Friday, January 14, 2011

A migraine moment for the opposition?

Did the opposition fall into a trap by bringing down the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri? Did the United States, in aborting a Saudi-Syrian understanding that might have led Lebanon to break off its ties with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, push Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and their allies into taking a decision they will regret?

Perhaps not, but it’s difficult to discern what definite advantages Syria and Hezbollah are likely to derive from their risky decision.

Let’s begin with Syria. For nearly six years, its strategy in Lebanon has been to re-impose Syrian hegemony over the country, after the military withdrawal in the aftermath of Rafik Hariri’s assassination. And for two years, following the Syrian-Saudi reconciliation at an Arab economic summit in Kuwait, Syria’s regime has worked on gaining Saudi approval for a political return to Lebanon. Syria did little to mobilize its partisans against Saad Hariri and March 14 during the 2009 elections, and the quid pro quo was that if Hariri became prime minister, he would be delivered to Damascus by the Saudis.

That’s precisely what happened. Since then, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has benefited from the backing of King Abdullah to reassert Syrian power in Beirut, on the assumption that better an Arab country dominating the Lebanese than Iran and Hezbollah. What remains of the contract today? The Saudis are breaking speed records in distancing themselves from any effort to undermine the Special Tribunal. Even within the Saudi leadership there appear to have been disagreements over the merits of a deal with Syria, as this brought Riyadh absolutely nothing of what it sought in Iraq, when Syria endorsed the re-nomination of Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister.

Some might say that Syria is on the cusp of forming an obedient Lebanese government, regaining much of what it lost in 2005. If Hariri refuses to become prime minister, or abandons the attempt after a period of trying to do so unsuccessfully, because he realizes the opposition will deny him a cabinet in which he is strong, Damascus and Hezbollah will endeavor to form their own, under a loyal Sunni.

However, there are serious disadvantages here. Syria will be in the forefront of the action, responsible before the international community for whatever goes wrong in Lebanon, even though Iran is the more commanding outside decision-maker. Assad and Hezbollah also need to invent a credible Sunni to head their government. That won’t be easy if the primary purpose of the new team will be to break off Beirut’s relations with the Special Tribunal set up to uncover Rafik Hariri’s killers. The Sunni community will be outraged, and Damascus will have to manage the consequences alone.

True, Syria will be able to appoint its people to senior government and security posts, but Hezbollah already controls the commanding heights of the state. Assad’s main challenge will be less to take over key positions from the relatively feeble March 14 coalition than to do so from his own allies. If the ultimate aim is to start arresting figures from the majority and suffocate Lebanese pluralism, as Hugo Chavez has tried in Venezuela, then this could be a recipe for civil war.

And how convincing would such a government be internationally? Syria always benefited from a Hariri façade in its past governments, particularly on financial matters. Does anyone seriously think that one led by Syria and Hezbollah would generate economic confidence? It would be just as naïve to assume that Lebanon would emerge a winner politically and economically if this government kicked off its mandate by defying the international community over the Special Tribunal. A Syria-Hezbollah governing team formed against Hariri and the Sunnis is a train wreck waiting to happen.

It is equally improbable that Hezbollah will come out of the situation reinforced. The party was hoping to bully Hariri into endorsing measures to cripple the Special Tribunal, and declare to the world that the Lebanese were united in their rejection of the institution. Instead, that approach collapsed resoundingly, March 14 is in a fighting mood, and anything Hezbollah does against the tribunal will stink of a cover-up and enjoy no legitimacy in Lebanon, the region or internationally. This could be calamitous for a party that purports to represent a national resistance, particularly if or when it finds itself in a conflict with Israel with a furious Sunni community to its rear.

The danger is that Syria, Iran and their Lebanese allies recognize all this, but will decide that the only alternative is to push all the way and organize a far-reaching coup to politically eliminate their rivals. This will surely backfire, but don’t ask authoritarian governments and parties to respect the subtle trip wires of Lebanese sectarianism.

Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and their lesser partners have gambled in toppling the Hariri government. Blocking the Special Tribunal is one thing, but seizing control of the state is something entirely different. For months Hezbollah had sought to attain the first objective, but now may find itself achieving the second, with a monstrous baby to feed: upholding a government of dubious authority against the international community; opposed by a large segment of Lebanese society; and dealing with a tribunal pursuing its work unhindered.

But are we missing something? Could this be a Syrian gambit to bolster its power in Lebanon, at the expense of all sides, including its Hezbollah and Iranian comrades? It’s too early to tell. But there is much more to the situation than meets the eye. There always is.

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