Thursday, June 16, 2011

With allies like these, Beirut will not be able to rule itself

Syria's President Bashar al Assad may be struggling with problems at home, but he still has pull in Beirut. On Monday, Lebanon's prime minister designate, Najib Miqati, finally formed a government after a five-month delay. Syria's fingerprints were all over it.

Confirming this, Mr al Assad immediately called Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to congratulate him, and did the same with Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker. Last week, in a meeting with the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, the Syrian president had signalled his desire to see a new government soon. This sense of urgency pushed Mr Berri to break the logjam by conceding a Shiite seat to the Sunnis.

What is it that suddenly altered the mood in Damascus? After all, the Syrian leadership had not previously applied pressure on Mr Miqati and its friends in Beirut, strongly suggesting that it welcomed a Lebanese vacuum. One can only speculate, but the widening revolt in Syria and the regime's growing regional and international isolation, particularly its divorce from states such as Turkey and Qatar, were surely factors. With so much shifting around Mr al Assad and his acolytes, they apparently concluded that it was preferable to employ Lebanon as a tool in their confrontation with the outside, by forming a favourable government, rather than exploiting the void in the country.

This does not bode well. Mr Miqati insisted that his cabinet would represent all Lebanese, a reminder that the March 14 coalition led by the caretaker prime minister, Saad Hariri, has refused to join. That Mr Miqati is not a national-unity government will create tensions in a country pathologically wedded to political balance. Aside from Syria, those bolstering the new team are Hizbollah and Michel Aoun, whose hostility to March 14 is profound. Mr Miqati and his "centrist" allies in the government - Mr Suleiman and Mr Jumblatt - will labour to ensure that their partners do not settle political scores.

Mr Berri's decision, and more important that of Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's secretary general, to accept a smaller Shiite share of ministers was not fortuitous. It facilitated Mr Miqati's task, therefore aiding the Assad regime. The lower Shiite profile also was destined to achieve two other objectives: it allows Mr Miqati to say that his government is not controlled by Hizbollah, lending it Sunni legitimacy inside Lebanon while also reassuring Arab states and the international community. And, more perniciously, it places the onus of failure on the prime minister, even if Hizbollah knows that it will have great sway over cabinet decisions despite having few ministers.

Hizbollah has two priorities. The party wants a clear policy statement by the government officially sanctioning its weapons; and it wants the state to take its distance from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon dealing with the assassination in 2005 of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister. The tribunal is expected to issue an indictment within three months, and there have been indications that Hizbollah members will be accused of involvement. Indeed, the collapse of Saad Hariri's government in January was a consequence of domestic differences over how to address the indictment.

However, Hizbollah also has a more overarching ambition. The party anxiously realises that Syria's regime is facing an existential threat, and that its collapse would transform power relations in the Levant to Iran's detriment, and therefore its own. It has no ready solution to this predicament, but Hizbollah will strive more than ever to anchor itself in the institutions of the Lebanese state, and to dominate them and marginalise its political adversaries in order to resist potentially disadvantageous change. That is why Mr Miqati's government will hit turbulence, especially over whatever affects Hizbollah's future.

The prime minister can already anticipate three major headaches. The first is that Hizbollah will push for the government not to cooperate with the special tribunal. It's difficult to see how Mr Miqati, against the wishes of Syria, Hizbollah and Mr Aoun, will be able to resist this demand, despite his worries that it could place Lebanon on a collision course with the United Nations Security Council, which established the institution. Even Mr Jumblatt has little room to manoeuvre on the tribunal, having repeatedly denounced it as a "politicised" body.

Mr Miqati was also obliged to accept an appointee of Suleiman Franjieh, a prominent Syrian ally, as defence minister. This will further discredit the Lebanese army in the eyes of the United States and many in the international community. American military assistance will almost certainly dry up. Equally worrisome is that several countries participating in the UN force in southern Lebanon believe the army to be under the influence of Hizbollah. This impression, not altogether unjustified, could well determine their continued commitment to maintaining troops in Lebanon, when some contingents have already expressed an intention to leave.

A third problem for Mr Miqati will be internal political discord. The foes of March 14 today have wide latitude to dismantle the political, security and financial edifice the coalition put in place after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. While Mr Miqati will try to limit the damages, such measures will provoke a backlash from March 14, particularly the partisans of Mr Hariri, the dominant Lebanese Sunni figure. These conflicts, at a time of crisis in Syria and volatility in the region, could destabilise Lebanon in dangerous ways.

That's not to mention the myriad other challenges Mr Miqati will wrestle with - above all a potentially serious decline in economic confidence and the strains following from the state's support for the Assad regime, when most Lebanese Sunnis sympathise with the Syrian opposition. Lebanon's new government may mean the country is out of the frying pan, but nothing suggests it will avoid the fire.

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