Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Guns over butter - America’s priority in Lebanon is security cooperation

It is interesting that when he visited Beirut this week, the US deputy secretary of state, Antony Blinken, condemned only Hezbollah’s actions in Syria. He said nothing about the party’s actions in Lebanon. In a year marking the 10th anniversary of Rafiq Hariri’s assassination—for which party members have been indicted by a mixed Lebanese-international tribunal—one would have expected to hear something more forceful.

Blinken also appeared to step back from remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry a few weeks ago, in which he said that the United States would be willing to talk to President Bashar al-Assad to find a solution to the conflict in Syria. That remark provoked an angry backlash among Washington’s allies, notably France, and was steadily emptied of its meaning by the Obama administration in the weeks after Kerry’s comment.

Blinken emphasized that the United States was committed to a transition in Syria that excluded Assad. “The United States is committed to helping bring about a political transition in Syria that leads to an inclusive government and a future of freedom, dignity and security for the Syrian people,” Blinken said. “Dignity cannot be brought if the current dictator—a man who has gassed and barrel bombed the people of Syria—remains.”

It’s refreshing to hear an American official mention Assad’s crimes now and then, particularly after Kerry’s remarks and those of John Brennan, the CIA director. Brennan recently told the Council on Foreign Relations that the Obama administration did not want to see a collapse of the Assad regime, as this would be to the advantage of Muslim extremists. “The last thing we want to do is to allow them to march into Damascus,” Brennan said.

The problem is that the military situation in Syria is rapidly changing. The Assad regime has never looked so vulnerable, after the recent fall of Idlib and Busra al-Sham to the rebels. The Iranians and their allies had tried to neutralize the northern and southern borders a month ago by organizing an offensive to cut off the rebels’ supply lines. Instead, they suffered major reversals, apparently facilitated by Turkey and Jordan, as their offensives petered out and the rebels captured territory. This culminated last week with the regime’s loss of its final post on the Syrian-Jordanian border, a vital lifeline to the Arab world.

The Americans may not want the Assad regime to collapse, but that process is nearer than it has ever been in four years, and the Americans have to adjust. Blinken’s remarks on Syria, and his condemnation of Hezbollah’s involvement there, reflected just how much.

Lebanon’s status in this dynamic situation is uncertain. To the Americans, the priority today is reinforcing the Lebanese Army and security agencies and giving them the means to contain the backlash from any dramatic shift in Syria. Ironically, Hezbollah, which Blinken denounced as a destabilizing factor in Syria, is viewed as a stabilizing force in Lebanon, where its military and intelligence networks can be used against any jihadist threat.

In this context, how will the planned Hezbollah offensive in Qalamoun fare? The party has been planning it for some time, and there are daily reports of the Lebanese Army capturing high ground, suggesting something is afoot. But the rebel gains in Idlib and the south, while they may invite a harsh counter-reaction, also raise the stakes for Hezbollah. This is not a battle the party can in any way afford not to win. Another reversal after those of recent weeks would be devastating to Iran and its allies.

At the same time, the Lebanese Army is not at all eager to enter the fray against Jabhat al-Nusra, since that’s not its fight. Nor does the military command want to be seen in the Arab world as collaborating with the Assad regime and its allies when the Sunni-majority Arab states are aligned against Iran in Yemen.

The situation in Syria has altered Hezbollah’s relations with the Lebanese Army. Only a few years ago it was inconceivable to imagine that the army would be reinforcing its positions along the border with Syria, flying its own aircraft and benefiting from American drones to monitor movements in the area. But with Hezbollah trapped in the Syrian quagmire, and unable to win, the party has had to concede much greater latitude to the army. In exploiting this opening, Washington, like Saudi Arabia earlier, has helped strengthen the Lebanese state.

The Americans appear to have grasped the situation well. They recently welcomed Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouq in Washington on a visit that was also heavily focused on security issues. One parliamentarian had an interesting take on the implications of this. “The Americans are happy with the current batch of Lebanese officials involved in security cooperation,” he noted. “In other words, a new Lebanese president may not be their priority, as it would mean an overhaul in security appointments, which could affect the level of cooperation today.”

If so, Blinken didn’t let on, observing: “Until the [presidential] seat is filled, Lebanon cannot make important policy decisions that would improve the lives of its people.” But it’s clear that the main priority for the Americans today is security. Everything else is secondary. The Lebanese state can use this to its advantage in expanding the scope of its sovereignty, even if Washington recognizes Hezbollah as one ingredient in Lebanon’s defense.    

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