Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Missing the point in Lebanon’s stalemate

Rarely a day goes by without someone writing an article protesting against the incapacity of Lebanese politicians to come to an agreement on the future of their country. Why can’t they just all get along? That’s the lament running through these principled and naive pleas. But the continued failure of the Arab League plan suggests there is more to the deadlock than leaders perpetuating a status quo for self-seeking reasons.

There is still great incomprehension about what is sinking Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa’s apparently impossible mission. There is incomprehension, too, about what Syria’s true intentions in Lebanon are. One line of argument is that the Assad regime accepted the end of its Lebanese presence in 2005 and today seeks only to "influence" affairs in Beirut, to "protect its interests." Syria has no intention of driving its tanks back into Lebanese territory, controlling all aspects of the state, placing senior Syrian officials in lucrative business and smuggling networks, crushing all latent challenges to its domination, and so forth.

But reading that list, you can only conclude that that is precisely what the Syrians want, because Lebanon is of no value to them unless those aims are satisfied, unless the Assad regime has a tight grip over the country’s political power centers, has its army and security forces in place to back this up, can distribute patronage to Syrian officers to ensure their long-term loyalty, and can extract billions of dollars from the Lebanese economy to cushion trying times ahead for a Syrian economy that will soon have to dispense with oil revenues and lift vital subsidies.

That’s not to mention that for Syria to be regarded as relevant by Israel and the United States, its soldiers need to be present inside Lebanon. Why? To protect Hizbullah’s military autonomy against an international community that backs Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701 and a Lebanese public increasingly critical of the party’s unwillingness to disarm; and to leverage the promise of managing or liquidating Hizbullah in any forthcoming negotiations with the Israelis and Americans.

That’s the real backdrop to negotiations over the Arab League plan. The breakdown is occurring because the opposition is relaying the Syrian position on the distribution of Cabinet portfolios, therefore on the political balance of power in Lebanon. The focal point of disputation is the so-called "sovereign" ministries: defense, interior, justice, finance and foreign affairs. The opposition’s "softest" proposal, a three-way division of portfolios in a 10-10-10 ratio, would effectively hand the parliamentary majority at most two of those key ministries; and, even then, the opposition has prepared a list of conditions to deny the March 14 coalition the means to control them. The Syrians are especially seeking to block the majority’s sway over the defense and interior ministries, because these can provide it with security instruments; and it wants someone friendly at the Justice Ministry to impede progress in the Hariri tribunal. The Assad regime is organizing a creeping coup in Lebanon, and will hinder all progress until March 14 and the Arab states raise their hands in surrender.

But it’s not as if Damascus were hiding its game. Syria’s allies in Lebanon will readily acknowledge its ambitions, both in public and in private. Former parliamentarian Nasser Qandil, a habitual Syrian megaphone, has twice declared that the Syrian Army will return to Lebanon. In his meetings with Arab and European officials, Syrian President Bashar Assad regularly brings up the Hariri tribunal and indicates how central it is to Syria’s playing a more helpful role in Lebanon. Assad meant what he said in March 2005, when he told his Parliament: "A Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon will not mean a disappearance of Syria’s role in Lebanon."

In the coming month, Assad will have to address growing Arab resentment of his regime in order to salvage the Arab League summit scheduled for the end of March in Damascus. It would be a mistake to assume the Syrians will languidly accept the humiliation of a failed conference, and much of their intimidation directed against the Gulf states in Lebanon is an effort to coerce them into attending. But that tactic won’t succeed, which is why March 14 is worried about a possible Plan B: Syria facilitates the election of Michel Suleiman as president, but then subsequently blocks the formation of a new government.

What would the advantages be? By authorizing Suleiman’s election, the Syrians would oblige Arab leaders to go to Damascus, saving their summit. Once a president is chosen, however, the Siniora government would automatically become a caretaker body, with limited constitutional prerogatives. As for the army, it would no longer have a commander. This would leave Lebanon without an effective executive authority, with its armed forces leaderless, and in a dangerous state of limbo.

The beauty of the scheme is that it might trap the parliamentary majority in its own exigencies. The Syrians and the opposition have for months demanded a package deal that includes agreement on the presidency and Cabinet. March 14 has rejected this. The opposition could turn around and accept the conditions of March 14, thereby electing Suleiman without an accord over a new ministry. The practical result might be a situation far worse than what we have today. Suleiman would be in, the government would be out, Syria would have partly broken out of its isolation, and the opposition would have won more pull to impose a favorable government, since any rejection of its demands could only prolong a debilitating vacuum.

Fortunately, there are ways around this plan. Arab states must set as a prerequisite for their participation in the Damascus summit prior agreement in Lebanon on Suleiman’s election and the formation of a new government. Yes, this would confirm Syria’s and the opposition’s package deal requirement imposed on Moussa, but that debate is now largely irrelevant: Negotiations over the Arab League plan are at a deadlock. The point of the Arab move would be not to push for a breakthrough in Lebanon, since that is presently impossible; but to block a Syrian plan to leave Lebanon without any effective leadership.

That is where the parliamentary majority has to be careful. In insisting so loudly that Suleiman must be elected now, it is ignoring the fact that the election could be disastrous if handled improperly. But then why didn’t the Syrians support the army commander’s election sooner, and block the formation of a new government? On the one hand they fear that constitutional procedures would be implemented, so that the president and majority, following consultations, might agree on a prime minister Syria disapproves of. Damascus also realizes that, even in a caretaker role, the Siniora government would still hold all the key ministries. A prolonged stalemate would still leave Suleiman working with a Cabinet dominated by March 14, something the Assad regime cannot stomach.

That only shows Syria’s rationale in Lebanon. But it doesn’t alter the fact that there are dangerous unknowns in allowing Suleiman to be elected minus a government. As the situation stands today, it is the opposition that is, plainly, blocking everything. Better for things to stay that way and for the Siniora government to remain in place. Political maneuvering may create instability that only plays to Syria’s advantage.

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