Thursday, January 27, 2011

Jumblatt shifts with the wind, but so do Lebanese fortunes

It has often been said that where Lebanon goes, Mr Jumblatt follows - although on many occasions the contrary has been true. If so, a look back at his actions in the past few weeks will give us a better sense of the trials and errors this week that have heightened tension in Beirut.

The importance of Mr Jumblatt is that after the 2009 elections, it was his parliamentary bloc that could hand the majority to the Hariri-led March 14 coalition or, conversely, to the rival Hizbollah-led coalition. While the Druze leader's candidates were elected as allies of March 14, Mr Jumblatt was then preparing to move closer to Syria, after having been its most ardent foe following the assassination four years earlier of Rafik Hariri. The acrobat in Mr Jumblatt sensed that because of the Syrian-Saudi reconciliation in early 2009, Mr Hariri would be pushed by Riyadh to reconcile with Syria; therefore, Mr Jumblatt had to do so too, or he would be left hanging out to dry.

From that moment on, Mr Jumblatt was helpless. He had a Canossa to climb in order to regain Syrian approval (and the humiliations came hard and fast), and knew that his community was exposed militarily to Hizbollah, which had attacked Druze mountain villages in May 2008, to Mr Jumblatt's alarm. His parliamentarians were tallied with those of the majority led by March 14, but it was a matter of time before Syria would ask him to go all the way in his new alignments.

Two weeks ago the Hariri government was brought down when Hizbollah's ministers and their allies resigned. This was precipitated by two developments: continuing discord within the government over Hizbollah and Syria's demand that Mr Hariri take measures to sever Lebanon's relations with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up to identify and try those involved in the Hariri assassination; and the breakdown in a Syrian-Saudi dialogue over Lebanon that, from Damascus's and Hizbollah's perspectives, was meant to facilitate this severing of relations. But Washington warned the Saudis that they should not endorse steps against the tribunal, and the dialogue ended.

To form a government, the president consults with parliamentary blocs, takes a poll and determines who has the most votes. After the recent government collapse, Hizbollah and its allies vowed that Mr Hariri would not return to office, fearing he would continue stalling on the tribunal. Mr Jumblatt, in contrast, announced that his bloc would nominate Mr Hariri as the most representative Sunni. Consultations were delayed, however, and within days Hizbollah had exerted pressure on Mr Jumblatt to give his votes to the opposition's candidate. Last week, the Druze leader yielded, announcing that he would side with the candidate of "Syria and the resistance", which many people took to mean Omar Karami, a former prime minister.

To participate or not to participate?

Despite the talk of a “coup” circulating in recent days in March 14’s ranks, Saad Hariri and his allies must take the measure of where they stand, beyond the slogans. Indeed, Syria and Hezbollah have made a major step forward in reversing the gains of 2005, when Syria removed its army from Lebanon and, for a moment, Lebanon’s unaccountable security chiefs faced the rule of law. But March 14 needs to take a deep breath and coldly assess what happened.

The real “coup” was not the appointment of Najib Mikati to form a new government; it was Hezbollah’s ability, with Syrian acquiescence, to turn Walid Jumblatt against the March 14-led majority. There are interesting ingredients in this reversal that have to do with the complicated dynamics of the Syrian-Iranian relationship.

Last week it seemed that Hezbollah and Michel Aoun had made a decision not only to prevent Hariri’s return as prime minister, but also to cripple him politically. Their calculation was that if Hariri came back, he would be able to further delay a Lebanese decision to sever relations with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and Aoun sought to bring in Omar Karami. But the former prime minister would have been too bitter a pill to swallow for everyone, and Syria intervened with a bait and switch, replacing Karami with the more palatable Mikati.

The shoddy way Mikati was presented had to do with Hezbollah’s haste to get a government in quickly, to cut ties with the tribunal. On Sunday, Aoun and Nasrallah hinted that Karami was out (since he could not have won a vote against Hariri). However, the cursory way Aoun mentioned Mikati, and the fact that Nasrallah did not, may have indicated that neither was overwhelmed with the choice. Could it be that Syria’s imposition of Mikati, and the subsequent offer by Syria’s ally Suleiman Franjieh that March 14 take the blocking third in a Mikati government, denied them the chance to eliminate Hariri? It’s instructive that Syria’s allies in Beirut were explaining that Damascus did not want to repeat the mistake of Emile Lahoud’s extension.

What are the options for Hariri? The former prime minister has said that he would not join a government “named by Hezbollah.” And there are growing signs that he may carry through on this, even as his bloc pursues an internal debate on participation. If so, this might be mistake.

