For internal circulation
20 Nov 09
A Government in the Shadow of Hizballah
By Nizar Abdel-Kader
The warm welcome given the new Lebanese government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the support expressed by international and regional powers will not make it any easier for it to tackle the many controversial issues it faces. The new government is concentrating on drafting a policy statement that is expected to be ratified prior to Independence Day on November 22 and political parties of all stripes seem to have decided to postpone tackling contentious issues, including Hizballah’s weapons, in the upcoming National Dialogue sessions. Nevertheless, the main bone of contention remains Hizballah’s weapons.
International concern over Hizballah’s weapons was reflected in a White House statement that praised the formation of the Lebanese government after more than four months of political deadlock. In its statement, the White House also called on the government to implement UN Security Council resolutions that called for dismantling all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.
Hariri sought to form a “unity government” as a step to overcome the country’s deep sectarian divisions and avoid a repetition of last year’s scenario that nearly brought Lebanon to the brink of a new civil war. However, given all the major differences between the March 8 and the March 14 ministers over both Hizballah’s weapons and economic issues, the cabinet will yet again serve as a platform for contentious debate and will, consequently, have a very slim chance of doing any better than the previous government of Fouad Siniora.
In practical terms, there is no real possibility for an agreement to disarm Hizballah ahead of a general settlement to the Arab-Israel conflict–a precondition posited by General Secretary of Hizballah Hassan Nasrallah–something not currently on the horizon. In other words, the Lebanese National Dialogue, the UN Security Council, US pressure on Lebanon or repeated Israeli threats will not make any difference.
Within Lebanon there is no doubt that Hizballah has lost the strategic depth it possessed prior to the July war of 2006, especially within Sunni and Christian communities. However, conserving the “problematic” Lebanese political balance will certainly not serve as an incentive to disarmament, rather the reverse.
The formation of the new government will not solve the domestic roots of the continuing crisis, and the environment of non-cooperative behavior from Lebanon’s political elite toward the country’s power-sharing arrangements will not cease. The political debate around the negotiations to reach a compromise on the distribution of ministerial portfolios does not indicate any clear movement toward ending the political crisis through reform in the near future. Sooner or later, the opposition will again claim a veto power in the cabinet by trying to express the importance of the Doha agreement as an explanation of the Taif accord. Consequently, the new government and the new parliament are not expected to function any better than the previous ones.
The mistrust between the majority and the opposition will affect the political interplay within the cabinet as well as in society at large, something that will reflect negatively on the government’s ability to take any important political, economic or military decisions to improve the present situation. It was seen during the session of the National Dialogue that Hizballah is not ready to reach a compromise with the Lebanese government on the right to declare war and peace. Hizballah instead linked its military role to an Israeli withdrawal from the Shebaa Farms area. These discussions have led many political leaders to look at the Hizballah militia as a regional, rather than a Lebanese force. It is believed that Hizballah is acting more as an Iranian and Syrian proxy than as a Lebanese political party, even though it is represented within the parliament and the government.
Briefly, then, democracy has not prevailed and the power of Hizballah’s weapons will remain stronger than the public ballot and all state institutions. The risk of more paralysis and the fear of instability and insecurity will not totally vanish with the new government.
Several scenarios could bring the cabinet to a partial or total standstill, the most important ones being a new war erupting between Hizballah and Israel as a consequence of the continuing crisis with Iran; a series of attacks against UNIFIL in South Lebanon to derail its mission in response to international and internal pressures on Hizballah to disarm according to UNSC resolutions 1551 and 1701; or the withdrawal of the opposition ministers from the government in response to challenges posed by the on-going Special Tribunal for Lebanon or by reaching a deadlock on defense strategy within the National Dialogue forum.
No breakthrough is expected to be reached through the new government or through the new National Dialogue. The only hope for any positive developments lies in possible changes in the regional strategic context.
Nizar Abdel-Kader is a political analyst/columnist at Ad-Diyar Newspaper in Beirut.
