Thursday, April 9, 2009

Syria will win Lebanon's elections

Two months away from Lebanon's elections, we can begin to discern clarity amid the vapors of boiling ambition. Over 700 candidates are registered to contest 128 parliamentary seats, but the real story lies elsewhere. Whether it is the March 14 coalition and its allies that wins, or the March 8 coalition with the Aounists, the forthcoming Parliament will be much friendlier to Syria than the current one is, representing a marked return of Damascus' hegemony over Lebanon.
There are several reasons for this, both regional and local. Regionally, the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement has fundamentally altered the nature of the political confrontation in Lebanon. Following the summer war of 2006, the Saudis sought to isolate Syria (and with it Iran) in Lebanon and the Arab world.

However, that effort largely failed. The Saudis, instead, found themselves isolated as they and the Egyptians proved unable to derail the Arab League summit in Damascus in March 2008, before later seeing another rival, Qatar, host Lebanese reconciliation talks in May, after Hizbullah's military onslaught against western Beirut. The Gaza conflict, which confirmed the extent to which Damascus and Tehran were able to play a spoiler role on the Palestinian front, persuaded the Saudis to engage President Bashar Assad in order to break Syria off from Iran, even if there is great skepticism in Riyadh as to whether that will work.

Skepticism or not, the Saudis are fulfilling their end of the bargain, particularly in Lebanon. In practical terms this appears to be leading, for example, to an alliance in Tripoli between Saad Hariri, Najib Mikati, and, if it goes through, Mohammad Safadi. The Saudis want to unify Sunni ranks, but in a way where the Syrians will be able to have their say with the Lebanese. That's why, whoever wins the elections, the next prime minister is likely to be Mikati, whom the Syrians trust but who won't stray away from the Saudis or from the Lebanese Sunni consensus.
The first to understand the implications of this shift was Walid Jumblatt. The Druze leader has irritated many in March 14 by moving closer to the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, while persistently criticizing his own allies.

However, Jumblatt knows that Berri is returning as speaker, so he sees benefits in maintaining a good relationship with him, as he does in using this to calm Druze-Shiite tensions. But a longer-term explanation for Jumblatt's behavior is that he now needs a conduit to Damascus, and Berri provides one. Kamal Jumblatt paid with his life for the Syrian-Saudi agreement over Lebanon in 1976, which left him cut off politically and vulnerable to assassination. Walid doesn't want to repeat that.

Whether Jumblatt will once again visit Damascus is an open question. But it seems highly improbable that he will adopt as hostile a position against Syria as he did in the past four years. With Saad Hariri bringing Mikati on board and perhaps having to accept him as the next prime minister; with Jumblatt realigning on Syria and strengthening his ties to Berri, who with his bloc will represent a substantial Syrian stake in the system, alongside Hizbullah, the Assad regime will find that a substantial share of Muslim parliamentarians either support close ties with Syria or are in no position to effectively oppose them.

What of the Christians? Michel Aoun may lose seats, but he is not likely to lose very many to Syria's adversaries. The Lebanese Forces and the Phalange are optimistic about their chances, and have been rapacious in their demands. However, in several constituencies their candidates are dependent on volatile electoral alliances. In the Chouf, the Metn, and perhaps even Beirut 1 if their Armenian Orthodox nominee stays in the race, the Lebanese Forces candidates are at the mercy of larger power blocs with whom they are not particularly close. The same holds for the Phalange in Tripoli, Aley, and Zahleh, while even in the Metn the party's expected candidates, Sami Gemayel and Elie Karami, are not guaranteed a victory if there is under-the-table collusion against one or both of them.

As for the Metn, if Aoun recedes, the likelihood is that it is Michel Murr who will gain. As a supporter of President Michel Sleiman, and given his past, he has no quarrel with Syria. As for Kisirwan and Jbeil, Aoun's losses, if any, will mainly add to Sleiman's quota. And in the event Aoun retains his seats in both districts, that will suit Syria just fine. That's why, for example, Aoun's dispute with Berri over the Christian seats in Jezzine and Zahrani may continue without a resolution. Whether it is Aoun or Berri who wins, the Syrians will come out ahead in the end, even if they lean toward Berri. As for Hizbullah, does it really want to see Aoun and the Christians reaffirming themselves politically in Jezzine, behind the new defense line the party is building against Israel?

Bashar Assad has promised that the June election will be Syria's ticket back into Lebanon, and he appears to be on the road to fulfilling that promise. The Saudis have made their peace with him, as have the Egyptians, and the Americans are too preoccupied with Afghanistan and Iraq to concern themselves with halting Syrian advances in Lebanon. As long as the southern border remains quiet, there is little to trouble the international community.

With respect to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, prosecutor Daniel Bellemare will almost certainly not issue an accusation before 2010, because his predecessor wasted two years by not moving his investigation substantially forward. That's plenty of time for Assad to make himself relevant again internationally and to ensure, from Beirut, that Lebanese judges on the tribunal will think twice before pointing the finger at Syria. For all intents and purposes, the momentum of the Hariri legal case has been lost, and given renewed Saudi friendliness toward Syria, we shouldn't expect the Hariri family to complain about this.

The March 8-March 14 dichotomy no longer seems appropriate today, despite the furious debate in Lebanon over who will win next June. Whoever wins, Syria will emerge on top, its crimes forgotten and its interests protected. That may sound benign when expressed this way, but those interests will certainly expand in the future, to Lebanon's detriment. So much for Lebanon's so-called Cedar Revolution, never a revolution in the first place, and now as exposed as any old tree to being cut down.

1 comment:

EV said...

While the analysis may be spot on for the candidates, it does not take into account the voters who will have the last word.