There are two schools of thought: that March 14 should stay outside of the government, denying it Sunni legitimacy and compelling Mikati to form a cabinet of “one color.” This cabinet will take a contentious decision on the Special Tribunal, incensing both the Sunnis and the international community, eroding what tenuous credibility Mikati has. Consequently, the government will not last, forcing Syria and Hezbollah to negotiate once again with a reinvigorated Hariri.

That may happen, but recent events suggest that relying on this scenario is risky. The rioting on Monday was both good and bad for Hariri. It showed that the Sunnis are angry, and that their anger might spin out of control, therefore it is a bad idea to push too harshly against Hariri and the tribunal. But the scenes of violence also made many Lebanese worry that they were on the cusp of sectarian warfare. And for better or worse, by default many will now identify Mikati with stability.

Unfortunately for Hariri, and his Sunni legitimacy notwithstanding, any successful strategy to undermine a Mikati government would require feeding off ambient insecurity, much like Hezbollah has done in the past. But that is not really Hariri’s way.

If Hariri participates in the government, or just in talks to establish one, this may open up opportunities. In light of Hezbollah’s alacrity to rid itself of the Special Tribunal, Franjieh made his blocking third proposal to March 14 without conditions. Damascus may not have endorsed this, but Hariri should seize the offer anyway. It is doubtful that Syria seeks Hariri’s political disappearance. For as long as the former prime minister retains clout as the dominant Sunni, Damascus will ensure that it can continue playing him off against Hezbollah.

If Hariri’s participation is so vital to the new government, then this gives him latitude to impose conditions. The minimal demand of March 14 must be the blocking third. Much bargaining lies ahead, despite Franjieh’s statement, but negotiations would buy time for confirmation of the tribunal indictment. And if Hariri does not get what he wants, he can always pull out and place the onus of failure on Mikati.

Hariri can also demand that the break with the tribunal not be mentioned in the cabinet statement, delegitimizing such a move from the start. Mikati may support this, even if he has probably agreed to end Beirut’s collaboration with the institution. If March 14 gets the blocking third, it could obstruct a vote in the cabinet to annul the protocol with the Special Tribunal (which is why Hezbollah and Syria are liable not to surrender that advantage to Hariri). Whatever happens, and more cynically, if Mikati goes ahead with the divorce anyway, Hariri would be giving him rope with which to hang himself.

There are other advantages in participating in a Mikati government with a blocking third. There will be occasions for March 14 to ally itself on important issues with President Michel Sleiman, and even Walid Jumblatt. The Druze leader is keen, for electoral reasons, to regain Sunni favor after his decision last week to vote against Hariri.

All eyes will be on Saudi Arabia’s reaction. The Saudis have spent two years sponsoring a Syrian comeback to Lebanon, on the assumption that better Syria leading in Beirut than Iran. There may be those in the kingdom who regard the pro-Syrian Mikati as fulfilling that logic. Hariri will remain the Sunnis’ leader, but he will also be careful not to maneuver outside the parameters set by the previous Syrian-Saudi dialogue. Ultimately Mikati is the man in the hot seat today, so entering the government could emerge as Hariri’s optimal way of exploiting what will surely be its impossible contradictions.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Barak, or inconsequence

Ehud Barak’s recent departure from Israel’s Labor Party to form his own faction offered an instructive moment in Israeli politics. It’s hardly the merits of the man that make it so. Rather, the transition was the latest confirmation that Israel’s so-called “peace camp” is a thing of the past in terms of political effectiveness, as the consensus in the country on relations with the Palestinians moves politically rightward.

The mediocrity of Barak’s record has reflected that change. It wasn’t always that way. In 1999, when he became prime minister, Barak was seen as the inheritor of Yitzhak Rabin, someone who would inject life into the moribund peace negotiations that had languished under the tenure of Benjamin Netanyahu. We were reminded that Barak was brainy and could be both gentle and rough: He could play the piano skillfully, and skillfully assassinate Palestinian leaders, as he did Khalil al-Wazir in Tunis. This helped earn him, with a colleague, the status of most decorated soldier in Israeli history.

Barak’s only term as prime minister, between 1999 and 2001, was defeated by hubris. He entered office ambitiously promising success on the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese tracks, yet left having achieved almost nothing. Barak did pull his soldiers out of South Lebanon in May 2000, but Israel received nothing in exchange. In light of the prime minister’s failures elsewhere, that exit, which was soon perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a defeat, took on added importance and became a yardstick for Israeli vulnerabilities.

With Syria, Barak’s vulnerabilities came to full light. He told his American interlocutors upon arriving in Washington in December 1999 for the Shepherdstown talks with Syria’s foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, that he did not have a mandate to surrender the Golan Heights down to the shores of Lake Tiberias. This represented a step backward from what Rabin had promised the Syrian leader, Hafez al-Assad – showing, not for the last time, that Barak frequently promised what he could not deliver. The Shepherdstown talks collapsed and the prime minister’s reluctance to take risks on the Golan helped push the Syrian-Israeli track into a dead end after Assad held an abortive meeting with Bill Clinton in Geneva.

