Monday, November 26, 2007

Score this round for March 14

Lebanon is looking into the abyss; it is in the throes of a political crisis that everyone has announced might bring on catastrophe. March 14 is on its final feet, wracked by division. If you think all this is true then here’s a less apocalyptic account of what has just happened on the presidency.

March 14 has won this round. Senior leaders of the majority coalition had peddled the idea that a presidential vacuum was what Syria desired the most. As one politician put it to me last week, Syria fooled several gullible French envoys to ensure that no president would be elected, thus leaving a hole at the top that Damascus hoped to exploit to make the security situation more volatile. Indeed, when the official Syrian daily Tishrin last week threatened chaos in Lebanon because of the election, you knew the Assad regime was itching to raise the heat through the instability card.

However, that’s only half the story. The fact that a presidential election did not happen may have been precisely what the majority, or certain leaders in the majority, intended - and justifiably so. They understood that Syria’s priority was not a vacuum, but getting elected a president who would advance its interests. There never was an incentive for March 14 to hand the keys of Baabda over to a weak president, then surrender veto power to the opposition in a new government while Nabih Berri remained speaker of Parliament. The apparent divisions in the anti-Syrian coalition, between a Walid Jumblatt backing Michel Edde, a Saad Hariri backing Robert Ghanem, and a Samir Geagea enthused with neither, were likely not as sharp as they looked. Jumblatt didn’t want Edde. He used him to create a bogus crisis with Hariri (who was perhaps complicit) to help block the reckless French initiative and turn the tables on Syria.

Here is what March 14 has gained. Fouad Siniora remains prime minister of a government without a president to hinder its activities and that the opposition cannot readily remove by force. Why? Because if it were to try doing so, this might lead to a destructive Sunni-Shiite clash that both Hizbullah and the Hariri camp want to avoid. Sunnis and Shiites cannot afford to come to blows over a Christian presidency.

Second, if the opposition were to resort to violence against the Siniora government, not only would this provoke an angry response in the mostly Sunni Arab world, the March 14 majority would be galvanized enough, and would receive the international backing it requires, to elect a president by an absolute majority. As one European diplomat put it: Whichever side fires first in the standoff is bound to be the loser.

March 14 can also rejoice that Emile Lahoud has finally gone, leaving behind a wet firecracker as his last act. Too many people mistakenly interpreted his farewell announcement Friday as a declaration of a state of emergency. It was nothing of the sort. Lahoud’s statement was without effect, and was quickly nullified by the army’s reaction, suggesting that the former president was already calculating that he or his family might pay a price for a reckless decision to leave bedlam behind him. Hizbullah urged him to form a second government, but in the end Lahoud got cold feet, no longer protected by his presidential immunity.

A third gain of March 14 is that, absent a presidential election, a conflict-ridden negotiation over the formation of a new government has been momentarily delayed. None of the majority’s leaders were keen to give up the one branch of government they still control in favor of a protracted dispute over a new government, which would have provoked far more hostility than exists today - at least until they could get a president they consider reliable. There seems to be no middle ground today between Hizbullah and Michel Aoun on the one hand, and the March 14 coalition on the other. A new government would be a pretext for greater discord. That may explain why even the opposition parties, particularly Hizbullah, allowed the Friday deadline to pass without incident: It could be that everybody had an interest in calming the situation before the next phase.

So Lahoud is gone, Siniora is still in, and the opposition has few serious options to alter the stalemate without risking war. Is that so a bad result for the majority coalition? Not if the time gained can be put to good use, because the victory is only tactical. From the March 14 perspective, that time might allow the Hariri tribunal to be set up so that, if the latter gains momentum, it would provide the majority with a context required to gain leverage for the election of a new president closer to its ambitions.

More likely, the majority is banking on the outcome of the Annapolis conference tomorrow. There has been much talk in Beirut that the United States is rewarding Syria by inviting it to the conference. This is too shortsighted a reading. A Syria compelled to make peace is a Syria that must redefine its relationship with Hizbullah. Annapolis may become a trap for Damascus: If there is progress on its track with Israel, Syria might be locked into a process from which one can derive concessions on Lebanon. If, conversely, Syria does nothing to help Annapolis succeed, it will find itself more targeted than ever in the region. Some reports suggest that Jordan’s King Abdullah recently warned President Bashar Assad that the peace conference was his last chance to break out of his isolation.

One thing is certain: The dynamics of the Lebanese presidential election have changed. The status quo is now to the disadvantage of the opposition. Very soon opposition groups will be the ones demanding a presidential election to be rid of Siniora. Once they do so they will be in a position of vulnerability, since March 14 still controls the parliamentary majority and will be inviting the opposition blocs to come down to Parliament for an open vote. At the least, March 14 has greater latitude today to agree to a compromise candidate it feels more comfortable with.

But there is a problem in the argument: The Syrians will not allow such a scenario to be played out if their pre-Annapolis flexibility leads them nowhere. Iranian intentions are also unclear, and quite worrisome. How long can Siniora remain in office before Hizbullah and the Aounists begin raising the heat? Violence, whether assassinations or demonstrations, can intervene to alter the calculations on all sides.

There is also the fact that an indefinite period without a president will rile up the Christians. Whether it is Michel Aoun or Michel Suleiman who takes advantage of this anger is irrelevant: Hariri and Jumblatt have to be careful not to discredit the Christians in their own coalition by leaving the presidency vacant for too long.

Whatever the outcome, March 14 had the last laugh last week, when French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and the other French emissaries offered Syria normalization in exchange for facilitating the Lebanese presidential election. It all came to naught and French diplomacy got burned, so that President Nicolas Sarkozy will now think twice before trusting Assad. The fact is that Syria, until now, has not been able to impose its man as president. Hizbullah’s followers may have to spend another chilly winter in their tents under the gaze of the detested Siniora. Score this round for March 14, then brace for a reaction.

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