FRANCE’S GEOPOLITICAL GAME IN LEBANON TO COUNTER TURKEY
On August 6, only two days after the deadly explosion that literally destroyed Beirut’s port and ravaged a large part of the Lebanese capital, killing 190 people, injuring another 6,500 and leaving 300,000 citizens homeless, French President Emmanuel Macron has made his first trip to Lebanon before returning for the second time in less than a month. According to a World Bank, the damages caused by the explosion could be between $6.7 billion and $8.1 billion in total in addition to a crippling financial crisis.
After landing on August 31, Macron announced clearly the main objective of his second visit aimed to avoid Lebanon ending up “in the hands of the vileness of the regional powers” and to prevent the country from falling into a new civil war. What did Macron mean by “the hands of evilness of the regional powers”? Those regional powers are Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are competing to carve out an area of influence in this tiny country of 10000m² and barely seven million inhabitants.
Macron’s declared objective is to provide financial assistance to Lebanese people following the deadly explosion but his undeclared objective is to reaffirm France’s former colonies as its spheres of influence, to protect and to guarantee the French political and commercial interests, not only in the East Mediterranean, but also in the Middle East. This is occurring most notably in Africa, where it is currently challenging Turkish attempts to spread its interests. By gaining a foothold in Lebanon, Macron can weaken Turkish attempts to become the gatekeeper of the Sunni stronghold of north Lebanon.
Turkey’s activities are centered around the northern port of Tripoli, a stronghold of Sunni political Islam and an urban center for the Lebanese Sunni population. As such, the area is a natural focus for Turkey. The Akkar Governorate, home to Lebanon’s tiny Turkmen minority, is also an area of interest.
Turkey seeks to leverage both its Sunni Islamist credentials to appeal to Sunni Arab populations, and where relevant its Turkic ethnicity to appeal to Turkic remnant populations in the Levant. Available evidence suggests that in Lebanon, a similar pattern is being followed. Turkey has been working slowly and assiduously, via NGOs and government relief organizations such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency – TIKA to establish its foothold in the country. On July 4 two Turkish and two Syrian citizens on a flight to Lebanon from Turkey were arrested as they attempted to smuggle $4 million into the country. Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi claimed that the money was intended to finance street-level protests against the Lebanese government. As of now, however, the first signs are emerging that Sunni Islamist Turkey is seeking to fill the vacuum, and to recruit the Lebanese Sunni street to its banner.