Barak’s legacy may be safer when it comes to the climactic moment of negotiations with the Palestinians: the Camp David talks of July 2000. The general opinion is that Israel offered the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, major concessions, but that an agreement was derailed by Arafat’s refusal to accept Israeli conditions on Jerusalem. However, that interpretation has been disputed, thanks largely to the publication by Robert Malley, a Clinton administration staffer who was present at the talks, and Hussein Agha of an article in The New York Review of Books questioning the orthodoxy. The “blame Arafat” line, they wrote, “fails to capture why what so many viewed as a generous Israeli offer, the Palestinians viewed as neither generous, nor Israeli, nor, indeed, as an offer.”

Their perspective was challenged by other officials who had been at Camp David, but Barak’s proposals did him no good at home. Once the Palestinians embarked upon a new intifada, the prime minister became a sitting duck. By then the high hopes of the years before had evaporated. Barak had struck out everywhere because he had too confidently imagined he could succeed everywhere. He was defeated by Ariel Sharon in the elections of 2001, resigned as leader of the Labor Party and for years worked outside politics.

The comeback was no more impressive. Only in 2007 did Barak regain leadership of Labor, and then by a narrow margin. In the 2009 elections Labor won a mere 13 seats in the Knesset. Despite initially saying the party would not join the government, Barak reversed course to become defense minister. Other party members were unhappy with this, and the ongoing tension between Barak and his colleagues over peace negotiations with the Palestinians pushed him to go his own way this week.

Perhaps Barak thinks he can do what Sharon did when he left Likud to form Kadima. If so, that, too, would be a sign of an over-adventurous ego. The Israeli defense minister has increasingly seemed little more than a good resume wrapped around a core of inconsequence. He has failed to stake out a position that anyone might readily identify as his. Barak’s compromises with Netanyahu, his refusal to push hard in favor of his declared positions on peace with the Arabs, even the fact that he appears to have misled the Obama administration over his effectiveness in swaying the prime minister, all suggest he is far closer to being an opportunist than the near redeemer he was portrayed as more than a decade ago.

If Barak has become so elastic, that’s because he is adapting to an Israel much different, at least to the outside world, than the one that elected him in 1999. The old parameters, those of an Israeli peace camp squaring off against a pro-settlement camp, were undermined by Sharon, who evacuated Gaza to better consolidate Israeli control over other Palestinian areas. This strategy, of offering absorbable concessions to enhance Israel’s long-term territorial domination, has been imitated by Netanyahu, and poses no problems for most Israeli voters. It’s a testament to Labor’s futility that Israel’s government is made stronger by its ministers’ walk-out.

Barak may have dealt a harsh blow to Labor, but this won’t hasten his own political renaissance. His repositioning makes a good headline, but is not overly meaningful. Perhaps that’s because Israel itself is finding meaningful politics more and more elusive.

Lebanon’s False Choice Between Stability and Justice

Over the years, Lebanon has managed to avoid getting to the bottom of its politically motivated crimes. Its 15-year civil war ended with an amnesty law, even though more than 100,000 people had been killed, including dozens of prominent political and religious figures, among them two presidents. Not surprisingly, with UN indictments for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri now approaching, the country is finding it difficult to deal with the possibility that, in this one case, the pursuit of justice might reach a firmer conclusion.

In the coming weeks, the United Nations' Special Tribunal for Lebanon is expected to confirm indictments against individuals who participated in the suicide bombing that killed Hariri and 21 others on February 14, 2005. Those indicted are expected to include Hezbollah members. The attack provoked mass demonstrations in Beirut directed against Syria, viewed as the likely culprit. By April of that year, Syrian forces had withdrawn from Lebanon; an anti-Syrian coalition won a parliamentary majority soon thereafter.

For Hezbollah, any outcome suggesting its involvement in Hariri's death could prove disastrous, as the mere accusation that its Shiite members facilitated the elimination of a Sunni leader might destroy the party's reputation and effectiveness in Lebanon and the Middle East. Hezbollah's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, has tried to paint the tribunal as an "Israeli project," claiming that Israel killed Hariri and that, backed by the United States, Israel intends to use the institution to undermine Hezbollah's "resistance."

Facing what it sees as an existential threat posed by the indictments, Hezbollah had sought to force the now former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of the slain leader, and his allies to sever Lebanon's official ties with the UN tribunal. Hezbollah hoped that Hariri's sponsor, Saudi Arabia, would compel the prime minister to take such a step as part of a months-long dialogue that Riyadh carried out with Syria, which, along with Hezbollah, has also sought to turn Beirut against the tribunal. The Saudis viewed such an agreement as a way of easing a Syrian political comeback to Lebanon; Riyadh prefers an Arab state calling the shots in Beirut to Iran controlling the government through its proxy militia, Hezbollah.

