Lebanon looks set to embark upon the new year in a state of greater unease and foreboding about the imminent future than at any time since the end of the 1975-1990 war.
The resignations in mid-November of six cabinet ministers—all five Shia and an ally of President Emile Lahoud—and the accompanying specter of street demonstrations have spurred earnest speculation whether the political impasse will lead to a revival of civil war. The slaying of industry minister Pierre Gemayel, no friend to Syria, has further increased tensions.
There appears little hope of a meaningful breakthrough in the crisis, as Lebanon’s domestic ailments cannot be separated from the Gordian knot of regional and international interests which lie beneath much of the country’s current troubles.
Historically, Lebanon has tended to play the unenviable role of battleground for competing regional and international powers struggling to subvert and dominate their rivals using local Lebanese factions as proxies. Today, the situation is no different, with an anti-Western grouping of Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas and various bit players challenging the influence of the US and its European allies, chiefly Britain and France, as well as regional allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
An anti-Western alliance takes shape
The anti-Western alliance began to coalesce in the wake of the election in August 2005 of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran. It was strengthened in the first half of 2006, with Tehran and Damascus inking several economic and trade agreements in February and a mutual defense pact in May. Iran views Syria as a useful bridge to its ally Hizbullah in Lebanon and has invested much political and economic effort in shoring up the regime in Damascus. Having faced the isolation of the West since the invasion of Iraq, Syria has come to rely increasingly on its powerful Persian ally, a strategic relationship which has strengthened the domestic standing of the regime at the expense of further alienating its Arab neighbors, many of whom remain deeply suspicious of Iran’s intentions in the Middle East.
A series of national dialogues on key issues held between March and June at the suggestion of Speaker Nabih Berri did little more than to defer the inevitable confrontation. Both sides agreed to disagree on the fate of Lahoud, and talks on Hizbullah’s weapons went nowhere. Even the one topic where consensus was reached—closing down Palestinian military bases outside the refugee camps within a six-month period—went unfulfilled.
The divisions in Lebanon were exacerbated by the devastating month-long war between Hizbullah and Israel in July and August. Hizbullah’s fighters waged a remarkably effective campaign against the Israeli army, the latter having clearly underestimated the capabilities of its foe. Although Hizbullah dubbed the war a “divine victory” and claimed it emerged stronger, it is too soon to say with any certainty who was the ultimate victor. Although the Israeli military fared poorly against Hizbullah, the resistance has emerged tactically weaker: for the time being, it is unable to resurrect its military infrastructure along the Lebanon-Israel border. The post-war deployment of 15,000 Lebanese troops and an expanded United Nations peacekeeping force in the South, UNIFIL II, present both political and practical obstacles to rebuilding their underground fortifications and border observations posts or conducting armed patrols, let alone resuming periodic attacks in the Shebaa Farms or elsewhere along the Blue Line.
The presence of troops from leading European nations such as France, Spain and Italy as well as UNIFIL’s naval component led by Germany, has alarmed Hizbullah. It sees the deployment as a new attempt by its enemies to neutralize its military capabilities against Israel, thwart Iran’s efforts to project itself directly into the Arab-Israeli conflict and check Syria’s ability to regain control of Lebanon.
Not power for its own sake
Thus, Hizbullah’s post-war political gambit to boost the opposition’s presence in the government at the expense of the March 14 block is borne of exigency rather than ambition. Rather than a naked grab for power to better the lot of its Shia constituents, the party’s actions are dictated by the broader strategic interests it shares with Syria and Iran. Overturning the Siniora government in favor of pro-Syrian Lebanese will weaken Washington’s influence over Lebanon and strengthen the roles of Iran and Syria. A national unity government would allow Hizbullah to block any legislation that is deemed to threaten it and its Iranian and Syrian allies. That could include holding up the investigation into the murder of Rafik Hariri and the future judicial proceedings, which remain Syria’s principal concern. Achieving a veto-wielding status in the cabinet would allow Hizbullah to block any move to increase UNIFIL II’s powers, such as granting the force the right to search and confiscate weapons or deployment along the Lebanon-Syria border.
Hizbullah’s allies in Lebanon, on the other hand, have their own generally parochial reasons for hitching their horses to the Shia bandwagon. For some traditional pro-Syrians, it is an opportunity to return to the center of power, having spent the past 18 months in the political wilderness. For Michel Aoun, aligning with Hizbullah is a tactical move to bring him closer to the presidency, although it is a relationship that some of the General’s Christian supporters are finding increasingly hard to stomach.
The opposition’s assertiveness comes at a time when the March 14 group is beginning to question the extent of Washington’s commitment to the Siniora government. The rapidity with which the Bush administration dumped the government in July to give whole-hearted endorsement for Israel’s onslaught against Lebanon demonstrated that Washington’s support for Siniora is tactical, rather than strategic, and finite.
The concerns of the March 14 group were heightened by expectations that the Iraq Study Group, headed by former US Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, would recommend that the Bush administration begin talks with Syria and Iran as a way of resolving the impasse in Iraq. At the time of writing, the findings of the Baker-Hamilton commission have yet to be released, although it been revealed that members of the commission have held talks with Iranian and Syrian officials.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s trip to Washington in early November was partly to seek reassurances that the Bush administration will not abandon its Lebanese allies as part of a Mephistophelean bargain with Syria to ease US troubles in Iraq, a far more pressing concern for the White House than ensuring the continuity of the March 14-led government in Lebanon. After all, it was the current president’s father who sanctioned Syria’s dominion over Lebanon in 1990 as a reward for joining the US-led coalition to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
Still, despite the Americans sending out feelers to Damascus, there is no indication yet that Bush will agree to re-engage with Syria and Iran. The rhetoric from Washington remains unchanged with the onus for resumed dialogue dependent on the “good behavior” of both countries.
The struggle between the government and opposition peaked as the cabinet was about to discuss and vote on draft statutes delivered by the UN on the formation of an international tribunal to try the killers of Rafik Hariri. The draft resolution was endorsed by a depleted government, but its credibility was weakened by the absence of the Shia ministers.
The formation of the international tribunal and the anticipated flurry of indictments could seriously complicate any effort by the West to re-engage with Syria. Damascus will have its own list of demands in exchange for cooperation in stabilizing Iraq, among them likely to be neutralizing the Hariri murder probe (or at least deflecting it away from Syria), the return of the Golan Heights from Israel and an increased role in Lebanese affairs. All three, for different reasons, would be hard for the US to accept.
Any long-lasting resolution to Lebanon’s political travails is unlikely to emerge from Lebanon’s leaders themselves, but will be a result of shifting fortunes of the main players—the US, Iran and Syria—in the regional powerplay. But as the second anniversary of Hariri’s death and the subsequent “independence intifada” draw near, Syria and its Lebanese allies appear better positioned today than at any time before to restore Lebanon to the anti-Western fold in the Middle East.