Two questions are essential in approaching the events of the past week in Lebanon. The first is, Can Syria can accept a Hezbollah-dominated government in Beirut? The second, Why did Damascus push its political allies to bring down the government of Saad Hariri before ensuring beforehand that Walid Jumblatt and his bloc would decide against naming Hariri as prime minister?
The answer to the first question is, bluntly, no. Syria cannot any more accept formal Hezbollah hegemony over Lebanon than it could a Lebanon ruled by the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1976, when it intervened militarily to prevent such an outcome. The reasons are obvious. A Hezbollah-led government would substantially heighten the prospect of war between Lebanon and Israel, leading to an Israeli intervention that could drag Syria into a conflict not of its choosing.
Another reason, equally compelling as far as Syria's President Bashar Assad is concerned, is that ceding to Hezbollah the power of governance in Lebanon would mean effectively surrendering the country to Iran. Instead, Assad wants Lebanon to be surrendered to Syria. That is why Damascus has sought to exploit the discord over the government to do the only thing it can do to enhance its influence over Lebanese affairs: play Hezbollah off against Hariri.
This leads us to the second question. In fact, it answers it. The Syrians never had any illusions that Jumblatt would abandon Hariri. For the Druze leader, that would have been political suicide. Jumblatt's power of financial patronage comes mainly through Saudi Arabia; several of his parliamentarians are elected in Sunni-majority districts; and around 30 percent of the electorate in the Shouf is Sunni. Jumblatt never wanted to abandon Hariri, and Assad didn't make him do so. If I were a Hezbollah member, that would worry me.
And it may well have, because the party's threat of escalating actions in the street may, partly, be understood best as one facet of a complicated minuet between Syria and Hezbollah. This could be Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah's way of saying that enough room was given to the Syrians and Saudis, to no avail. Now Hezbollah will try something different. Which still doesn't answer why Syria compelled its allies to take a far-reaching decision leading nowhere, that has bought more time for Daniel Fransen, the pretrial judge of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, to confirm prosecutor Daniel Bellemare's indictment.
One explanation is that Syria had no other choice. For Assad, the Syrian-Saudi dialogue was always a cover for Syria's political comeback to Lebanon. Iran and Hezbollah sanctioned it because they could not avoid doing so, but on the assumption that it would ultimately compel Saad Hariri to break off Lebanon's ties with the Special Tribunal. Assad was more flexible. The Syrian leader grasped that if Hariri went that far, he would be politically weakened and unable to stand up to Hezbollah, therefore of no use to Syria in its game of manipulating Lebanese contradictions. So the Syrians showed a double face, urging the Lebanese government to undermine the tribunal but otherwise doing nothing to impose this.
When the Obama administration blocked a Syrian-Saudi deal that would cripple the tribunal, Assad found himself in a tight spot. Without a Syrian-Saudi mechanism, how would Damascus maneuver in Lebanon? Iran and Hezbollah were seeking to pursue a more aggressive path, and the Syrians were at risk of losing the political initiative to them. So Assad hoped to avert this by toppling the government, leading to deadlock, in that way keeping the keys of a solution in his own hands. Expecting Saudi Arabia to withdraw from Lebanese affairs, which it did yesterday, Assad sought to use the summit with Qatar and Turkey to maintain the upper hand in any settlement over a new government. While the Syrian-Saudi label may still be employed, the reality is that Assad is on his own, in search of an elusive Qatari and Turkish fig leaf to press his advantage. The Saudis, in turn, are said to be far less enthusiastic about the Syrians than they were.
Assad sees opportunities ahead. Unless Hezbollah steps in to prevent it, Saad Hariri will be asked to form a new government next week. The Syrians will not oppose this, their major incentive being that Hariri's return will mean heightened tension between him and Hezbollah, which Damascus will exploit in its own favor. Hezbollah's pressure on Hariri will ultimately play into Syria's hands, until the moment when the Special Tribunal's indictment is confirmed and Assad will contrive to step in and broker a settlement allowing him to seize a large share of the Lebanese pie. Ironically, the organization that today holds the largest share of that pie, the portion Syria covets most, namely leadership of the main security and intelligence services, is Hezbollah.
Hezbollah may escalate its actions, but this will only complicate matters. Making Lebanon ungovernable will not sway the Special Tribunal. And against whom will destabilization be directed? There is no government. If Hariri is tasked with forming one, Hezbollah will use instability to curtail the prime minister-designate's ambitions. The downside is that this may delay the cabinet's formation, giving Fransen ample time to approve the indictment.
Hezbollah is in a bind. There is no reason to celebrate, however, because Lebanon as a whole will pay a heavy price. But that won't affect what goes on in The Hague. Which is why Hezbollah should seriously consider looking for a negotiated way out of its impasse.