30 January 2020

Lebanon, Jordan in 2020 – Chaos and stability as regional models

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

For Lebanon and Jordan, 2020 started on two different political-economic platforms- internal chaos in Beirut, stability in Amman. What makes these two states equal is threats’ rate, which is high for both, in a bad regional circumstance, increased by the recent decisions and actions from Damascus, Jerusalem, Bagdad and Tehran, but also Washington, Moscow, Brussels or Ankara.

Image source: Mediafax

Lebanon- too early for a new constitutional framework.  Not too late for a reform

For Lebanon, the end of 2019 was the moment that opened protests’ seasons against the central administration. As political developments need time, the crisis started because of people’s more and more obvious distrust on the current political class and political system that rules the country may take a bit longer. Prime-minister’s resignation was the perfect occasion for institutions’ reform, demanded by remonstrant. Which must start by establishing a government. The last time when that happened, the process lasted nine months.

We are still in the phase wherein the new executive tries to rule, however limited by old models that once offered stability, but also stagnation. Lebanon is a country that works by keeping the equilibrium between communities, following a complicated constitutional algorithm, which keeps the status quo. It is a good situation for political peace, though an obstacle for economic development. In 2019, the Fitch Risk Agency called Lebanon a major risk country and the ratings it got were extremely low (CCC). Also Standard and Poor’s . For a state that has one of the biggest international public debts, in terms of percentage, this is an extremely negative warning, blocking the access to credits and debt’s restructuration.

Lebanon Shiite community is not protesting, although, most likely, the social issues are the same. The Christian community showed solidarity with the remonstrant, even through the politicians running their destinies. Sunnis are also active, though the prime-minister who resigned comes from that specific community. General Aoun, from the Christian community, became president because he was supported by Hariri, and the presence of both running the Lebanese state went together.

The current power structure would not work without Hezbollah's support. The Shiite group is most interested in pursuing a status-quo that allows it to consolidate its structures. The semi-autonomy enjoyed in the state can be jeopardized by opening a new constitutional discussion. The problem would be the same for the Christian community as well. Demography, even though there is no recent census, does not seem to have worked in its favour. This results in a rather complex picture of these events, which leaves room for negotiation, but also for crisis’ increase.

And if the political crisis will not be resolved, the real and true economic crisis will be a disaster. Lebanon is a state that has followed internal dependencies and decision-making customs. If they disappear, there is nothing common to replace them.

Thus, Lebanon 2020 will start with a deep crisis, which may block state’s functioning. Given that there are two armies on country’s territory, three - four different informal administrations with a relatively similar ethnic groups’ number claiming from former paramilitary groups, over 1.5 million Syrian refugees, several Palestinian camps, and each of the three main communities have at least two internal political structures and groups in competition, dysfunctions and challenges are now obvious.

But Lebanon has proved unexpected capabilities to overcome crises, having both communities’ survival instinct and the external impetus that needs a neutral "Portugal" (from World War II) at the Western end of Middle East, where the major regional and international powers can build their own diplomatic and informational bridgeheads for inland campaigns. 2020 will, most likely, follow this paradigm.

Jordan- continuity and red lines

The idea of an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that would put an end to everything that was linked to a bi-state architecture does not bring peace to Amman. Jordan has always been sensitive to any attempt to solve the Palestinian problem that would give it responsibilities in terms of this community. In 2019, King Abdullah II has expressed his concern in this regard, and will do so in 2020.

It is Jordan’s red line, which does not allow Bedouin identity’s loss against a foreseeable new Palestinian refugees wave or if there will be a Jordanian responsibility over a part of the West Bank (difficult, impossible, but to be implemented!).

It is, most likely, the only area wherefrom Hashemite Kingdom can meet substantial changes and threats. And it is also the area where are a series of worrying developments, with Jordanians’ increasingly claiming that Israel is the foremost enemy, that cooperation relations foreseen by the 1994 Peace Agreement are not favouring Amman (although economic figures show the opposite).

In fact, recent overwhelming votes in the Jordanian parliament to discourage economic ties with Israel reveal this negative public perception of bilateral relations. Indeed, the legislature has more of an advisory role in Jordanian sovereign’s decision, but they cannot be ignored altogether, and in some cases, they can be indirect warnings to Jerusalem.

A direct warning was, however, the unilateral denunciation of the 1994 Peace Treaty’s provision between Jordan and Israel, which allowed Israeli farmers to "lease" two enclaves of Jordanian territory, Baqoura and Ghumar, for 25 years, and the possibility of enlarging this term, by mutual agreement. However, it did not happen, as the Jordanian side thought that, because the relations with Israel are so unbalanced, they can force things, when possible. It is good for the national spirit. And it reminds the strategic partner, similar to the one for Israel, that Amman also counts in the regional security equation.

Whatever happens on the West side of the Jordan Valley, in the Palestinian Territories, it changes its Eastern evolution, in the Jordanian Plateau. Israel does not have a dependent relation with none of the Arab states as it does with Jordan.  This is a situation which is not good for anyone. But when Washington intervenes directly, things get even more complicated.

The announcement made by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, that US no longer considers illegal the Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley affects Jordan also. The removal, if not the blockage of a Palestinian state existence in the West Bank, pressures on Amman, both morally and historically, because it had this territory before, as well as politically, because 4 million Palestinians will need support, a valve for their national frustrations. And Israel will not offer them that.

The gestures of sovereign Hashemite, to push the limits and reveal the threats to the kingdom, both in Washington and in Brussels, aim at preventing the emergence of a crisis moment. But, regardless how wise King Abdullah II would act, or how how realistic his messages might sound, Jordan's public agenda is a Plan B against the pre-election developments in US or Israel.

In addition to this existential problem, the kingdom has other major challenges that will continue in 2020. The extended war in Syria is one of them. Extending Syrian refugees’ presence within the Jordanian borders decreases the possibility that they will ever return to their homes. Already many of them are integrated into the local economic system, Syrian children are learning Jordan’s Bedouin history, and the temporary camps are diluted, tenants seeking to move to villages and towns in Northern Jordan with more opportunities to get a normal life.

The assassination of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, at the beginning of the year, also raises both direct and indirect problems for Jordan. The Amman vehemently opposed an Iranian or Hezbollah presence near its Northern borders, as it would have been a security threat not only to Israel but to itself. Following Iranian leader’s martyrdom, this presence could become more aggressive, more insidious. 

The large US military presence on kingdom’s territory creates another security issue, as US military locations are becoming potential targets for pro-Iranian proxy groups’ attacks. US diplomats withdrawn from Iraq have been relocated, in part, to Amman, and the possible withdrawal of the military contingent / part of it will be made, most likely, to the Gulf bases or Jordan.

And there is also the Al-Tanf enclave problem, North of the border, where US forces still provide a rebel military presence in Southern Syria. Amman is now trying to have neighbourly relations with Damascus, which is why enclave’s continued existence, which also works with Jordanian support, is an obstacle to normal bilateral relations. And the problem will need to be resolved by 2020.

With the others, Jordan already got used: the economy will continue to be loan or transferred-based, the dependence on foreign support will continue, the internal security will stay one of the strongest investments in the country, the terrorist threat will stay, but, most likely, to a similar low level, with incidents from time to time, the American presence will perhaps be higher, after the partial withdrawal from Syria. Syrian refugees will be increasingly part of Jordanian society.

And the king will continue to reconcile a culture with tribal elements with the Western aspirations of a fairly large part of the population belonging to a country which is one of the most moderated in the Middle East.


... it already started, raising uncertainties and challenges, peace and war times, as it happened already for 5000 years, over Middle East states and entities. There is a survival energy in this region, which does not exist in any other part of the world. Also, there is a price that, from time to time, communities and nations must pay for being in a region coursed not just by shamal- the wind that comes from the Gulf, through Iraq’s Western wilds-, but also political, economic and military interests, historical and religious requisitions crisscrossing here, from all azimuths.

Translated by Andreea Soare