Thursday, January 13, 2011

Amid stalemate, let negotiations begin!

Michel Aoun has announced the end of the Syrian-Saudi initiative, with no results. “[W]e’ve reached a dead end,” said the general Monday. But is that true? It’s just possible that we are at the start of a new negotiating phase, this time one in which Hizbullah will have to negotiate in earnest, and in which the Syrians will continue to try playing the party off against Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

A key test to gauge Syrian intentions will be whether Damascus orders its allies in Beirut to pull out of the government and bring it down. At the time of writing this was likely to happen, but the step represents a major risk for Syria’s President Bashar Assad. Hariri and the Saudis remain Syria’s principal tickets back into Lebanon politically, and Assad is not after a divorce with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. Still, the Syrians want Hariri to do more to discredit the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, as the institution might yet point the finger at them.

This leaves Hariri facing one of two situations. If the government falls, he will in all probability be asked to form a new government. The prime minister might refuse, compelling the opposition, with Walid Jumblatt, to form a government of its own, with a pro-Syrian Sunni as prime minister. However, this would be no easy task, as there are few legitimate Sunnis eager to head a government against their own community, its principal aim to shield the assassins of Rafik Hariri. Or, the opposition, aware of this difficulty, will sooner or later see that they can deal only with Saad Hariri, which will force them to enter into talks with him in order to find an agreeable exit for all.

Jumblatt tartly summed up the situation recently by observing, “They say you can make a camel cross the desert, but can you make a camel cross the Atlantic?” The Obama administration refused to do any such thing, and last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear to Hariri and his sponsor, King Abdullah, that Beirut should not touch the tribunal. This came after President Barack Obama made a recess appointment that sent a new U.S. ambassador to Damascus, but also after an unidentified American official (the odds-on favorite being the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, Jeffrey Feltman) told the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat that any Syrian-Saudi arrangement that undermined the special tribunal would constitute “blackmail.”

After the Clinton-Hariri meeting in New York, the Saudis suddenly reversed course, and “sources” were telling Al-Hayat that the Syrian-Saudi dialogue was, in fact, a Hariri-Syrian dialogue. That sounded the death knell for the Syrian-Saudi exchanges, but one thing should be kept in mind: The Obama administration never opposed, as such, the Abdullah-Assad discussions over Lebanon, nor was it particularly hostile to the Saudis’ idea of giving Damascus power in Beirut in exchange for containing Iran and Hizbullah. The Americans may not have had high hopes for the scheme, but they did not obstruct it.

That doesn’t diminish the fact that Assad is smarting from the American derailing of Syrian-Saudi talks. This obliged him to instruct his friends in Beirut to tighten the screws on Hariri. But how far will the Syrian president go, and how far can he go? Assad does not want to be blamed by Washington and Paris for whatever goes wrong in Lebanon, and he grasps that any confrontation between the Lebanese might only reinforce Hizbullah, and more importantly Iran, at Syria’s expense. Hariri’s neutralization would deny Syria a strong card in reimposing its writ in Lebanon. A Hariri politically defeated effectively means a Syria fully dependent on Hizbullah to protect its Lebanese stakes, a situation that Assad doesn’t relish.

What is Hariri hoping for? If he is given the choice of heading a government in which he is much weakened, he would probably not accept to become prime minister. Ideally, he would like to bargain with Hizbullah, but will only surrender something substantial on the tribunal if the party does the same elsewhere. And what might Hariri demand? Complete disarmament is surely out of the question. But maybe not some form of disarmament in the heart of Beirut; and the appointment of Hariri loyalists to senior security posts. Anything less, Hariri must feel, would only disgrace him in Sunni eyes.

Neither Hizbullah nor Syria is pleased with what is going on. For the party, all the contentious means of crippling the tribunal have grave shortcomings. A serious political or security escalation would only harden discord at a moment when Hizbullah’s primary goal is to show that Lebanon is united in its rejection of the special tribunal. As for Assad, if he pushes too hard, he may lose for good the Lebanese Sunni card, which he has worked for years to regain. Hariri alone can issue Hizbullah with a certificate of innocence, and if the prime minister decides to sit the coming period out of office, it is difficult to see how any opposition-led government would function properly.

There are rarely dead ends in Lebanon, and Michel Aoun’s pessimism betrayed a more profound realization: that the first stage of Hizbullah’s strategy, based on intimidation, had failed. Things now become very complicated for everyone. Only negotiations between Hariri and Hizbullah are likely to result in a resolution, nothing else.

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