- Liban-Syrie, intimes étrangers: Un siècle d’interactions sociopolitiques [Lebanon-Syria, intimate strangers: A century of sociopolitical interactions] by Élizabeth Picard
Domestic politics in Arab countries are so entangled with those of their Arab neighbors that the Arab world seems, however disunited, to be exceptionally integrated. But Élizabeth Picard argues that the intimes étrangers (intimate strangers) of Lebanon and Syria do not so much illustrate some Arab exceptionalism as they transcend it and resemble other national couples such as East and West Germany before 1990 or Taiwan and mainland China since the 1970s. Other Arab couples did not quite qualify as comparable in her eyes. Picard views the two Yemens as functionally too “distant” from the nation-state model, and the Jordan-Palestine couple to be inconceivable without Israel (pp. 14–15). Her Syro-Lebanese couple is defined by its French rather than Ottoman origins. Ever since the founding of Greater Lebanon in 1920, followed by the five other states that comprised the French Mandate of Syria in 1923, Lebanon and Syria contest and complement incomplete processes of national identity formation. It was perhaps out of frustration witnessing Beirut’s “insoluble debates” that Picard elected to rethink Lebanon in light of Syria’s trajectory (p. 10).
Her book is an ambitious analytic history divided into studying three processes — separation (1920–50), confrontation (1950–2005), and “distinction” (since 2005) — and seven themes focused on “critical conjunctures,” starting with the uncertain founding of the two putative nation-states under French strategies of divide and rule. The other themes explore the cultural and political logics of “one single people in two states,” as she recalls Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad’s summary of the situation; their political economy of complementarities, [End Page 321] rivalries, and alignments; nation-building and sovereignty during the Cold War; tutelage and predation in Syrian-occupied Lebanon from 1991 to 2005; Lebanese “revolution” and Syrian contestation; and finally, since 2011, the question of whether the two states are becoming a common battlefield.
Picard, an emerita research director of France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique (National Center of Scientific Research), has studied Lebanon for over three decades and has a rich appreciation of the “single people in two states.” She has concise descriptions of numerous notable families straddling the two political and economic systems and shows how even during the Mandate period the interests of the ultraliberal bankers and traders of Beirut differed from those of the industrialists mainly based in Aleppo and Damascus. In the period after 1950, when the two countries terminated the Mandate’s economic union, many Syrian entrepreneurs found their way to Beirut. Some preserved useful informal connections through the period of state socialism in Syria, and some returned after 1990 to guide Syria’s partial neoliberal reforms. “Invisible” financial circuits reappeared in the open after 2003 with the opening of privately owned banks in Syria (pp. 244ff.).
This book employs an arsenal of social science concepts from Antonio Gramsci to Charles Tilly to delineate the odd couple’s history. Reference to Gramsci’s historic bloc in Lebanon, for instance, allows Picard to inject class interests into stereotypical confessionalism and sectarian conflict. As for Tilly’s nation-building, cross-national militias seem to work at cross purposes. She reverses Carl von Clausewitz’s famous dictum to suggest that, in Lebanon, politics is war by other means, especially once Syria officially withdrew its military forces in 2005. Indeed, the hope that Lebanon might recover its form of democracy was quickly dashed as the Lebanese politicians, who had all at one time or another allied with Damascus, simply reinforced their authoritarian practices (p. 291). Predatory transnational networks survived, slightly rearranged after a couple of suicides or murders of top Syrian leaders as well as the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005. Picard resorts to “path dependence” to explain the different but equally unsuccessful attempts to democratize the respective regimes in the 2000s.
Picard highlights the...