The negotiations ultimately broke down for a variety of reasons, including Hariri's reluctance to go along with any scheme that might weaken the tribunal. More important, the Obama administration intervened earlier this month to warn the Saudis against endorsing any such arrangement. Saudi Arabia ended its mediation, pushing Syria, with Hezbollah's approval, to hasten the Hariri government's downfall.

Syria's game plan is a complex one. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main objective is to restore Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. After 2005, Damascus was forced to watch as Iran became the dominant outside actor in Lebanon. Assad would like to regain that status -- but without confronting Tehran and Hezbollah. Syria sought to exploit its talks with the Saudis as a path back to preeminence in Beirut; but when that failed, the Syrians accelerated a government crisis in which the tension between Hezbollah and Hariri reached new levels, allowing Damascus to intervene and mediate a solution. Assad hopes to use such a process to extract concessions from both sides -- above all, the naming of pro-Syrian figures to key posts in the government and security agencies.

Might his plan succeed? Last week, the Hezbollah-led opposition declared that it refused to name Hariri and had enough votes to bring in Omar Karami, a pro-Syrian former prime minister. According to Lebanon's constitution, when a government falls, the president holds a poll with parliamentary blocs to see who has the most votes to form a new government. To achieve its majority, Hezbollah put pressure on Hariri's ally Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's Druze community, to switch sides and name Karami. Most Sunnis decried this as an effort to eliminate Hariri politically. It was subtler than that: a Syrian bait and switch to bring in Najib Miqati, a more credible Sunni former prime minister with close ties to Syria. On Tuesday, Miqati got the nod, though the vast majority of Sunni parliamentarians had failed to back him. Sunnis throughout Lebanon immediately took to the streets to demonstrate against the decision, insisting that Hariri was the more legitimate communal representative.

Assad faces risks in such a scenario. Many Sunnis now regard Miqati as a renegade for having helped oust Hariri, and his ability to form a consensual cabinet will be impaired. Hariri has insisted that he will not join a cabinet imposed by Hezbollah, and Syria does not relish having to face a hostile Sunni population. In addition, a government favorable to Damascus will ultimately still be propped up by Hezbollah's guns, which means that Iran, not Syria, retains the final say in Beirut. Israel will be even more wary of such a government than it was of the previous Hariri-led team, heightening prospects for an Israeli military intervention in Lebanon, which could draw Syria into an unwelcome war.

Most controversially, Hezbollah and Syria will ask any new government to dissolve the protocol of cooperation between Lebanon and the special tribunal, cut funding to the institution, and recall the Lebanese judges serving in its offices. If the new government goes ahead with such moves, Syria could be in the front line in facing international censure for leading a cover-up of a major crime. And even a withdrawal of Lebanese support might fail to dent the institution, since funding will be found elsewhere and the judges were appointed by the UN Security Council, not Beirut. Regardless of the exact fate of the tribunal, a crisis between Lebanon and the international community seems assured -- and the repercussions cannot be underestimated.

Much will hinge on the strength of the charges brought by the special tribunal. Its apparent focus on Hezbollah does not necessarily imply Syrian innocence. From the beginning, UN investigators have worked on the assumption that there were several circles in the Hariri plot: the person who committed the crime, namely, a suicide bomber; those who enabled the crime, presumably Hezbollah members, whose identities were uncovered through telecommunications analyses; and those who ordered the crime, which, given power relations in Lebanon in 2005, pointed toward Syria.

The second commissioner of the UN investigation, the Belgian judge Serge Brammertz, suspected Syria but never conducted an aggressive police investigation to confirm his hypothesis. Brammertz was publicly denounced by his predecessor, the German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, for his alleged lethargy, and former investigators and Lebanese judicial and government officials have been privately critical of his performance. More damning, Brammertz, according to my sources and a Canadian documentary released last November, initially left the most sensitive aspect of the investigation -- the telecommunications analysis pointing toward a possible Hezbollah connection -- to the Lebanese police, which lacked the technical capability to carry out this sensitive work.

It is too early to tell whether Brammertz's failings will prove fatal to the investigation. His successor, Daniel Bellemare, a Canadian judge who became prosecutor of the tribunal in 2009, presented a draft indictment to the court's pretrial judge last week. The confirmation process, during which indictments remain secret, is expected to last until March or April, although the appeals chamber will address matters of law next month, perhaps giving some indication of the prosecution's direction.

