Thursday, September 6, 2012

As politicians hide, Lebanon is skittish about the future

A good illustration of where Lebanon stands today with respect to the conflict in Syria is the habit of major politicians who oppose the regime of President Bashar Al Assad. Virtually all of them are not leaving home for fear of assassination.

There is continued anxiety among Lebanese that their country will be sucked into the Syrian violence. That is possible, particularly when the Assad regime believes that it can save itself by destabilising its neighbourhood. However, that may be less probable than the Lebanese choosing to revisit their social contract in a dangerously divisive way once Mr Al Assad is ousted.

Lebanon is a paradox for the Assads. The country contains many enemies, above all a Sunni community wholeheartedly supporting the Syrian uprising. But it is also dominated by Hizbollah, a close ally that is sponsored by Iran, Mr Al Assad's staunchest foreign backer, so the ability of the Syrian leadership to take steps that might undermine Iran and Hizbollah's Lebanese interests is limited. That perhaps explains why the situation on the ground has been so volatile, with periods of tension followed by periods of uneasy calm.

The Syrians suffered a blow recently when one of their prominent Lebanese allies, the former minister Michel Samaha, was arrested for allegedly organising a bomb plot in collaboration with a senior Syrian security official, General Ali Mamluk. The evidence (which was subsequently leaked to a local newspaper) was compelling, so much so that Hizbollah reacted in a surprisingly low-key way to the accusation. Recent Syrian attacks in the Lebanese border area may be payback for Mr Samaha's arrest.

Hizbollah's strategy involves walking a tightrope. The party has actively, if surreptitiously, hit Syria's Lebanese enemies, particularly in the northern city of Tripoli and the Akkar region, both Sunni strongholds. It has employed elements of Lebanon's security services, principally the General Security directorate but also sympathisers in the army, to do favours for the Syrian regime. At the same time, however, Hizbollah has sought to avoid a situation that might precipitate sectarian confrontations between Sunnis and Shiites.

The party realises that Mr Al Assad cannot survive politically. That does not mean, however, that it will not help him for as long as it can, militarily and otherwise. Meanwhile, it is beginning to prepare for the aftermath by manoeuvring to retain control over the commanding heights of the Lebanese state. This it hopes to do by winning a parliamentary majority, with its partners, in the elections scheduled for next summer. For that to occur, Hizbollah must avert a breakdown that could bring about a civil war.

But will elections actually take place? Already, there are those in the government raising the possibility of a delay if the situation in Syria remains unchanged by the middle of next year. Their reasoning is that voting could further exacerbate Lebanese animosities. The prime minister, Najib Mikati, is said to prefer establishing a non-partisan government to organise the elections at a later date.

A key factor in deciding outcomes will be the choices of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Mr Jumblatt holds a swing vote in parliament, and if he decides to align with the opposition March 14 coalition, he can sink the current majority. It's no coincidence that Mr Jumblatt is one of those leaders who is a virtual prisoner of his residence. An early critic of the repression in Syria, he is still officially collaborating with Hizbollah in the government, but he knows the relationship is a tentative one.

The Lebanese political class is also worried about the prospect of an Israeli attack against Iran's nuclear facilities. In a rare interview on Monday, Hizbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, observed that while he did not believe Israel would bomb Iran, if it did so Tehran would "not be conciliatory" and might attack US bases in the region.

There was doubtless some bravado in Mr Nasrallah's comments. While a war between Israel and Iran has the potential to give Mr Al Assad valuable breathing space if it spreads, Hizbollah is not keen to inflict a new war on its own Shia community; nor, for that matter, are Shiites eager to be turned into cannon fodder on Iran's behalf.

Lebanon may well continue to weather the Syrian tempest for now. More troublesome is that Syria will probably enter into a prolonged crisis once Mr Al Assad falls, with centrifugal forces perptuating the instability. Without a consensual transition scheme in place, Alawites on the one side and Kurds on the other may challenge the central authority. If that happens, the different Lebanese communities may side with their brethren next door, or simply see an opening to overhaul Lebanese sectarian relations, undercutting their own social contract.

This need not necessarily be unhealthy, since Lebanon needs to recast its communal relations. But given the lack of preparation or cooperative discussion over such an alternative, as well as the worrying mistrust between Sunnis and Shiites, the state may be incapable of containing the worst impulses in the society. At best, the outcome might be the perpetuation of a dysfunctional state.

No comments: