Lebanon: what now?

17 Jan

Communication is necessary: Much of the commentary about Lebanon since the collapse of Hariri’s government on January 12th has unfortunately fallen into one of two categories: either pro-US and anti-Hezbollah, or the opposite.

Some commentators – such as Tony Badran (http://nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=229979) and Jonathan Spyer (http://www.jpost.com/MiddleEast/Article.aspx?id=203567) – see the messy political situation in Lebanon as a way in which America might extend its influence there, thereby minimising Iran’s sway.  Spyer descirbes Hezbollah as “a long-term Iranian project designed to build the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Arab world by engaging in conflict with Israel.”  Although various pro-US commentators see Lebanon in terms of Iran or as a means to destroying an Iranian enemy, Hezbollah, who have Iranian support, are at their core and in their essence Lebanese.  Hassan Nasrallah, the militant group’s charismatic leader, would raise unamused eyebrows at the notion of his party as the “project” of anybody.

Badran states that “the notion that a compromise with Damascus on an issue as critical as the STL was possible … was silly.” On the contrary, the notion that such a compromise is silly, is sillier.  Whether one likes it or not, Syria is a crucial player in Lebanese politics; denying that does not make it go away.  As one of Hezbollah’s key supporters, Syria must necessarily be consulted in order for a realistic solution to be found.  Badran also fails to recognise the irony of sentences such as “This is where the US has to step up and take the lead … the Obama administration would do well to keep these ever-increasing cooks [Syria, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar] out of the Lebanese kitchen.”  It is for the Lebanese – as, to continue the metaphor, head chef – to choose which cooks they allow in their kitchen.  America is a player with a strong sphere of influence and therefore must be one of the ‘cooks’, but for the Lebanese to devolve decision-making power to a country that has so little sympathy for one of Lebanon’s most significant and certainly most powerful political parties, Hezbollah, would be absurd.

Michael Williams, UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, pointed out last week that “my work [as the representative of the UN Secretary General] would be impossible without a dialogue with Hezbollah.”  Dismissing the party, whether as a terrorist group or a group with whom compromise should not be sought, will not allow the situation in Lebanon to progress.

Hezbollah expert Sa’ad Ghorayeb said that “ideally, Hezbollah wants Hariri [Sa’ad, son of the murdered Rafik] as prime minister, it wants to maintain resistance to Israel, it wants the U.S. to stop intervening in Lebanese affairs, and it wants civil peace and coexistence.”

However, Hezbollah’s hope for the ending of American intervention in Lebanon is little more than wishful thinking.  It was reported yesterday that the Obama warned Lebanese President Michel Suleiman that the nomination of a March 8 (Hezbollah) camp candidate to form a new Cabinet would jeopardize all U.S. aid programs to Lebanon and the basis of partnership between the two countries.  In other words, if Hezbollah get their way – which would be a democratic move, however unpopular with foreign powers – the US will, at the very least, respond with an intense destabilisation campaign.

The statements were accompanied by US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon’s assertions that the United States is committed to diplomatic efforts to tackle the Lebanese crisis, including French ones aimed at forming an international group to support the Lebanese government.

Much of the US’ anti Hezbollah rhetoric works on the idea that Hezbollah cannot present itself as a resistance group while it is preventing the tribunal from “discovering the truth about the assassination of a prominent figure in Lebanon’s history.”

Meanwhile the importance of the international community continues to be demonstrated.  Walid Jumblatt spent the weekend in Syria, in talks with President Bashar al-Assaad on the political crisis.  The two men stressed the “importance of staying aware of the risks foreign interventions carry in the region and that the region’s inhabitants be the ones to make decisions and reach solutions.”  Jumblatt has said that he will again nominate Hariri for the PM role.

On Sunday meanwhile, diplomats from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Spain and Russia all pledged their countries’ support for Lebanon’s stability.  Caretaker Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri met with Secretary General of the Spanish Presidency Bernardino Leon, in the presence of Ambassador Juan Carlos Gafo, as well as Egyptian and Russian ambassadors Ahmad Fouad al-Bidiawi and Alexander Zesypkin.  US Ambassador Maura Connelly, who met Sunday with Zahle MP Nicholas Fattouch, reiterated her country’s support for the divisive UN tribunal probing the death of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

An unidentified European diplomat told AFP on Friday that France had requested the formation of an emergency “contact group,” consisting of representatives from Syria, Saudi Arabia, France, the US, Qatar, Turkey “and possibly other countries with a stake in Lebanon.”

Caretaker Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar announced this morning that he expected the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to refer the indictment in Hariri’s assassination case to the pre-trial judge on Monday.

It has been said over the last two days that the STL will indict Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Wali al Faqih (jurisconsult or Supreme Religious Leader) for issuing the order to assassinate Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.  President al-Aassad, and his brother-in-law, Syrian Intelligence Chief Assef Shawkat, also reportedly played key roles in organizing Hariri’s assassination.

The talks on forming a new Lebanese government which were due to begin this morning have been postponed for one week, according to a statement from President Suleiman’s office.  Lebanese politicians said that the consultations on a new government could be delayed because of a summit in Damascus later today, where the leaders of Syria, Qatar and Turkey will discuss Lebanon’s political crisis.

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