Whether or not Bellemare brings convictions is essential -- but it is the ensuing political dynamics in Lebanon that will be most vital, because they will be driven by communal relations. The Sunni community, roughly equal in size to that of the Shiites, has grown increasingly antagonistic to Hezbollah since Hariri's murder. And as usual, regional actors will intervene in the volatile Lebanese mix to achieve their separate political objectives -- not least Syria and Iran but also Israel and the United States.

Hezbollah, egged on by Tehran, will fight to ensure that any new Lebanese government distances itself from the special tribunal. But if the tribunal can prove its accusations, Hezbollah may be caught in a vise. If the party resorts to intimidation to stifle dissent and condemnation after the accusations come out, it could plant the seeds of its own destruction. Browbeating its domestic partners will only further isolate Hezbollah and rally other Lebanese communities against it. A Hezbollah leader lording over Lebanon will represent an invitation for an attack by Israel, which might see an opening to cripple the party if it is isolated. And this time, the Israelis have repeatedly warned that a war would be far worse than in 2006 and Shiite suffering much greater. Even among Shiites, patience with a militant organization that offers only perpetual conflict may wear thin, especially at a time when the community yearns for stability to consolidate its newfound political and economic standing in Lebanon.

The choice between stability and justice is a false one. In Lebanon, stability has been the result of hegemony by outsiders, above all Syria, whose 29-year presence was punctuated by the debasement of justice and constitutional institutions. The international community has given the Lebanese a chance to identify their former prime minister's assassins. They must make the most of it. Distancing Lebanon from the tribunal in the hopes of ensuring stability can only reward the guilty, who will define stability as the permanent forsaking of justice.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The end of the affair

While there is still some doubt as to what will happen next Monday, when President Michel Sleiman will call for consultations to form a new government, the likelihood is that Saad Hariri will not return as prime minister. If so, this could represent the end of the experiment of 2005, when the Lebanese came out in droves after the assassination of Rafik Hariri to demand a Syrian withdrawal and a sovereign Lebanon in which the rule of law would prevail.

The numbers don’t look good for Hariri. The Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, has switched sides, evidently under threat from Hezbollah, which reportedly cut off all contacts with him after he declared earlier this week that he would support a Hariri bid. But even if Jumblatt fails to bring his entire bloc over to the opposition, the race is close enough where even a few abstentions by individuals elected on Hariri lists in 2009 – for example Muhammad Safadi, Najib Mikati, Ahmad Karami, and Qassem Abdul Aziz – would ensure victory for an opposition candidate who will have the advantage of unified support.

Where Hariri’s decision to go to consultations may have an impact is in determining which Sunni stands against him. If Omar Karami is the favorite, the former prime minister may yet hesitate to accept the poisoned apple of a contest against the most legitimate of Sunni politicians. The next head of government will have the unenviable task of ending Lebanon’s ties with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and in that way will be perceived by his coreligionists as covering for Rafik Hariri’s assassins. If Karami decides not to run as a consequence, the opposition would have to bring in an even less credible Sunni figure, which would make even trickier and more contentious the measures taken against the tribunal.

The new government, if Hezbollah and its allies win, will be lacking in legitimacy, with a vast majority of Sunnis and a large proportion of Christians opposing it; but it will also enjoy all the advantages that accompany being in power. It will take over state institutions and the army will implement its orders. That this will represent a coup of major magnitude against the Lebanon that had struggled to consolidate itself on the gains of 2005 is obvious. One can also expect that the new team will go a long way toward dismantling what March 14 built up in the years following the Hariri murder.

The new government will almost immediately sever ties with the Special Tribunal, precipitating a crisis with the international community. How the United Nations reacts will be important, because this will have a definite echo in Beirut, where Hariri will seek to portray himself as the leader of a principled opposition unwilling to abandon justice on behalf of the victims of political crimes in the past five years. The standard warnings against Syria will not do the trick. Unless there is a concerted international effort to go to the wall on Lebanon, the country will remain an Iranian outpost with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fronting this state of affairs, because his doing otherwise means surrendering Syria’s Lebanese stakes.

A key indicator will be the economy. While a run on the banks may not happen soon, or at all, overall confidence in the financial management of the Aounists and Hezbollah will almost certainly decline. We can probably assume that Gulf money to bolster the economy will go down, since Saudi Arabia, above all, will think twice before handing the Hezbollah-controlled government an economic lifeline. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing that Michel Aoun and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah will finally have to put their money, literally, where their mouth is and manage Lebanon’s accounts, though most people would surely prefer not to become their guinea pigs.

If Hezbollah takes effective control in Beirut, this will represent an essential challenge for the international community, above and beyond what it means for the Special Tribunal. Such a development will make very relative Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip. While the new government will try to sell itself more as a Syrian than an Iranian construct, the fact is that it will be propped up by Hezbollah’s bayonets, with Syria facing the discomfort of being blamed for the behavior of a cabinet actually controlled by Tehran. Can the world’s leading states accept a Hezbollah-dominated administration in Beirut? The unfortunate answer is that there may be little they can do against it, at least enough to shake Nasrallah’s determination.

