Elements of Analysis of the Lebanese Political Crisis

By Camille Germanos

This Middle East Insight (no. 3) is also available for download: Insight 3

Lebanon is experiencing severe political upheaval fuelled by a changing geopolitical landscape. The latest tumult began when Hizballah, the armed but participatory opposition party led by Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, took preemptive action against forthcoming STL indictments (Special Tribunal for Lebanon), widely believed to place blame for the 2005 assassination of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on members of its own party. Hizballah’s cabinet coalition prompted the sudden collapse of Mr. Saad Hariri’s government. Days later, the now former opposition garnered a parliamentary majority with a sympathetic Lebanese tycoon, namely Mr. Najib Miqati, securing the post of Prime Minister.

The pace of events and the extent of the shift in Lebanon have alarmed the United States, Israel and the United Nations, all of whom favor Mr. Hariri and his Future Party who now constitute the opposition. This dramatic re-distribution along the political spectrum has strengthened the Syrian and Iranian axis in Beirut, while leaks in the press depicting Mr. Hariri calling Saudi Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef assafah, meaning “killer”  jeopardized Hariri’s relationship with his main backer, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, Mr. Hariri has been weakened by the unprecedented mass protests in several parts of the Arab world shaking his traditional allies.

Despite the foregone nature of the parliamentary transition, this confluence of events puts forward several uncertainties. Perhaps most pressing, will PM Miqati rescind Lebanese backing for the STL as forcefully requested by Hizballah, and how will opposing forces react in the case that he does or does not?

What future can one foresee for the Lebanese Republic, microcosm of the region’s politics, with masses clamoring for regime changes in the Middle East? Already readying for international sanctions and looming hostilities with Israel, is Hizballah looking south to Egypt, preparing the ground for political entente with the Muslim Brotherhood?

Internally, Hizballah catalyzed the fall of PM Hariri, the leading political figure of Lebanon’s Sunnite community, by garnering enough support to concoct the resignation of ten cabinet ministers and thereby the collapse of the government on 12 January. Four days earlier, the General Secretary of Hizballah, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, anticipated the failure of the Saudi-Syrian initiative aiming to neutralize the STL within Lebanon. He presumed that it was obstructed by American pressure over the Saudis. Rejecting the STL as a political tool against his organization, Sayed Nasrallah asked the government to halt financial support and withdraw the Lebanese judges from the Tribunal. Further, he advocated revoking the act of agreement signed with the United Nations, delegitimized by a false witness file at the STL and the disappearance from the state’s coffers of $11 billion.

In the following week, Lebanon lived tensely under political uncertainty until MP Walid Junblat dissolved his “Democratic Gathering”, and backed the premiership of the Hizballah coalition through his new bloc renamed “National Struggle Front.” Such a dramatic political shift raised questions about the legitimacy of the new majority, as it suggested that Junblat made this decision under threat. But the Druze leader declared that his switch to the side of Syria and the Resistance served to preserve Lebanon’s stability. Further, he accused his old ally Mr. Hariri of misunderstanding the complex political landscape in Lebanon.

Binding consultations with neutral and mutually agreeable President Michel Suleiman on 25 January secured 68 votes for Hizballah-backed Najib Miqati against 60 votes for the outgoing caretaker PM Saad Hariri. Mr. Miqati’s nomination triggered spontaneous clashes in Sunnite regions, especially in Tripoli, where some of the secular and religious movements are closer to Hizballah. Meanwhile Mr. Hariri accused Hizballah of seizing power illegitimately and called for a ‘day of rage.’ The civil demonstrations of discontent that followed remained relatively contained and civil peace was preserved. In the meantime, both sides agreed to condemn the growing hatred expressed in some political speeches.

Having avoided the worst, namely total civil unrest, new challenges emerged and turned political again. Mr. Miqati, who presented himself as a candidate of unity and dialogue, has not yet managed to convince the Hariri coalition to join his government. It is obvious that he does not wish to claim full power and therefore is striving to reach consensus among all parties. His Christian interlocutors from the increasingly fragmented ‘March 14’ (anti-Syrian, pro-Hariri) coalition, however, seem more prepared to make concessions than the Hariri camp. If they can secure enough cabinet seats to veto major government decisions and if the STL is maintained, then they may abdicate from two hotly contested but lately dormant files: the disarmament of Hizballah and its merger with the army, and the possession of weapons inside Palestinian refugee camps.