The Syrian Role
By Ferry Biederman
Rare is the occasion on which the anti-Syrian camp in Lebanon agrees with the government in Damascus. But even though the western-backed March 14 bloc’s Saad Hariri is heading his first government and even though the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority tries to put the best face on it, many of its people feel that the outcome of the arduous cabinet formation is a triumph for Damascus. And the Syrians are not hiding their satisfaction either.
Undoubtedly the make-up of the government, denying the parliamentary majority an outright majority of cabinet seats, is the most direct reason for this shared assessment. But given Lebanon’s notoriously and serially ineffective governments and the country’s many other, sectarian, regional and political checks and balances, the actual make up of any cabinet cannot be a reason for much sentiment either way. In any case, some of the ministers who hold the balance in the new cabinet, chosen by president Michel Suleiman, can be counted on to support Hariri.
Both sides are rather looking at a complex and delicate set of signals and developments in the country, the region and the world from which they draw the same conclusions. And if these do not play out in the most optimistic way possible, the chances for peace and stability in Lebanon in the coming four years look bleak. Hariri actually did not strike a bad deal on the face of it. But all depends on the willingness of the minority, and specifically the Hizballah movement, to let him govern. That dependency was exactly what he had initially vowed to avoid.
In Damascus some may point out that the cabinet negotiations finally meant Saudi Arabian recognition of Syria’s role in Lebanon and a new status quo. Syria has given the impression that it has now “allowed” the cabinet formation in Lebanon to proceed and it will expect something in return, just as it received the gift of relative detente after the Doha accords in 2008. The expected quid pro quo is more American rapprochement and possibly US blessing for progress on the Israeli-Syrian peace front. Apart from Lebanon, Damascus feels that it has other aces up its sleeve to force this, particularly its ability to influence events in Iraq.
Syria has much to gain economically if it is allowed to reintegrate into the region and the world, see an end to US sanctions, attract investment and trade more easily. But that may not be the real focus of its diplomatic drive. It now almost seems as if the Syrian government sees an opportunity to have its cake and eat it. For years, received wisdom among many observers in the region was that if Damascus wanted the Golan Heights back and a detente with the West, it would have to give up on Lebanon and it would have to loosen control at home. This was never a deal that the powers that be were going to take and it seems now they feel that they don’t have to; they can do better.
One indication is that Syria is finally managing to turn the humiliation of leaving Lebanon in 2005 to its advantage. It does not have to be physically present in the country to demonstrate to all the players there and abroad that it still plays a considerable role. This was one of the purposes of the maneuvering surrounding the cabinet formation. Both Lebanese and Syrians acknowledge that the pre-2005 situation will not be restored, but as far as Damascus is concerned it does not have to be. Better to disavow responsibility for Lebanon while still exerting broad political and military influence through Hizballah.
It is a way of at least reducing the role Lebanon will play in negotiations over the Golan with Israel, if not take it completely off the table as an issue. Talk of disarming Hizballah or cutting off its supplies is fanciful anyway and maybe Damascus calculates that the Israelis will realize this and move on. This is all assuming that Syria and the Israelis are not merely interested in negotiations for negotiations’ sake.
What this means for Lebanon is that it is once again subject to the machinations of regional and global players, although this does not absolve the local politicians from the original sin of allowing this to be so. Hariri’s bet for the immediate future is on stability. If he succeeds in serving out his full term without war or internal conflict, it would be a real breakthrough even if he achieves nothing else. Not only would it be positive for the economic development of the country, it could also in itself strengthen the state and its institutions and improve his own political position. This would come at the expense of the parliamentary minority, mainly Hizballah, and of Syria’s influence over the affairs of the country. The minority could therefore benefit from disrupting Hariri’s rule politically, and if needed otherwise. It would not face much more of a backlash than it suffered over the fighting in May 2008.
Certainly in the absence of an Israeli-Syrian deal, the latter scenario looks the most likely and all regional and global players know it. Other contingencies are possible, the Iranian situation may play a role, but this seems the basic equation. It is a bleak one because it is still unlikely that Israel or the US will deal with Syria on its conditions, leaving it the Hizballah and probably also the Hamas and Iraq cards.
Ferry Biedermann is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.