But what about Israel? Can Israel accept a Hezbollah-dominated cabinet in Beirut, whose policy statement will beyond question further reinforce Lebanon’s official endorsement of the party’s weapons? For a time it might if Hezbollah maintains calm along the Lebanese-Israeli border, as the party has an interest in doing. However, we can also expect Israeli military officials to upgrade their contingency plans for Lebanon, this time with American encouragement, so that any future conflict is one that cripples Hezbollah for good.

It’s difficult to see how Damascus gains from this situation. The late Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, sent his soldiers into Lebanon in 1976 to prevent the onset of a Palestine Liberation Organization-ruled Lebanese state, fearing that this would lead to an Israeli-Lebanese war that might draw in a weaker Syria. Yet Bashar al-Assad, unlike his father, is on the verge of consenting to such a situation, and it is Syria, not Iran, that will be in the front lines.

What lies ahead will not be easy for Hezbollah and Syria to manage. Hezbollah’s single-minded focus on undermining the Special Tribunal is compelling it to make mistakes elsewhere. Sponsoring a government against Lebanon’s Sunnis and a large share of the Christians, who despite their decline still represent the economic backbone of the country, is a disaster waiting to happen. Weapons can do many things, but they cannot purchase legitimacy and prosperity.

Lebanon is bound to suffer as the irresistible force of Lebanese sectarianism meets the immovable object of Hezbollah’s weapons. My bet is on sectarianism, but the price paid could be prohibitive.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Is Hezbollah's eye mainly on Syria?

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.

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.

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.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bracing for Indictments in Lebanon

Interview with Michael Young , Council on Foreign Relations

The UN Special Tribunal on Lebanon is likely to soon send draft indictments to the pretrial judge on the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. For months, the government of Saad al-Hariri, Hariri's son, has been paralyzed by tensions over the tribunal's investigation and its legitimacy. Though they will not be confirmed for six to ten weeks, the results are expected to link Hezbollah and Syria with the assassination of Hariri. Michael Young, a Lebanon political analyst and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle, says that the United States is trying to block efforts by Hezbollah, as well as by Syria and Saudi Arabia, to neutralize the tribunal's findings.

(…) The general consensus--and we have to see if it's fulfilled--is that within the coming weeks, the tribunal's prosecutor [Daniel Bellemare] will be presenting indictments to the pre-trial judge [Daniel Fransen]. The pre-trial judge will then probably take six to ten weeks to confirm those indictments. We will not know anything about the indictments until they're confirmed. But within that period, the pre-trial judge has the option of holding hearings with the members of the appeals chamber on certain aspects of the law. This would be done to expedite the process. During that period, we may begin to hear elements of the prosecutor's case, even if none of the indicted will be named. But the general expectation is that if draft indictments are presented in the coming week to two weeks, we will not have confirmed indictments probably until March or perhaps even April.

(…) What is happening is that Syria is allied with Iran and Hezbollah, but they are looking for openings in which they could, in a way, reassert more of their power in the country then they had in the last five years.

Hezbollah and its allies are basically trying to impose on Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri--the son of the late Rafik Hariri--a series of measures that would, in a way, begin a process of casting doubt on the legitimacy of the tribunal in the Hague. Saad Hariri has until now been resistant to these measures. Now, the issue is being played out at a higher level between Saudi Arabia and Syria. Saudi Arabia is the main backer of Hariri, and Syria of course is an ally of Hezbollah.
We are in a political deadlock in Lebanon because what is effectively taking place is an effort to work out "a grand bargain" over the tribunal where Saad Hariri would be asked essentially to discredit the tribunal or take steps to discredit the tribunal officially in Lebanon. In exchange, Hezbollah is saying that if that happens there will be stability in Lebanon [and that] otherwise, there will be great instability. But this is a complex negotiating process and there are a number of states, including the United States, that will not accept any kind of compromise on the tribunal. We are effectively in a political deadlock, and I think this will last.

(…) Yes, the United States was afraid about the negotiations behind the scenes between the Syrians and Saudi Arabia. While it's not exactly clear what these negotiations will involve, there is a fear that the Saudis, in an effort to effectively bring the Syrians back politically to Lebanon--in such a way as to contain Iran--would possibly sign off on some kind of an arrangement with the Syrians that would lead to Lebanon's discrediting the tribunal. The United States believes that this Syrian-Saudi arrangement would undermine the tribunal, and Clinton sought to make it very clear to Hariri--but also and more importantly to Hariri's Saudi sponsors--that the United States would not accept such an arrangement.

