Thursday, June 14, 2012

Syrian crisis allows for rare common ground in Lebanon

On Monday, Lebanese political leaders met in the context of an irregular series of gatherings known as the National Dialogue. This was prompted by rising tensions in the country, particularly in the northern city of Tripoli and the neighbouring Akkar region, which have been buffeted by the violence in Syria.

In a final statement, the dialogue participants, who will meet again later this month, agreed that it was necessary to control the Lebanese-Syrian border and "keep Lebanon away from the policy of regional and international conflicts and spare it the negative repercussions of regional tensions and crises". They also voiced support for the Lebanese Army and security forces and affirmed their backing for the Taif Accord, which ended Lebanon's civil war.

There has been much cynicism over the dialogue sessions, which began in 2006. The process was initiated after the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005, the primary objective being to find common ground between the rival political alignments - the March 14 coalition on the one side, and the March 8 coalition and Michel Aoun on the other.

This ambition was never met. While verbal agreements were reached on several contentious issues, they were never implemented. The leading bone of contention has been Hizbollah's weapons, and the inability of the sides to agree over a so-called "defence strategy", a squaring of the circle in many ways that would reconcile Hizbollah's insistence on retaining its arms with the March 14 demand that these be placed under the authority of the state.

This time, the backdrop to the dialogue was different. The conflict in Syria has divided the Lebanese, with most Sunnis strongly opposed to the regime of Bashar Al Assad, while Hizbollah and Mr Aoun back the Syrian president.

There has been great instability along the Lebanese borders with Syria, and Damascus has accused Lebanese Sunni villagers of providing sanctuary to Syrian opposition combatants, and permitting the passage of weapons.

Last month, in what was a deliberate scheme engineered by the Syrians and Hizbollah, agents of the General Security directorate, which coordinates closely with Hizbollah and Damascus, arrested a Sunni Islamist in Tripoli. The objective was to provoke a backlash by Islamists in the city and show that Tripoli is a Salafist stronghold, bolstering the Syrian regime's narrative that it is facing a concerted Salafist onslaught inside Syria and from Lebanon.

The trap worked, and since then there has been recurrent fighting between Sunni and Alawite neighbourhoods in Tripoli. This is a running sore that Mr Al Assad will likely use to keep threatening Lebanon.

There is also fear that the rot may spread elsewhere. The rural Akkar district also hosts Alawites and Sunnis, while some weeks ago the tension spread to Beirut, where supporters of the Future Movement of Saad Hariri fought with a pro-Hizbollah Sunni group.

Hizbollah, even as it helped ignite fires in Tripoli, has been careful to avoid sectarian confrontations elsewhere. For instance, when Shiite pilgrims were captured in Syria in late May and their protesting families blocked roads in Beirut, the party's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, intervened vigorously to put an end to these actions.

There is a good explanation for Hizbollah's sudden devotion to concord, and to the dialogue sessions. The party knows that Mr Al Assad's regime is not long for this world, and it needs to brace itself for the aftermath. It intends to do so by focusing on winning a majority, with its partners, in parliamentary elections next year. Such a victory would allow it to have a lock on the commanding heights of the state and to bring a friendly president to office in 2014.

For elections to take place, though, Hizbollah needs to ensure that Lebanon averts a civil war. That is one reason why President Michel Suleiman found leverage to resume the dialogue meetings. There was another. A few weeks ago, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, reflecting anxiety in the Arab world that the Syrian crisis might spill over into Lebanon, urged the Lebanese parties to engage in a process of understanding.

The king's declaration created a dilemma for Mr Hariri and his Future Movement, as well as other March 14 leaders. March 14 initially erred by suggesting that it would not participate in a dialogue, before agreeing to do so. This waffling came as the coalition took another controversial decision of pushing for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati's government, when many Lebanese saw this as a recipe for disaster.

Notably absent from the dialogue is Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Forces leader. Mr Geagea explained his non-attendance as the result of Hizbollah's lack of seriousness on the agenda. In reality, he was playing a tactical game, momentarily taking his distance from his comrades in the Future Movement and from Saudi Arabia, at a time when not a few Christians are uneasy with the Salafist phenomenon in Tripoli, and some are looking with jaundiced eye at Mr Geagea's intended electoral alliance with the Sunnis.

For all the shortcomings of the National Dialogue, the Lebanese are in need of a forum to bring together their political chiefs. Most importantly, practical mechanisms are needed to settle problems that emerge on the ground, particularly in Beirut. No one in Lebanon wants to succumb to a Syrian civil war, and that alone is a worthy basis on which to pursue engagement.

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