Understanding the Dilemma
By Michel Nehme
Lebanon’s new unity government is unified in name only. Deep divisions between rival parties, especially regarding the issue of Hizballah’s arsenal of weapons, remain unresolved. Observers of Lebanese politics assert that the cabinet deal came as a result of Syrian and Saudi efforts, with Iranian-Turkish help, and is based on a recommendation to leave all divisive issues stalemated.
Thus this alleged unity government is at best ceremonial. One force on the ground, Hizballah, which refused to disarm regardless of who won the parliamentary elections, will essentially dictate the workings of the new cabinet in coordination with and exploitation of the Amal movement and coalition partner Michel Aoun. Thus far, Hizballah has managed to get what it wants; nothing can happen without its consent.
Though Hizballah and its allies were defeated in last June’s general election, this new government was formed following more than four months of tough negotiations where the Hizballah-led opposition proved to have the upper hand regarding the distribution of portfolios and the choice of ministers. Abiding by Saudi-Syrian directives, the 30-member cabinet is composed of 15 seats for Saad Hariri and his coalition, 10 for Hizballah’s camp and five for President Michel Suleiman’s appointees. This is a government of contradictions that mirrors all of the country’s complexities and woes. The rival ministers will be at each other’s throats in each cabinet session and more Saudi-Syrian intervention to pacify them will be continuously necessary.
Druze minority leader Walid Jumblat, who spearheaded the anti-Syrian movement within the March 14 forces, has now shifted away from the Hariri political trend to argue that Syrian influence in Lebanon is permissible. He wants his son Taymour and the Druze minority to cease involvement in the conflict between the March 8 and 14 forces, arguing that the confrontation is not between Muslims and Christians but rather between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. This, after his Progressive Socialist Party had to compromise repeatedly to reduce Shi’ite-Druze tension and to limit the repercussions of the May 7, 2008 events when Shi’ites and Druze came into direct military confrontation.
Both Jumblat and Suleiman Franjieh, the pro-Syrian leader of a Christian faction, are thus now shifting alliances. This is producing a whole new balance of power in the polarized Lebanese political arena, a tendency that is weakening Hariri’s coalition and ultimately will compel him to become more dependent on the regional support of the Saudis.
The major point of contention between the two camps in Lebanon–for reasons more local than regional–has been Hizballah’s weapons, an issue starkly highlighted in May 2008 when the militant group staged a spectacular takeover of mainly Muslim West Beirut and attacked the Druze in their mountain redoubt. All anti-Syrian factions in Lebanon live in a state of anxiety that a repeat of these events is possible unless the new government addresses the fundamental divisions among the rival parties.
Thus the efforts of the new cabinet will be fruitless unless it works to consolidate national consensus. This will be hard to achieve. Lebanon is de-facto sitting on a powder keg. Whether we like it or not, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Arab-Israel conflict and the bloodshed in Iraq all render it a regional battleground.
Al-Qaeda’s brand of Sunni militancy has taken root in Lebanon in recent years, feeding upon Sunni-Shi’ite hatred and the insurgency in Iraq where dozens, maybe hundreds of young Lebanese and Palestinian Sunnis have fought the Shi’ite government and American and British troops and returned home inspired by their experiences. It was a more than usually turbulent Lebanon that greeted the expanded UNIFIL in southern Lebanon in 2006, when the devastating month-long war between Hizballah and Israel ended only to be followed by deep political crisis between Sunnis and Shi’ites.
When one addresses these United Nations peacekeepers, one quickly learns that their principal force protection concern has little to do with Lebanon’s Hizballah guerrillas, Israeli aerial provocations or indeed potential ill-feeling on the part of the local population. Rather, it is al-Qaeda possibly taking advantage of the presence of nearly 10,000 foreign, mainly western, troops in Lebanon’s Deep South that gives them pause.
Meanwhile Hizballah, whose stock has soared in the Sunni Arab and Islamic world due to the potential military threat it poses, has been developing a new and innovative fighting strategy based on new weapons acquisitions to compensate for the autonomy it lost in the border area with Israel. The intricate network of bunkers, firing positions, tunnels, arms depots and observation posts that Hizballah held in the South has been replaced by new systems that can meet the same objectives. The deployment of a strengthened UNIFIL and, more crucially, of 15,000 Lebanese troops south of the Litani River, has not made it politically or practically difficult for Hizballah to rebuild its pre-war strength.