How is all this received in Lebanon? - There is tremendous malaise politically in Lebanon, because the situation surrounding the tribunal has effectively frozen all other aspects of political life. The cabinet is not meeting because Hezbollah and its allies refuse to attend cabinet sessions unless the cabinet takes certain measures that will lead to the discrediting of the tribunal. So, effectively, politics are frozen here, and as far as most Lebanese are concerned, this issue is not going anywhere. They feel their daily life is not getting any better. The economic situation is not particularly good. People believe their country is being ignored and is being held hostage to the tribunal.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Christians and survival of the smartest

Suddenly, it seems, everyone is interested in the Christians of the Middle East. That’s worthy, even if it has taken much time for people in the Arab world and the West to notice the hemorrhaging of the Arab Christian presence in recent decades.

For all this, it would be a mistake to lend artificial uniformity to such a trend. Only in a general sense does the fate of the Christians in Iraq affect that of Egypt’s Copts or Lebanon’s, Syria’s, Jordan’s or Palestine’s Christians. To assume that all suffer from the same challenges, above all growing intolerance in mainly Muslim societies, is to make the problem so large that solutions become impossible.

In Egypt, the Copts suffer from discrimination, and this can be linked to the movement of Egyptian society toward more overtly “Islamic” behavior in recent years. But that only tells half the story. In the 1950s and 1960s, when Egypt was still under a secular nationalist regime, there was a discernible religious coloring to the government’s hostility to the mainly Christian Levantines who had long been living in Egypt – Lebanese, Syrians, Greeks – many of whom left as a consequence.

And surely the growing Islamization in Egypt must, to a great extent, be linked to an autocratic leadership that has allowed society to more forcefully express its religious identity, this in order to legitimize the regime and permit it to suppress Islamic political organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood. Whatever the truth, the difficulties confronting the Copts are resolvable in an Egyptian context.

Which leads us to Lebanon, where despite Christian decline, the broader community, whether of the Eastern or Western churches, remains more influential and potent than elsewhere. In fact, as Iraqi Christians were being assassinated in their homes and Copts outside their Alexandria church lately, the most damaging blows to Lebanon’s Christians, and specifically to the Maronites, were self-inflicted.

Let’s take two examples. It has escaped nobody’s notice that the parliamentarians attached to Michel Aoun are at their most energetic when criticizing fellow Christians, such as President Michel Suleiman, Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea. That is their right. The Maronite community is a pluralistic one, and its end will truly come on the day when a single leader tries to impose harmony and homogeny on all.

However, the problem with the current criticisms is that they are entirely destructive, designed to discredit alternatives to Aoun. In attacking Suleiman, the Aounists are only saying that Michel Aoun would have made a better president. In abusing Sfeir, the Aounists are only saying that the patriarch will not get off lightly for having condemned Aoun in the past. In vociferating against Geagea, Aoun’s followers are only saying that there is no salvation outside Aoun.

What has emerged from this is utter divisiveness and an inability of the Maronites to find common ground over the basic interests of their community. Pluralism is one thing, but irreconcilable factionalism is something entirely different, affecting the long-term survival of the Maronites, and with them of other Lebanese Christian communities.

Take another case. The parliamentarian Boutros Harb has proposed a draft law that would prevent the sale of land between Christians and Muslims for a period of 15 years. Harb is worried by the fact that Christians in the south, but also in other predominantly Christian areas of Lebanon, are selling land to Shiites suspected of being linked to Hezbollah. If land is being bought up for political reasons, Christian or Muslim land, then this should be a matter of concern. However, Harb’s proposal is not the way to go, and will only bring about greater isolation of Christians from their Muslim countrymen.

What Harb is missing is that no one can legislate the future of Lebanon’s Christian communities. If Christians are selling land, that’s because selling land, regardless of the buyer, is an ordinary aspect of market behavior. But if Christians are selling land to depart from specific locations, then this is tied in to social and political realities that few legislative innovations will reverse. In those cases, it is the community’s representatives who need to find ways of encouraging their coreligionists to remain in their towns and villages of origin.

Harb’s proposal has been zealously denounced, but deeper thought should be put into the matter. A friend once recalled that during the war years, Shiite religious figures in the Christian-Shiite village of Kfour, near Nabatieh, issued a fatwa preventing Christians from selling their land. They did this to preserve Kfour’s multi-confessional character. At first the Christians complained, but once the war ended they were delighted to have a village to return to, with their property intact. Imposing a ban on land sales is not necessarily bad.

But what happened in Kfour was designed to uphold communal coexistence, whereas Harb’s project can only exacerbate communal relations and separate Christians from Muslims. Ultimately, what will determine the destiny of Arab Christians is whether individual communities can reach a consensus over how to maintain their presence in their countries and how best to integrate with their surroundings. Providing their surroundings will integrate with them.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Being rotten to the state of Denmark

The decision of President Barack Obama to make a series of recess appointments that, among other things, sent Robert Ford to Damascus as the new US ambassador, continues to provoke a gnashing of teeth in Washington. But the White House might, first, want to read an American diplomatic cable from February 2006 to see just how the Syrian regime plays hardball to achieve its aims.

