressing Gouraud: “My dear General, we are back.”