In addition to trepidation lest the al-Qaeda brand of Sunni militancy try to undermine the state system, a core problem of the new cabinet is the belief that Israel and the United States assume that any military action they launch against Iran’s nuclear program would draw a muscular response from Hizballah. Correspondingly, Hizballah believes that any move against Tehran would require a move first against its capability to disrupt life in northern Israel with its rockets. Confronted with this sort of dilemma, what could Lebanon’s so-called new unity government do?
Prof. Michel Nehme is director of University International Affairs, Notre Dame University, Lebanon.
Hizballah in War and Peace
By Nicholas Noe
Four and a half years after Syrian troops were unexpectedly cajoled out of Lebanon, and more than three years after the end of a (nearly) “open” war with Israel, the Shi’ite movement Hizballah appears not only militarily stronger, as many of its enemies attest, but also politically and ideologically more secure, confident and, to a certain degree, coherent.
Indeed, as far as Hizballah is concerned, the March 14 movement that helped kick the Syrians out and that managed to maintain a narrow parliamentary majority in last summer’s election (reportedly with the help of more than $750 million in Saudi financing) has effectively ceased to exist. There is, quite simply, no domestic power right now that can substantially challenge or even “contain” Hizballah’s independent arsenal–all the more so since there is also no credible external power to provide the kind of support that would be vital in such an effort.
Reconciliations and “thawings” with nearby Damascus are instead the order of the day, as Saudi and Egyptian power in the country retreats and regional differences sharpen around the unexpectedly swift decline of the “settlement camp” as a whole.
These external factors, of course, have greatly helped in solidifying and clarifying Hizballah’s overall position. But as key theoreticians in the party, including its current head, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, have long argued, the main existential danger threatening the movement’s twin goals of fully liberating Lebanese territories and hastening the demise of the Jewish state of Israel (setting aside the threat that a regional peace deal may pose) has always been the specter of internal division–not the army divisions that the IDF or the US Marines could conceivably muster up.
This was the lesson learned early on by Hizballah during the end of the Lebanese Civil War when conflict broke out with the Shi’ite Amal movement. Those bloody months saw the only sustained drop in Hizballah attacks on Israeli forces and their proxies during the occupation of South Lebanon and raised the possibility of a Shi’ite implosion.
Now, with the crumbling of domestic opposition, Hizballah finally feels confident enough to take a much-needed breather on the home front and concentrate its energies more fully on what it views as the main event with Israel–a confrontation that party leaders and cadres believe is nearing.
This is not to say, however, that there are no domestic vulnerabilities. There are, and, for the most part, they remain just under the surface as a spider web within which Hizballah still must operate.
Briefly, one would include on the list: the 2006 July War that ravaged the movement’s Shi’ite base and raised the countrywide “reasonability test” for any future conflict (is Hizballah going to go to war for a good enough reason?); its use of arms internally last year that magnified its sometimes violent, sectarian aspect; its loss in the June 2009 elections, demonstrating the overconfidence and atrophy in Hizballah’s vital political alliances; the “Shi’ite Bernie Madoff” scandal that sullied Hizballah’s reputation for incorruptibility; and, certainly, the Iranian election unrest that damaged Nasrallah’s increasingly tenuous claim to be heading a party that effectively synergizes reason and faith.
The problem here for Hizballah’s opponents is that these vulnerabilities (of which there are certainly more) would have to be activated and organized around in order to create a new domestic alliance able to decisively undermine Hizballah’s desire and ability to use violence. Unfortunately, as it currently stands, the potentially preponderant actor in Lebanon, the United States, appears unwilling and/or unable to invest in this particular course of action. This applies especially to convincing the Israelis to lend a critical hand by not objecting to sophisticated arms transfers to the Lebanese army, turning over to the UN small parcels of territory considered as occupied by the Lebanese government and shifting away from IAF over-flights that baldly violate UN resolutions and risk sparking another devastating war.
