Thursday, December 2, 2010

Who is really the big boss in Lebanon?

Little attention was paid last week to an Al-Hayat interview with the Iranian ambassador to Lebanon, Ghadanfar Roknabadi, particularly what he had to say about Syria’s role in Lebanon.

The interviewer asked the ambassador whether, in the same way that Iran was “familiar” with Iraq, did not Iran consider that Syria was “familiar” with Lebanon “more than others were.” Therefore, just as Syria had accepted an Iranian solution in Iraq, would not Iran accept a Syrian solution in Lebanon? It was a subtle question, which left out the dreaded words “spheres of interest,” but the substance was clear. Would Iran concur that Syria was entitled to lead in Lebanon?

Roknabadi diplomatically, but firmly, brushed that thought away. Yes, neighboring countries were more familiar with Lebanese details, but then the ambassador added: “Don’t forget the deep civilizational and cultural ties between Iran and Lebanon. The matter of Syria as a neighbor is one thing, and the strategic relationship between Iran and Syria [is something else]; no one can deny Syria’s role, but the old civilizational and cultural ties between the Iranian and Lebanese peoples have established common ground between them.”

The response must have made officials in Damascus cringe. Not only did Roknabadi sidestep the question of a pre-eminent Syrian role in Lebanon, he placed it against the backdrop of the Iranian-Syrian relationship, as if to affirm that Tehran was the leading partner in any Lebanese arrangement. While the Iranians, along with Hizbullah, have continued to look toward a Syrian-Saudi solution to the deadlock in Beirut over how to deal with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, one gets the distinct sense lately, particularly after the speech last Sunday of Hizbullah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, that any such deal is Iran’s and Hizbullah’s to accept or refuse

Iran and Syria are not about to divorce over Lebanon, or over anything else, but Roknabadi put the relationship into perspective. Iran is the dominant actor in Beirut, and can lay claim to that role because ultimately it is Hizbullah that controls the ground and on which Damascus must rely to protect its own interests. It is indeed remarkable that Syria, despite its 29-year military Lebanese presence, was never able to create durable institutions of influence. Syrian-sponsored groups and politicians remain exceptionally feeble politically; Damascus has never had any “soft power” to deploy in Lebanon; and almost anyone who thinks back to the years of Syrian hegemony would mainly remember it as a time of organized pillage. Had Syria not had Hizbullah to bolster its authority, most of its Lebanese partisans would have long been swept away.

Still, Syria does have considerable political resources. Damascus retains a power of veto over most matters, and even if the coordination between Hizbullah and Syria may not be what it once was, it nevertheless remains relatively close, with Hizbullah keen to avoid any major confrontation with the Syrians. The same goes for Iran. At the same time, the Syrians, even though they hope to revive the authority they had in Lebanon before 2005, are very unlikely to risk their relationship with Iran or Hizbullah to achieve that.

In order to compensate for its shortcomings, the Syrian regime has played on Lebanese contradictions. By opening a new page with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, under Saudi auspices, Damascus to an extent managed to win over a majority of Sunnis, or at least lessen Sunni hostility. Hariri has seen advantages in this, mainly curbing Hizbullah’s ability to attack him and his government. What the prime minister realizes is that Syria cannot afford to allow Hizbullah to decisively weaken him, since that would mean weakening a prime Syrian card.

By the same token, however, Syria will not permit Hariri to neutralize Hizbullah, let alone demand its disarmament, through possible indictments issued by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, since that, too, would dent Syrian power. The ideal situation for the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, is one of confrontation between Hariri and Hizbullah until the tribunal issues indictments. At that stage, Assad could enter the fray as the broker of a domestic political resolution and take from both sides, to Syria’s advantage. That is why Syria has not brought down the government, though it could easily do so; and it is why Hariri, well aware of what Assad has in mind, has stood firm.

The stalemate may last. Even if the tribunal prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, were to send draft indictments today to the pre-trial judge, Daniel Fransen, these would probably not be confirmed until early next year. The process calls for Fransen to issue a written legal opinion on the indictments, which could take several weeks to prepare, not taking into consideration the slowdown for the end-of-year holidays. Fransen may also ask Bellemare to revise some counts. The notion that indictments will be finalized before Christmas seems fanciful.

Nasrallah’s latest speech was once again directed in part at the Syrians. The secretary general wants the Lebanese government to begin the process of wrecking the tribunal before indictments come out. That he has been unable to impose this is certainly, to an extent, a consequence of the Syrian refusal to sign off on such a course of action. Hariri’s visit to Iran was, among other things, an effort to earn Iranian goodwill and buy time on that front (as well as a gambit to make him more desirable to Syria), though Nasrallah pointedly mocked the prime minister’s trips. It is conceivable that Hariri’s Iranian sojourn limited his margin of maneuver, with Tehran now having more leverage over him. We will soon see where Nasrallah’s brinkmanship leads, but Syria, displeased with Hariri’s opening to the Islamic Republic, may be in even less of a mood to give Hizbullah a green light.

Meanwhile, the much-awaited Syrian-Saudi “solution” apparently awaits the return home of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who is undergoing medical treatment in the United States. The clock is ticking away toward an indictment. What ultimately happens will be shaped by the complex interplay of the frequently divergent interests of Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Hizbullah and Saad Hariri.

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