No matter how the political balance might bend, political customs remain unchanged in Lebanon and internal deadlines tend to correspond with international timelines. As such, Mr. Miqati will wait for two lingering questions to be answered before composing his cabinet: the destiny of President Mubarak in Egypt, and the long-awaited public hearing of the indictments on 7 February. Also, he will not want to reveal his strategy yet to avoid clashes on 14 February, the sensitive anniversary of the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and, for many, the commemoration of his martyrdom. But Miqati’s cabinet composition will reflect his overall political agenda. Can his ministerial composition strike a balance between adherence to international law and a revocation of the protocol of agreement with the UN? One option for Miqati is to compose a cabinet of technocrats and delineate a technical policy approach in which all points of contention can be handled at a negotiating table in the future.

Adding fuel to the Lebanese fire, authoritarian Western-backed regimes in the region are themselves feeling the heat. Last month, the flight of the Tunisian president in the face of a popular uprising triggered a series of demonstrations in Algeria, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere. The Egyptian people’s uprising has reached a standoff, as the people tenaciously demand President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation while he tries to hold his grip and loses allies and credibility in the international community. In Jordan, protesters gathered across the country until Parliament was dissolved and the Prime Minister Samir Rifaii stepped down. Syria has shut down the Facebook website and reversed some recent austerity measures. Even in Saudi Arabia, some bold demonstrators are demanding economic concessions from their government. As Lebanon’s usual Sunnite allies and peace-brokers (Syria and Saudi Arabia) face their own major political challenges, Mr. Hariri will only be isolated further.

Meanwhile, the weakening of Hariri’s regional support contrasts with a strengthened axis on Hizballah’s side that is benefiting from rising opposition in the Arab countries. For instance, Hizballah and Iran are readying for a strengthened Muslim Brotherhood; after a three-way meeting on 1 February with Jamaa Islamiya, they declared their unity in fighting the same Zionist enemy. This bond was corroborated by the expanded Iranian naval presence in the region.

On the international level, these dramatic developments have sent tremors through Israeli and American diplomatic circles. Earlier this week, Israel warned that a Lebanese government closer to the Hizballah might face international sanctions, while the Israeli press is clearly concerned about the political shifts in their neighborhood. Although PM Miqati hasn’t yet made any statements relating to the STL, Washington has emphasized the right of the Lebanese people to choose both justice and political stability.

From Davos, the General Secretary of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon emphasized the duty of the Lebanese Republic not to question the agreement with the UN. International restrictions or armed intervention are not impossible to envisage. As the STL is classified under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, the Security Council can make recommendations or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42 of the UN Charter to maintain or restore peace and security.

After the Appeals Chamber public hearing on 7 February, Judge Daniel Fransen is expected to study the file and issue extradition warrants in the following few weeks. While it is possible that the pre-trial judges will ask for an extension for further interpretation of the Lebanese penal code, an official accusation will soon be made. What happens if the Lebanese government refuses to comply with any request for assistance by the STL or to arrest and transfer the indicted to the Tribunal? Some sources believe that Washington intends to have the trial proceed in-absentia, thereby establishing a precedent for trying other fugitive leaders of Islamic organizations. In addition to this potentiality, Lebanon remains exposed to international isolation and potential UN sanctions.

As always, the Lebanese political scene is perhaps best compared with some of these trades that are best understood in hindsight. Yet everyone playing a role in this drama has taken a stance at this point, except one conspicuously absent player: President Obama. He is being described as the President who lost Egypt; will he also be the President who lost Lebanon?

Camille Germanos is a research associate at the Middle East Institute. The views expressed here are her own.



The Future of Hezbollah: Hemmed in on All Sides

Editor’s Choice

10 August 2010
The Future of Hezbollah
Hemmed in on All Sides

Given rising tension with Israel and possible indictments of its operatives by the international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri, Lebanon’s powerful Shia political and paramilitary organization has never looked more uncertain.
By Paul Salem

The most immediate question concerns the possibility of another Israel-Hezbollah war, fears of which have mounted throughout this year, fuelled by reports of new missile transfers to Hezbollah and intermittent threats from Israel. Those who foresee war argue that Israel is unwilling to tolerate a heavily armed Iranian proxy on its border while tensions with Iran over the nuclear issue remain unresolved.

