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Lebanon 2019 | DIPLOMACY | INTERVIEW

The Levant is once more in the process of reinventing itself, with positive prospects emerging in Syria and Iraq.

A series of tragedies in the 20th century, including the Lebanese civil war and numerous Arab-Israeli confrontations, stained the Levant's reputation as a historic mosaic of cultures conducive to trade. However, the worst came in 2011 with the outbreak of civil war in Syria, which would go on to burn centuries-old Levantine towns and villages to ashes, and lead to the rise of the so-called Islamic State in 2014-2015.

Today, the conflict's intensity has decreased from its bloodiest days, but the Levant, from the borderlands of Egypt to Iraq, is left in a state of uncertainty. The situation is far worse for Iraq and Syria, the scene of much conflict, though Lebanon and Jordan, among others, have not remained immune to the repercussions of war, while also hosting a sizeable population of refugees.
There is no denying that, to embark on reconstruction, both Iraq and Syria are in need of international aid and investment, but potential investors are still eyeing the region, as a whole, with some apprehension. This has a negative impact on the business ecosystems of countries such as Lebanon, which was not directly involved in the conflict, but feels its effects nonetheless.
Lebanon held general elections in 2018, and though the new government was not formed until January 2019, now that the new cabinet is up and running, it can use Lebanon's leverage in the region to create a better Levant. In particular, as the new cabinet is one of the most pluralistic in Lebanese history, it will be in a position to engage with various stakeholders in the region, including those forces that are closer to the West and those with ties to Iran, at least informally.

At the current critical juncture and despite the ebbing of conflict in Syria and Iraq, the threat of a backslide to tit-for-tat warfare is never completely out of the question. Such a threat could cancel out the little progress that has been made so far. No player in Lebanon or elsewhere in the Levant is now looking for a fight, but one has also to allow for the possibility of “black swans" and errors of judgment quickly escalating into fully fledged warfare. An unexpected breakout of hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel, for example, could set back Lebanon's development irreparably.

One should not despair, however, as there are positive prospects, too. Since the discovery of the Leviathan gas field in 2010, major international oil and gas companies such as Noble Energy and Total have been drawn to the region. Meanwhile, the Italian oil giant, Eni, struck gas off the coast of Egypt in 2015.

Though this may be a case of wishful thinking, some analysts believe that Israel's determination to discover and export hydrocarbons will force it to restructure its relationship with Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey—and even the Palestinian Authority—in order to achieve more stability in the region.

Since 2018, Lebanon, too, has been looking for potential oil and gas reserves with the help of a consortium comprising Total, Eni, and Russia's Novatek. The progress was somewhat slowed by Lebanon's political limbo, but it is expected to gather momentum now that a new Minister of Energy is in office.
In Syria, hostilities are fading, though Assad has managed to stay in power. Syria's exhausted economy will eventually return to the regional scene, but will quite probably remain subdued for years to come. At the same time, the world will remain wary of hostilities resurfacing in the country in some new form. At least, however, Islamic State and its reign of terror has met its end. By March 2019, the last remaining fighters faithful to the so-called caliphate were killed or captured. The extremist group that once controlled the cities of Mosul and Raqqa and threatened the entire region has now lost its last shreds of territory.
This is definitely an improvement for regional peace, but the ISIS ideology is an ongoing threat that regional leaders will need to continue taking seriously.

With ISIS out of the picture, Iraq too will have to begin rebuilding its economy. The process will undoubtedly be long given the presence of sectarianism and the influence of foreign powers in the country. However, the country's parliamentary and provincial elections in 2018 are good omens, provided that they are followed by economic reforms and anti-corruption measures to create a more stable Iraq and Levant.