An internal debate may finally take place very soon in Washington over Lebanon policy–perhaps because policymakers have woken up to the idea that a war between Hizballah and Israel is more likely in the near term than a conflict with Iran. Yet deep divisions within President Obama’s “team of rivals” combined with the political and intellectual vortex that Lebanon has long been for Americans, all lessen the chance that any unconventional thinking on how to approach Hizballah might actually be translated into action.
In the absence of a “peace process” then, and without an oblique, non-military strategy on the part of the US to tighten the political, ideological and moral spider web around Hizballah, the movement has declared that it is now even more certain another victory is in the offing–war or no war, as Nasrallah argued recently.
If Israel launches a preemptive strike because it discovers a “game-changing” weapons transfer, for example, or as a prelude to an attack on Iran, Hizballah will be domestically protected since its response will likely be deemed as justified by important segments of Lebanon’s body politic. Even if Israel somehow resists attacking in the event of a strike on Iran, there are numerous other means by which Hizballah can become involved in an open conflict with the domestic backing it deems vital. Shooting down and/or capturing an Israeli pilot overflying Lebanon, for example, would likely entail a wide response by Israel but would be difficult for Hizballah’s opponents to condemn, given the violation of Lebanese sovereignty.
Either way, Hizballah is supremely confident that it can adequately protect itself both politically and militarily in any new conflict with Israel. In fact, the overwhelming sentiment within the party seems to be that a confrontation is not only inevitable, but that when it comes it will finally lead to the total collapse of Israel. This means, above all else, that the relative quiet of the past few years has not brought restored Israeli deterrence, but instead the deferment of a conflict that Hizballah feels vastly more secure in waging.
But what if there is no new war? Here, too, Hizballah sees a strategic gain since it believes Israel has passed a turning point such that the Jewish state’s perceived internal factors of decline (much discussed by Israelis themselves) can be decisively accelerated with the increasing application of pressure.
Revenge for Commander Imad Mughnieh’s assassination, then, does not have to be had in some kind of a spectacular attack and it does not have to be rushed. The revenge is ongoing and permanent, Nasrallah suggests, since as the missile capability of the “resistance axis” extends over and around Israel, fear multiplies the corrosive effects of occupation, demography, international missteps, political corruption and a military might that (supposedly) cannot sustain large casualties.
Of course, Nasrallah might very well be radically mistaken in all of this. The crucial point, though, is that both he and the party seem to firmly believe otherwise–a certitude and a righteousness mirrored by many of Hizballah’s Israeli opponents who are apparently no less eager to put their own Dahia doctrine, as well as Nasrallah’s “Tel Aviv doctrine” of mutual maximum destruction, to the test.
Sadly, if such a war does indeed come, as appears increasingly likely, one thing is certain–it will cost far more lives on both sides than the last round did.
Nicholas Noe is the editor-in-chief of Mideastwire.com and the author of a 2008 Century Foundation white paper entitled, “Re-Imaging the Lebanon Track: Towards a New US Policy”.
New Government in Beirut, Old Problems in the South
By Eyal Zisser
In early November 2009, Saad al-Hariri finally succeeded in forming a new government in Lebanon. This was five months after the citizens of Lebanon had gone to the polls to elect their representatives to parliament. Hariri was and remains the leader of the Sunnis in Lebanon and winner in the elections. However, there is no doubt that the events of the previous five months, during which the Lebanese political system was almost completely paralyzed, reveal clearly the difficulties and challenges confronting the country.
The spring 2009 parliamentary elections aroused great interest both within Lebanon and abroad. This was first of all on account of their possible implications for the character of the country’s political system. People wondered how the elections would affect the survivability of the post-Taif agreement (October 1989) political system, the so-called “Taif republic”. In the short term, the main issue was the confrontation with Hizballah, which involved that organization’s efforts to force itself on its rivals, at times violently. In the long term, Lebanon’s main problem was how to integrate the Shi’ite community into the state’s institutions and political and social systems insofar as Shi’ites had evidently become the largest community in the country.
