Thursday, August 2, 2012

Syria's conflict spills over into Lebanon's muddled politics

It seems that nothing can go right in Lebanon these days. The government has been hopelessly incompetent, state services, above all electricity generation, are collapsing, and the war in Syria daily seems to be spilling over into Lebanese territory.

The Syrian situation has been particularly alarming to outside countries, who fear that Lebanon may go the same way as its neighbour. While Lebanese vulnerabilities are many and the society is indeed divided, this has been par for the course in recent years. In an odd way, Lebanon is so used to being dysfunctional that it is better adapted for weathering ambient storms than others.

At the same time, the Syrian conflict, combined with myriad headaches at home, is pushing the political balance in Lebanon in new directions. This could have a destabilising effect in the future.

The government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati has been a disaster. That is saying something since its predecessors were hardly models of success. When Mr Mikati formed a governing team last year, he did so with parties and politicians expected to work well together - a government of "one colour" it was called.

Hizbollah was the dominant force, though it held a tiny number of portfolios. A second Shia party, Amal, was also represented, led by Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker. Hizbollah's principal Christian ally, Michel Aoun, took over the largest single share of ministries, a third of the total. This trio was the core of the government, its political vanguard against the March 14-led opposition.

Mr Mikati's ministers, along with those named by the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, and the president, Michel Suleiman, held veto power over government decisions. However, on their own the three were too weak to initiate major policy.

This edifice immediately began breaking down, principally because of Mr Aoun's devouring political appetites. He continues to harbour ambitions of becoming president, and saw an opening to marginalise his rival, Mr Suleiman. He also sought to appoint Aoun loyalists to the civil service, to expand his power and pave the way for his own election in 2013.

Mr Suleiman resisted, bringing the appointment process to a halt. Mr Aoun also engaged in bruising fights with Mr Berri. Frustrated by the inability to advance his agenda, Mr Aoun has also hit out against Mr Mikati and Mr Jumblatt, further poisoning the atmosphere in the cabinet.

Hizbollah has tried to calm the game, but to no avail. The party's priority is to maintain the government in place so it can organise parliamentary elections next year, which Hizbollah intends to win. Party officials feel that once President Bashar Al Assad falls in Syria, they will have to control the commanding heights of the Lebanese state to protect their weapons and autonomy. While this has kept Mr Mikati's government in place, the government has become a liability for Hizbollah. No one, including the party's Shia base, has a good thing to say about how things are being run.

The fighting in Syria has further eroded the government's reputation. Every few days, Syrian troops attack mainly Sunni areas along the Syrian-Lebanese border, frequently causing loss of life among Lebanese citizens. March 14 has demanded that the government order the army to protect Lebanese territory. The problem is that the Free Syrian Army has used the loosely controlled Lebanese side of the frontier as a rear base for its combatants.

The state has found itself in the middle, damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. If the army closes off Lebanese border districts to the Free Syrian Army, it will be accused by March 14 of doing the bidding of the Syrian regime. But by failing to do so, it leaves a vacuum that makes Syrian incursions likely. This situation could worsen as the Assads lose more ground.

The arrival of thousands of Syrian refugees has been equally problematic. While middle class Syrians who recently fled Damascus and Aleppo have injected some money into the Lebanese economy by moving into hotels and apartments in floundering mountain resorts, that is bound to be of limited duration. It is the much larger number of poor refugees who must be dealt with effectively, and are not.

The Mikati government has taken no special measures to care for refugees, who are benefiting principally from private aid initiatives, and no camps have been built to house them. The implications are potentially serious. Assisting refugees is also a way of controlling their actions. Refugee communities are a burden on local social networks, but can also become volatile politically. Youths among refugee populations are most apt to be mobilised, creating difficulties for host countries.

Many of the refugees have sought sanctuary in Sunni areas hostile to Hizbollah and the Mikati government. This, with the fact that Lebanon's Sunnis feel new empowerment as the hated Assad regime disintegrates, will have to be watched closely. Sunni confidence mixed in with a growing sense of anxiety among Shiites that they will lose out if Mr Al Assad is ousted is worrisome, particularly as Hizbollah is very well armed. The possibility of conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, averted until now, is never far enough away.

The chances still are that Lebanon will stumble through what remains of a scorching summer without a major outbreak of violence. But the underbrush of Lebanese society is too dry to be particularly reassuring. The risk of new fires in the years ahead is real.

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