Dany Assaf is a Toronto-based lawyer and author and member of the Lebanese Canadian Coalition, which helped organize relief efforts for the Beirut explosion.
On this first anniversary of the devastating explosion in Beirut, it’s important to assess the broader damage suffered in Lebanon and the global implications. In the aftermath of the disaster, I worked with Lebanese Canadians and people from many other backgrounds to get humanitarian aid to Lebanon.
Yet a year on, the larger issues for Lebanon’s rebuilding and its progress remain unresolved as the country edges toward the abyss, threatened by forces of institutional corruption and outdated sectarian government structures.
At the time of the explosion, Canadians of all stripes and our government jumped to help because of the strong connections built over the past century. Many of us see Lebanon as an ancient crossroads of civilization and, like Canada, a place of accommodation between peoples of different faiths and family histories, and one that has contributed much beauty in poetry, the arts, fashion, food and culture.
Indeed, Lebanon is a place where Christians and Muslims share life and love of country. Yet today, sadly, it suffers from existential divisions. These divisions have been stoked and manipulated by sectarian leaders in the wake of the devastation of the explosion and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Lebanese joie de vivre is renowned, but today the country’s indelible spirit has been weakened and Lebanon is aching for a hand up. Sometimes in helping friends, we can also help ourselves by engaging globally in responsible ways to champion shared values. In this case, “we” means not only Canada, but the West generally as the values that are important to us are important to most Lebanese, who are fiercely independent people who cherish the value of freedom.
This is why the West can’t lose Lebanon. With recent failures to bring sustainable security and beat back threats to freedom in Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine and elsewhere, it becomes only more critical today for the West to prioritize help to save Lebanon. If, as U.S. President Joe Biden has stated, “America is back,” Lebanon is the place to unite the West to push back against the erosion of freedom we see in many corners.
While we have seen the folly of unwise military adventures, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a continuing role for leaders of freedom and inclusive progress to support liberal values in this increasingly multipolar world. Times change, but it remains constant that humans are born free, yet many people then spend their lives struggling to resist the efforts of others to control them. Regardless of what we see in any headline or government news release, humanity always yearns for freedom.
The loss of Lebanon and what it represents to its region and beyond would be a sad chapter in the current global climate. The country should be a model for religious accommodation, the advancement of women’s rights in Asia and entrepreneurial energy in the digital age.
Yet Lebanon is being threatened by a sectarian government framework that substitutes loyalty to sect for merit as the operating principle to run its vital functions. In short, Lebanon is an extreme example of a country no longer run in the interests of a large majority of its population, and it is incapable of self-correction.
So how can the country be fixed? Today, the U.S. is in the midst of renegotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran’s government, and a hard term of settlement should include support for the demilitarization of all militias in Lebanon and the consolidation of all military power in the hands of the Lebanese army.
This is an essential starting point, as the very definition of a nation is that the state controls its sole military power. As well, no significant investments can be made in a country with more than one military force.
Lebanon also represents key U.S. and Western interests as home to a large refugee population, and the collapse of Lebanon would trigger another wave of refugee migration to Europe. Successful efforts by the U.S., Canada and others may also improve Lebanese-Israeli security, and help set the stage for more effective future Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
Today, Canada should draw upon on its Lester B. Pearson moment in the Suez Crisis of 1956 to reinvigorate our diplomatic tools and rally global efforts to help save Lebanon and secure a win for freedom and hope in these messy times. It has often been said the world needs more Canada. The question today is whether Canada will deliver.
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