The cable in question was written by the then-charge d’affaires in Damascus, Stephen Seche, and followed the burning of the Danish Embassy offices in the city – as well as the Swedish and Chilean embassies housed in the same building. The attack occurred in the aftermath of the publication by a Danish newspaper of unflattering cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad.

According to Seche, a Sunni sheikh, described as “one of the most influential Sunni religious figures in Damascus,” seemed to “confirm [Syrian government] involvement in escalating the situation that led to the violent rioting in Damascus two days earlier, including communications between [Prime Minister Naji al-Otri’s] office and the Grand Mufti.” The cable went on to report that the “Danish ambassador confirmed to us separately that the minister of the awqaaf [religious endowments] had inflamed the situation the day before the rioting, with his remarks at Friday prayers in a mosque.”

According to the Sunni sheikh, Otri’s office instructed the grand mufti to issue “a strongly worded directive” to imams so that they would condemn the Danish cartoons in their sermons, “without setting any ceilings on the type of language to be used.” Otri also reportedly told the grand mufti and the minister of religious endowments that if Danish or Norwegian representatives tried to deliver apologies to them and seek their assistance in defusing the situation, “that they were to take a hard line and insist that the only way forward was for the [prime ministers] of the countries to issue official apologies.”

The cable also noted that a businessman close to the regime and to the grand mufti had played a key role in organizing the march on the embassies. The authorities “allowed the rioting to continue for an extended period and then, when [they] felt that ‘the message had been delivered,’ [they] reacted with serious threats of force to stop it.”

Most interesting was how the sheikh interpreted the rioting, and the message that the Syrian regime sought to send to the U.S. and the international community: “‘This is what you will have if we allow true democracy and allow Islamists to rule.’ To the Islamic street all over the region, the message was that the [Syrian government] is protecting the dignity of Islam, and that the [Syrian government] is allowing Muslims freedom on the streets of Damascus they are not allowed on the streets of Cairo, Amman or Tunis.”

Here, with great concision, was a description of the Syrian regime’s complex, contradictory modus operandi when it comes to Sunni Islamists. The sheikh, plainly, had no patience for the shallow line peddled in the West that a “secular” Baathist regime like that of President Bashar Assad is incapable of cooperating with Islamists, or of manipulating religious militancy to its advantage. And you have to wonder what ultimately happened to the sheikh, who is easily identifiable by his title in the leaked cable. Perhaps Julian Assange, flush from signing a lucrative book contract, can investigate for us, at least before asserting once more that his actions harm nobody.

Some observers view this cable as meriting far greater attention than it has received. To them, all the ingredients of Syrian political behavior are distilled in a single incident: the intimidation of foreign representatives, despite their diplomatic status; the blackmailing of the Danish and Norwegian governments; the exploitation of religion as a means of bolstering a Syrian regime that has long struggled to garner religious legitimacy; the bold resort to mob violence, but always behind a curtain of respectable deniability; and the willingness to resort to more violence, this time against the mob, if demonstrators failed to obey the instructions of the security services to desist.

It’s difficult to disagree. What we see is Syria simultaneously being an arsonist and a fireman. And this role is precisely the one Assad is striving to play in Lebanon today as he tries to regain a foothold in the country through the mechanism of a still-elusive Saudi-Syrian understanding. Whether it is Syrian state media or Syrian officials, the message is the same: If the Lebanese government does not take measures to undermine the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, this could lead to fresh insecurity in Beirut. At the same time, the Syrians are also trying to paint themselves as the only ones who can preserve Lebanese stability, if only their supremacy over Lebanon is recognized.

It’s a shame that some countries continue to give Syria the benefit of the doubt. France, for instance, regards Syria as a stabilizing force in Lebanon, even as Damascus and its Lebanese allies push hard to neutralize the special tribunal, which France insists it supports. The Syrians are open about their intentions to reshape the political landscape in Beirut in their favor. For them, this comes through the weakening of Hariri, isolation of March 14 groups most strenuously resisting a Syrian comeback, and hints that it is time to redistribute political power to the benefit of the Shiite community.

Each of these ideas is a potential minefield exacerbating tensions that Damascus will attempt to make the most of. Those with high hopes when relying on Syria, like those who have just decided to resend their ambassador to the country, should be conscious of what is likely to lie ahead. The Assad regime will go all the way to increase its sway over Lebanon while protecting itself at home, and being a fire-starter is the principal means to those ends. WikiLeaks might keep us posted.