Although war is unlikely in the coming months, if sanctions on Iran don’t bear fruit by early 2011, Israel might feel the need to act. If it launched military strikes on Iran’s nuclear installations, Hezbollah would likely join the fray and Israel would have to engage Hezbollah at the same time. Alternatively, Israel might launch a pre-emptive war against Hezbollah in order to rob Iran of a nearby retaliatory capacity.

Arab-Israeli peace as a distinct possibility?

Hezbollah is preparing intensively for such scenarios, building defenses, digging tunnels, and assembling a powerful missile arsenal. But, although Hezbollah’s preparations are likely to ensure its survival, it would be hard-pressed to justify to the Lebanese public a strategy that led to two ruinous wars in the span of five years. In the end game of such a war, Syria might be asked by the Arab countries and the international community to take greater responsibility in Lebanon, in order to contain Hezbollah and its military profile.

Moreover, if peace prevents a slide into war, Hezbollah has another problem. Although a real breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli peace process appears unlikely, United States envoy George Mitchell is still talking of Arab-Israeli peace as a distinct possibility in 2011. Sources within the US administration hint that President Barack Obama might announce the outlines of an Arab-Israeli settlement sometime later this year.

Security of “all states in the region”

An accord between Syria and Israel is a key element of all proposed scenarios for Arab-Israeli peace. In exchange for giving back the occupied Golan Heights, Israel and the US will insist on the disarmament of Hezbollah. Indeed, within the context of the Arab Peace Plan, announced in Beirut in 2002, the Arab states take it upon themselves to ensure the security of “all states in the region” – code words for dealing with the threats from Hezbollah and Hamas – since the region includes Israel.

Although both Hezbollah and Iran still argue, perhaps correctly, that Israel will not give back the Golan Heights or allow the emergence of a Palestinian state, the possibility of peace cannot be ruled out. If it does occur, Syria will push Lebanon into a peace treaty with Israel and lean on Hezbollah heavily to adjust to the new realities.

Given its popularity among Lebanese Shia, Hezbollah could continue as an influential political party, but it would have to abandon its role as a major proxy force for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Nevertheless, Hezbollah faces severe political trouble, too. Although no official announcement has been made, there are reports that Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, might conclude his investigation and issue indictments in the fall.

An Israeli plot to undermine the Islamic resistance?

In a speech on July 16, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged rumours that the Tribunal might indict members of his party, but charged that the Tribunal was part of an Israeli plot to undermine the Islamic resistance in Lebanon and has no credibility. He argued that the indictments would probably be based on cell-phone records, and that Israeli agents had penetrated the Lebanese cell-phone network. Indeed, the Lebanese authorities recently arrested a high-level official at one of the country’s two cell-phone companies, alleging that he was an Israeli agent.

In describing the tribunal as part of an Israeli plot, Nasrallah warned the government and other parties in Lebanon against cooperating with it, or accepting its verdicts. He reminded his audience of the street fighting in Beirut in May 2008, and made clear that Hezbollah would not shy away from another fight if necessary.

While Hezbollah has tried to convince other Lebanese that its presence helps maintain the country’s security and stability, regional and international developments suggest that it faces mounting challenges. And, although the future does not look bright for Hezbollah, it is not likely to relinquish its power without a fight.
Paul Salem is Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut.
Qantara.de, Germany – 6 August 2010

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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An Opportunity for a Syrian-Israeli Peace

Editor’s Choice
6 August 2010


Professor Alon Ben-Meir
While the world reacts to the recent flair-up of violence along the Lebanon-Israel border, other developments in the area could present an opportunity to advance regional peace if pursued. The recent visit by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Assad of Syria to Lebanon has in effect restored Damascus’ dominance over Lebanon, thereby impacting the internal political dynamic in this fractured country. While Syria is likely to maintain its bilateral relationship with Iran for its own strategic and tactical reasons, the new undeclared understanding between President Assad, King Abdullah and Prime Minister Hariri of Lebanon was that Lebanon would remain outside of the Iranian orbit of influence. The message to Tehran was quite clear: Syria – with the backing of the Arab states – will resume its hegemony over Lebanon and both Iran and its proxy Hezbollah must accept this new political reality.


