Thursday, June 14, 2007

Why rush a national-unity government?

Why rush a national-unity government?
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, June 14, 2007

Negotiations to create a new national-unity government have hit a brick wall, and that's a relief. The opposition's conditions for agreeing to re-enter the government were too onerous and too vague and would have undermined much that was achieved in the past year. However, the Europeans, particularly those countries with troops in South Lebanon, are worried about the prospect of two rival governments being established at the end of summer, once President Emile Lahoud's term ends.

Hizbullah and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri have insisted that the current government must be expanded. This means it would basically remain the same as the one established before the Shiite ministers and Yacoub Sarraf resigned last year. The aim of this maneuver is to ensure that any new government has as its reference the Cabinet statement approved in 2005. Acceptance of that statement, which defended armed resistance against Israel, would effectively undermine Lebanon's later endorsement of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which Prime Minister Fouad Siniora now says supersedes the Cabinet statement. Siniora's strong card is that Hizbullah's ministers voted in favor of Resolution 1701, even though the party has, since, qualified its approval.

France and Italy, who have large contingents in UNIFIL, are worried. If there is no domestic reconciliation, they fear, their forces in the South will be caught between the Siniora government and a rival government in which Hizbullah would be represented. For logistical reasons, UNIFIL would have to deal with both, creating an impossible situation when it comes to recognizing the legality of only one. The problem is that pushing too hard on a government of national unity that accepts Hizbullah's and Berri's conditions would only undermine the mandate under which the improved UNIFIL force was deployed. Worse, this would come at a time when Hizbullah is building up a military infrastructure north of the Litani River, and is believed to be doing so again inside the UNIFIL zone.

France is looking for a way out of the deadlock by sponsoring a conference at the end of June in St. Cloud, near Paris, between the Lebanese factions. Expectations have already been lowered to subterranean levels, but the gathering may be a useful first step in an eventual reconciliation. More interesting is that heightened French involvement in the details of Lebanon's imbroglio fits in nicely, perhaps too nicely, with what the head of the Iranian national security council, Ali Larijani, told Le Figaro a few weeks ago: that France and Iran could collaborate in resolving the Lebanese deadlock. The French may be taken for a ride, but any new government evidently needs time for sensibility to dissolve into sense.

The Europeans might look closely at something Walid Jumblatt said last weekend. He remarked that the Syrians had provoked the Nahr al-Bared conflict after concluding that they would be unable to form an alternative government to Siniora's. There have been reports that the creation of a second government is not getting traction in the opposition. Suleiman Franjieh is supposedly unconvinced, and Michel Aoun wants to be president, not prime minister, even if he has used the threat of a parallel government to improve his presidential chances. A sign of the difficulty of the Aoun option is that the talk is no longer of a Christian leading the government, as it was several weeks ago, but of a Sunni Muslim. The most likely candidate is said to be former Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Mrad.

Mrad is that rare politician who openly said he was miserable when the Syrian Army left Lebanon. If he is the best the Syrians can get as prime minister, then Jumblatt is right to believe their plan is going nowhere. Omar Karami, Salim al-Hoss, and Najib Mikati, three much more credible choices, have shown no readiness to climb into the hot seat themselves, because they know that a parallel government would have no legitimacy. As for Hizbullah, with most Lebanese behind the army and by extension behind the imposition of the state's authority over all the national territory, the party would be mad to enter into such a scheme.

So Jumblatt's point is well taken: If Syria and the opposition cannot form an alternative government, then maybe the Europeans shouldn't panic so quickly; and maybe it would be best not to come to an agreement on a new Cabinet now. Instead, call the opposition's bluff, stick to the Siniora team, place the onus of torpedoing the presidential election squarely on the opposition parties, and wait for Hizbullah to become more flexible.

A key question is what about Michel Aoun? His muscular backing for the army is no big surprise. The general's main base of support remains in the officer corps, which is precisely why he's now willing to point the finger at Syria when he stubbornly refused to do so after every single one of the dozens of bombings that took place after 2005, as well as the murders of politicians and journalists. Perhaps Aoun also took it personally that the recent bombing in Zouk Mosbeh occurred in his own constituency.

To expect a divorce between Aoun and Hizbullah is unrealistic. If anything, the general has more incentive to avoid one. Not only does he still need the party in his bid for the presidency (and Hizbullah is said to have taken the decision to formally back him as candidate), he now has more leverage to negotiate with it. After Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah's poorly received comment on Nahr al-Bared being a "red line," Hizbullah needs to regain its standing with the army and inside a Lebanese society outraged by the sudden appearance of Fatah al-Islam from across the Syrian border. Aoun can use the party's discomfort to his advantage.

Aoun wants to ride the wave of what may turn into the army's sense of entitlement after the Nahr al-Bared fighting ends. This development would be disturbing but not surprising, with everyone on the army's side and that support sealed in soldiers' blood. Casualties will rise in the near future as the military implements a plan expected to last at least ten more days. The terrible human cost notwithstanding, the army can only gain credibility nationally, and Aoun probably expects this to improve his own presidential odds. Hence his strategy to place himself to the right of the army, and the majority's efforts to do the same thing.

This complicates matters tremendously. There might not be any second government created by Syria, but will there be a presidential election? Who, Michel Aoun or army commander Michel Suleiman, will gain the most from an army victory, if that victory comes soon? Syria's most powerful weapon is to block everything and bargain from a position of strength. But things tend to backfire with this Syrian regime. The tribunal is moving briskly forward and now the Lebanese Army and intelligence services, hitherto neutral and more open to Syrian wishes, are deeply hostile to those groups that Damascus might use to destabilize Lebanon.

Tough times lie ahead, and Lebanon's crises are nowhere near their end. The Syrians are reinforcing the military positions of their Palestinian clients in the Bekaa Valley, inside Lebanese territory. However, the structures of Syrian power in the country have never been so brittle, with violence the only weapon Syria can deploy. And for once the Lebanese and their military and security forces are as one against such violence.

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