Friday, September 6, 2013

Be patient, the vacuum will last

There have been suggestions in recent days that Saudi Arabia has told the Future Movement to move ahead with the formation of a government, even if it means accepting conditions set by Hezbollah. The reason is that the party is expected to come out of the American strike against Syria weakened, and therefore would be much more resistant to forming a government afterward.

Reportedly, Saad Hariri has rejected this, as he has a proposal to form a government that would bring in nine ministers from March 14, nine from March 8, and six from the so-called centrist bloc. Why? He wants no one to have a blocking third.

Hariri is apparently willing to compromise in allowing Hezbollah to name ministers in the context of an 8-8-8 breakdown. Recall that Future’s position is that any new government must include technocrats and professionals, and not be “political”, but the former prime minister is willing to make an exception for Hezbollah.

But whatever the truth about Saudi advice, it raises an interesting question: How will the expected American attack and its aftermath affect the Lebanese government formation process?

For some time Hezbollah has seen events in Syria as intimately tied to the situation in Lebanon. The party apparently seeks the following: If Bashar al-Assad, aided by Hezbollah, triumphs in Syria, Hezbollah intends to anchor, or institutionalize, this advantage in the Lebanese state, through control of parliament and the government.

It is the uncertainty in Syria in recent months that has pushed the party to delay parliamentary elections and the formation of a new government, until things became clearer. Meanwhile Hezbollah’s military superiority on the ground has permitted it to maintain a measure of control over the political situation, and not allow any developments to take place that might threaten its interests.

But an American assault may disturb that convenient arrangement. This week there have been contradictory indications of what is being planned. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama stated that aside from degrading Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities “we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition [and] allow Syria ultimately to free itself” from its civil war.

Last week, when the president spoke of a “limited” operation in Syria, he had not linked it to the fortunes of the opposition. That is why on Tuesday, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both prominent advocates of employing U.S. military force to get rid of the Assad regime, acknowledged the changing mood after meeting with Obama and expressed confidence in his plans for Syria.

McCain said, “We still have significant concerns, but we believe there is in formulation a strategy to upgrade the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army and to degrade the capabilities of Bashar al-Assad. Before this meeting, we had not had that indication.”

Adding to this, on Friday the New York Times reported that the Pentagon had been ordered to expand its list of potential targets, with a focus on military Syrian units.

But two days earlier, on Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard senior administration officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey. The emphasis was more on the limited nature of the American action, to persuade the majority in the House of Representatives that opposes any American military intervention.

Even then, McCain inserted into the Senate resolution authorizing an attack an amendment stressing the goal of strengthening the Syrian rebels and undermining Assad.

The reality is that even if Congress limits the time and conditions allowed for a military operation, there is not much it can do once the missiles begin flying. And it is precisely this uncertainty that has many observers wondering whether we are not heading toward a situation which may bring about the downfall of the Assad regime.

Iran and Hezbollah have vowed not to allow that to happen. However, their options to prevent it are not many, which nevertheless doesn’t mean they will not act. Their repeated threats to target Israel, for instance, are more likely to lead to outcomes that will harm Hezbollah and Assad than the contrary. If Israel retaliates against Lebanon, Hezbollah, and the Shiite community could pay a very heavy price, without this improving Assad’s fate in any way.

The assumption that any setbacks for Assad will make Hezbollah doubly difficult to deal inside Lebanon is correct. The party regards Assad’s political survival as an existential matter. Its natural reflex if he were undermined would be to become more uncompromising, on the assumption that under such circumstances it’s best to show one has not been harmed and to fight for every inch of political advantage.

That’s why the belief among some in March 14 that Assad’s defeat will suddenly mean a more flexible Hezbollah is wishful thinking. In the same vein, if the prime minister designate, Tammam Salam, were to form a de facto government against Hezbollah’s wishes, the party could be expected to react violently. President Michel Suleiman appears to agree, and has called for a broad government of parties, even as he tries to reconvene the national dialogue sessions.

The reality is that until the Syrian situation is more comprehensible, the formation of a government will be all but impossible in a way that satisfies both sides. And the political deadlock may continue even if Assad is ousted from power. Hezbollah is worried enough about the future that it is refuses to accept anything confirming its reversals.

No comments: