Macron foray into Middle East debacle smacks of Blair ‘peace envoy’ failure

Martin Jay
Martin Jay is an award winning British journalist now based in Beirut who works on a freelance basis for a number of respected British newspapers as well as previously Al Jazeera and Deutsche Welle TV. Before Lebanon, he has worked in Africa and Europe for CNN, Euronews, CNBC, BBC, Sunday Times and Reuters. Follow him on Twitter @MartinRJay
Macron foray into Middle East debacle smacks of Blair ‘peace envoy’ failure
Don’t get too excited about Emmanuel Macron saving Lebanon from the abyss. The French president recently took advice from Tony Blair, and he will need a lot more than just spin if he is to stop Saudi Arabia from hitting Lebanon. Here’s how.

For French President Emmanuel Macron to take charge and induce sobriety into the Hariri scandal, which has gripped the Middle East for the past couple of weeks, is significant for many reasons. It showed that regional superpowers like Saudi Arabia can no longer throw their weight around like they could in previous periods of high oil prices and Iran sanctions. It sent the right message to Riyadh’s new leader, Mohamed bin Salman, that threatening tiny Lebanon and effectively kidnapping its prime minister won’t be tolerated by the West. More importantly, it signaled a new way of dealing with Middle East problems, which is forcing international diplomacy onto monolithic states like Saudi Arabia at any cost.

The price the Saudis paid for not only supporting jihadist groups in the early months of the Syria war, which started in 2011 but for also not even taking one Syrian refugee – and dumping this problem on Europe’s doorstep – is evident this week in Paris. Europe cannot cope with one more war in the Middle East, especially those started by autocratic regimes whose leaders don’t want to stick around and pay the bills. That’s not a reference to Saudi Arabia doing a U-turn on its $3 billion arms deal with France to supply Lebanon with French guns and ammo.

Hariri debacle: Not all it seems in Paris

Yet by the same token, the praise heaped onto Macron is both wildly premature and almost certainly inappropriate, given that this is a leader who has carved out a reputation for being top heavy on spin and offering little in terms of concrete results to French voters.

After only six months in office, the French president’s bold move with Hariri and how he handled Mohamed bin Salman (MbS) is not all that it seems. Sources in Tehran, who wish to remain anonymous, inform me that when he flew to Riyadh a week earlier, Macron asked MbS that Hariri be allowed to leave immediately for Paris. His request did not prompt an immediate answer by the Saudi crown prince, but a message akin to “I’ll have a think about it.” Days later some conditions were attached to releasing Hariri to France, and it is those terms – that we will see played out in the coming weeks and months both in Beirut and Paris – which we should use as the basis of judging Macron.

Simply by agreeing to a deal - primarily set by MbS - is hardly the great victory it has been portrayed to be by most journalists. Macron, like Nicolas Sarkozy, has a delusional view of himself as a Middle East peace broker, and some might argue is taking the role of the EU’s own foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in that he previously attempted to host both Libyan leaders in Paris and now he is trying to protect Lebanon from a regional war.

Aside from adverse headlines which initially linked his early weeks as president with unprecedented spending on makeup and a string of promises his critics doubted he could keep, in recent days his popularity is climbing. This is mainly due to reforming labor laws and throwing his weight behind a tougher 2018 budget – but also being lucky that no acts of terrorism having been carried out on his watch and no real street protests.

Yet on the international stage, he might flounder. If Lebanon’s problems are to become France’s, many in the Republic might see him as a Tony Blair figure – a war profiteer who not only feeds off crises in the Middle East but makes them worse in the process. If he fails either with Libya or Lebanon in his first year in office, many will doubt his ability as a president who can pull France out of its economic woes, either at home or abroad. And an attack by any jihadist groups on French soil, which could be linked to the new crisis in the Middle East, will knock Macron back down again to record lows in the opinion polls.

What Macron needs to do in Lebanon

With Lebanon, the real tests are ahead and will be, in part, unveiled when Hariri arrives in Beirut for Independence Day celebrations. To avoid this Blair stigmatization, Macron must deliver on a number of points. Arguably, he has already failed on one major one though, which was to convince Hariri not to go ahead with his resignation, which he was clinging onto right until the moment Hariri arrived in Paris on November 18.

But there is still much do. Macron needs to secure financial support at an EU level for emergency aid to Lebanon if the Saudis go ahead with their plan to impose sanctions on the economy. The most likely scheme will be to prevent almost $8 billion dollars in remittances from Lebanese expatriates working in the Gulf to be sent home. If they succeed in this, the effect on Lebanon’s economy would be devastating.

Secondly, on an EU level and at UN level in the Security Council, he might punch above his weight and make a stand for Lebanon, that an economic meltdown on the country would effectively be a declaration of war, and neither Europe, nor the Middle East, can shoulder any military strike from Iran or its proxies.

Thirdly, Macron needs to use his power and élan to push the case in the media for Yemen, which is both the core of the problem and entirely the source of the solution to the Hariri drama, which over the weekend saw Saudi Arabia and many Arab League countries support the drive to take the anti-Iran campaign to the UN.

Let’s talk about Yemen

The new Saudi prince is affected by Western press coverage, which portrays his kingdom as cruel and backward, as he wishes to make a significant impact on the younger generation within the country. If Macron can show the world how both the US and UK are supporting the Saudi blockade there, killing thousands through starvation and illness and that a humanitarian solution could also be a political one, then the heat can be taken off Lebanon. The crux of the Saudi campaign presently is that it believes Hezbollah forces are responsible for missile attacks on the Saudi capital. The answer may be to stop the war and let Yemen operate fully under a UN humanitarian mandate. Now that the war against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria is no longer taking all of the media’s attention, Macron could also lobby hard for the journalists’ ban in Yemen to be lifted.

Yemen will be the hardest to pull off given the dogma of the MbS entourage who refuse to join up the dots and see that, as usual, it is Saudi’s own beleaguered and foolish intervention in the region which produces the very foundation for Hezbollah to take root in the first place, and that Riyadh has actually to accept responsibility in how quickly the Lebanese Shiite movement has grown in recent years.

If Lebanon’s politicians can see a real ally in France, there is a chance the Saudi threat can be defused; but it will take a lot of political capital and, given his age, Macron might find that MbS will listen to his council. Macron will still need all the makeup and spin he can get. He might want to think twice though about taking those calls from Tony Blair.

Martin Jay is based in Beirut @MartinRJay

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.