This new political configuration in Lebanon also suggests that for the right price Syria would align itself with the Arab world to blunt Iran’s ambitions to become the regional hegemony. The implication is that Syria would be far less likely to come to Tehran’s aid should either Israel or the United States decide to attack its nuclear facilities. Moreover, Syria, out of necessity to keep Lebanon out of such a potential conflict, would limit Hezbollah’s political challenge to the Hariri government and prevent it from engaging Israel, should the scenario of potential hostilities between Israel (and/or the U.S.) with Iran unfold. In this regard, the United States and Israel welcome this new development in Lebanon, as it may change their calculations with regard to an attack on Iran. Even more, the Saudi-Syrian move offers Israel an opportunity to resume peace negotiations with Syria and thereby improve the political atmosphere throughout the region in a dramatic way. It is an opportunity Israel should not squander.


An Israeli-Syrian peace accord would have long-term, significant implications on Syria’s ties with Iran and its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas. Changing Damascus’ strategic interests and the geopolitical condition in the Middle East will require bringing Syria within reach of regaining the Golan Heights and normalizing relations with the U.S. Doing so would have a direct impact on the behavior of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. Syria has served as the linchpin between the three, and by removing or undermining Syria’s logistical and political backing-which will be further cemented by an Israeli-Syrian peace-Hamas and Hezbollah will be critically weakened, and Hamas in particular may be forced rethink its strategy toward Israel. Peace with Syria would effectively change the center of gravity of Syrian politics in the region, which is shaped by Damascus’ strategic interests.

Whereas Israel’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear program are not likely to be mitigated by an Israeli-Syrian peace, it will certainly force Tehran to rethink its strategy vis-a-vis Israel. The irony is that while Israel continues to hype up the Iranian nuclear threat, it has lost focus on how to change the regional geopolitical dynamic and weaken Iran’s influence throughout the region. Under any violent scenario between Israel and Iran, with an Israel-Syria accord, Tehran would no longer be able to count on the retaliatory actions by Hamas and Hezbollah because the interests of these two groups would now be at odds with Syria’s strategic interest.

The international opposition to Israel’s continued occupation is growing as the occupation of Arab land and the building of Israeli settlements are seen as the single source of continued regional strife and instability. Linking the occupation of the Golan Heights to national security concerns is viewed as nothing more than a pretext to maintain Israel’s hold of the territory-even Israel’s allies, including the United States, no longer buy into the linkage between this territory and national security. The fact that the Israeli government is ideologically polarized offers no excuse for policies that cannot be sustained in the long-term and which in fact could lead to renewed violence. If Israel is truly focused on national security, then it must relinquish the Golan Heights. Only normal relations with Syria and effective security mechanisms in place can offer Israel ultimate security on its northern border.

The rift between Turkey and Israel over Israel’s incursion into Gaza and the tragic flotilla incident has strained their bilateral relations. As such, Israel has refused that Turkey renew its role as a mediator between Israel and Syria. However, there have already been measures taken to soften the rhetoric and tension between Israel and Turkey. These steps should be expanded with the goal of renewing trust between these two historic allies. Turkish mediators proved that they were able to achieve progress in the last round of negotiations between Israel and Syria, which ultimately collapsed with the launching of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. It is the interest of both Israel and Turkey that such trust – and progress on the Syrian track – be advanced. Turkey seeks Israeli-Syrian peace not merely for self-aggrandizement. For Turkey, a regional peace would have a tremendous effect on its own national security and economic development, just as it would for Israel’s. The fact that Syria chose a negotiating venue through Turkey to regain the Golan should not be taken by Israel as a sign that it can indefinitely maintain the status quo without serious consequences. Although Syria may not be in a position to regain the Golan by force, it has shown tremendous capacity to deny Israel peace with Lebanon and the Palestinians, and can continue to do so for as long as Israel occupies the Golan.
President Bashar al-Assad, like his father, has indicated that advancing efforts to pursue peace with Israel is a strategic option. He has expressed a desire to conclude a deal in exchange for the Golan Heights and a healthy relationship with the U.S. In response, Israel must choose between territory and real security; as long as Syria has territorial claims against Israel, Israel will never be secure on its northern border. Israel cannot make the claim that it seeks peace but then fail to seize the opportunity when one is presented. If Syria offers peace, normalization of relations, meets Israel’s legitimate security concerns and Israel still refuses, the Golan will continue to serve as a national liability and a source of instability and violence.
Copyright:  Alon Ben-Meir  5 Aug 10

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