A second reason for the wide interest in the spring 2009 parliamentary elections in Lebanon was the perception that they reflected and paralleled the current struggle between the “axis of evil” in the Middle East, established and headed by Iran, and the moderate camp in the Arab world, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The elections were thus perceived as a test case, if not a battlefield, in which Iran’s ability to advance its aspirations and desires in the Arab world would be tested.
Public opinion polls conducted in Lebanon prior to the elections indicated that Hizballah and the parties supporting it would be victorious. However, after the votes were counted it turned out that, contrary to all pre-election expectations and assessments, the March 14 camp was the victor, albeit by a small margin. Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah quickly declared that he was prepared to acknowledge his defeat and accept the results of the elections. At the same time, he advanced the demand that the victors accept Hizballah as an equal partner in the government. Nasrallah viewed this as a direct consequence of the uniqueness of the Lebanese political system; as he put it, the victors must forget that they won in the elections. Nasrallah stated, furthermore, that Hizballah would not give up its long-range aim of bringing about a change in the rules of the political game in Lebanon in order to make it possible for the organization to exploit the demographic advantage of the Shi’ite community, which Hizballah claims to represent.
Hariri understood Nasrallah’s message. And so, following the elections he tried to establish a national unity government with representatives from Hizballah, the Amal movement and even representatives of Michel Aoun. He was prepared to accept most of Hizballah’s conditions. When Hariri found himself immersed in personal quarrels with Michel Aoun, he resolved them by making additional concessions. And he began hinting that he might be prepared to put aside his hostility to Syria. Hariri considers Syria responsible for the murder of his father, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Still, he indicated that he might be willing to open a new page between the two countries, the implication being that he would go back to serving Syrian interests in Lebanon.
Thus it appears that the March 14 camp’s June 2009 electoral victory was only partial and short-term, merely one clash in a long battle that is still far from finished, a battle over the path Lebanon takes and the future of the country.
In parallel, and without any direct connection with what was taking place in Beirut, tension returned to South Lebanon after three years of relative quiet following the Second Lebanon War of July-August 2006. During the late summer and fall of 2009, a number of mysterious explosions occurred in the area, some of them in ammunition depots covertly established by Hizballah in the homes of Shi’ite villagers in the area south of the Litani River. Hizballah acted under the watchful eye of the Lebanese army and under the noses of UNIFIL, which, although it dominates the area, was limited in its ability to supervise what was going on inside the local Shi’ite villages. During the same period several rockets were fired toward Israel, evidently by an extremist Sunni organization inspired by al-Qaeda, with the apparent aim of heating up the border and drawing Israel and Hizballah into a confrontation.
At the beginning of November 2009, the Israel Navy intercepted a container ship making its way from Iran to Lebanon and thus thwarted an effort to smuggle a large quantity of weapons, mainly missiles, into Lebanon for Hizballah. Despite this success, Israeli spokesmen admitted that it touched just the tip of the iceberg. They noted, however, that this weapons smuggling attempt showed clearly how Iran was striving to strengthen and arm Hizballah in preparation for a possible confrontation with Israel.
As a matter of fact, between the end of the Second Lebanon War and the fall of 2009 Hizballah almost tripled the number of missiles at its disposal. In November 2009, it was estimated that the organization possessed 40-50,000 missiles of the type it had used against the residents of the north of Israel during the Second Lebanon War.
Notably, and in contrast to the state of affairs existing between Israel and Syria, the situation along the Israeli-Lebanese border remained quite explosive. Syria, after all, is a state and not a militia organization like Hizballah, which lacks the mentality and political interests of a state that obligate it to act responsibly and with restraint.
Now, in mid-November 2009, it may be assumed that the new government formed in Lebanon is based upon a balance of fear between Hizballah and its opponents, especially Hariri and the Sunni community he heads. It may also be assumed that a tense calm will continue to prevail along the Israeli-Lebanese border in the absence of either side having any interest in disturbing the quiet. However, on both fronts, that of the Lebanese political system and the border with Israel, the situation is fragile and explosive. The present moment may be merely an intermission between two episodes in the struggle within Lebanon and in the conflict between Israel and Hizballah. Either or both of these fronts could explode at any time.
Eyal Zisser is director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Tel Aviv University.
Edition 42 Volume 7 – November 19, 2009
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