Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Hizbollah’s policies push Lebanon towards conflict

After signs last week that a new Lebanese government would be formed, the process has stalled amid continuing disagreements over cabinet portfolios. This represents another setback for Hizbollah at a time when the party is facing multiple challenges and risks undermining Lebanon’s shaky stability.

The government impasse was resolved after Hizbollah and its political rivals in the March 14 coalition agreed to an equal number of ministers. However, a new problem emerged when the party’s ally, Michel Aoun, rejected any rotation of portfolios. This had been a principle behind the earlier agreement, but Mr Aoun does not want his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, to lose the energy ministry.

That’s understandable from a material perspective. The ministry oversees all projects related to offshore oil and gas, and is a cash cow. Those who want Mr Bassil out merely seek to exploit the opportunities that the lucrative ministry presents. The disgusted Lebanese watching this spectacle unfold can only groan.

But Hizbollah is groaning too. President Michel Sleiman has said that if a national-unity government is not formed, he and the prime minister-designate, Tammam Salam, would form a government of their own to fill Lebanon’s political void. Hizbollah has warned against this, but given that its plans for a unity cabinet have been derailed by an ally, its margin of manoeuvre is limited.

A unity government is essential to Hizbollah’s strategy this year. The party feels that only this can create a consensus that will contain sectarian tensions while it continues fighting in Syria. A consensus is equally necessary so that all sides can agree to a replacement for President Sleiman, whose term ends in May. Hizbollah wants to be rid of the president, who has been a political thorn in its side.

Everywhere, the party is being buffeted by forces it unleashed through its intervention in Syria. While Hizbollah may be able to contain the repercussions for a time, rarely has it seemed as vulnerable, particularly as this increases prospects for a scenario the party is intent on avoiding: sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shia.

With alarming regularity, bombs have gone off in Shia neighbourhoods and towns in recent months. What has made the attacks especially disturbing is that several have been carried out by Lebanese Sunnis, an entirely new phenomenon. This has come amid signs that Al Qaeda-related groups involved in Syria have decided to take the fight against Hizbollah to Lebanon.

While this does not appear to have shaken Shia support for Hizbollah, the public reaction is not necessarily indicative of the real mood in the community. There have been reports that Shia families are leaving Beirut’s southern suburbs, where Hizbollah is headquartered and the bombings have been concentrated. This means there is less confidence in the party’s ability to protect the Shia, and implicit acknowledgement that Hizbollah has brought Syria’s war to Lebanon.

As for the conflict in Syria itself, Hizbollah finds itself hostage to an open-ended military commitment that is likely to last years rather than months. While the party played a decisive role in the area of Qusayr last June, and in Damascus, both were largely defensive campaigns designed to loosen the rebel ring around Damascus and to keep supply lines open between the capital and the coast.

But recently, rebels have sought to regain ground in Qusayr, showing that Hizbollah’s hope of winning decisive battles is an illusion. The war in Syria will grind on until either one side can make significant gains, or until both sides realise that continued stalemate necessitates a political solution that today is evading negotiators in Geneva.

Beyond this, Lebanon’s Shia may want to look back at what has happened since 2005, when Syria withdrew its army from the country following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister.

A tribunal is currently listening to the cases of five Hizbollah members indicted for that crime. Sunni-Shia relations in Lebanon have never been so poor. In the past nine years Hizbollah has pushed Lebanon into war with Israel, provoked a mini-conflict in May 2008 when it occupied western Beirut, made Shia objects of suspicion in the Gulf, carried them into a war in Syria, and has drawn Sunni jihadists to Lebanon. And all this at a time of economic crisis for Lebanon.

The Shia are remarkably resilient, but the party they have supported time and again has brought them little by way of prosperity or stability in recent years. From a party that always claimed that its priority was Lebanon’s interests, Hizbollah has now embarked on a thankless military campaign on behalf of the regime in Syria, in accordance with a political agenda set in Tehran.

In this context, Hizbollah’s plan to use elections in Lebanon – the presidential election in May and the parliamentary elections in November – to bring in a president, parliament and government more in line with its preferences is sure to be difficult.

Hizbollah has enraged many people in recent years through its utter disregard of how its actions might harm Lebanese political and sectarian relations. The party’s suspected participation in numerous assassinations, its past assaults on Sunni quarters and Druze villages, and its repeated threats against its rivals, only to turn around and demand that they participate in governments to cover for Hizbollah’s excesses, was bound to lead to violent pushback.

In Lebanon, communal hubris has often precipitated conflict. The policies pursued by the Maronites and the Sunnis helped provoke the civil war that began in 1975. Today, Hizbollah’s implementation of an Iranian strategy can only do the same, to the detriment of all Lebanese, above all the Shia whom the party claims to be defending.

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