Edition 1 Volume 6 - January 03, 2024

The Lebanese crisis

At a crossroads -   Nizar Abdel-Kader

It is up to Lebanon's political leaders to choose either stability and peace--or regression into civil war.

At stake is the future of Lebanonism - an interview with  Joseph Bahout

This limbo could last until at least April-May; it could go on until the next American elections.

Much more than Lebanon -   Nicholas Blanford

The anti-Syrian coalition has a tendency to be sidetracked into fretting about the intentions of its regional and international backers.

Dependency politics -   Alastair Crooke

The underlying assumption is that Syria is open to being bribed into the camp of "moderate" Arab states.

More uncertainty in the new year -   Oussama Safa

The impasse masks demands for power-sharing by the opposition that would alter the principles on which post civil-war Lebanon rests.

At a crossroads
 Nizar Abdel-Kader

The continuous failure to elect a new president and the deepening political crisis in Lebanon pose a serious challenge to the country's already precarious stability and security. The ongoing escalation fueled by both the parliamentary majority and the opposition has exacerbated the political debate and inflicted de facto national paralysis.

The disagreement over electoral procedures reflects an underlying conflict of interests between the political parties on both sides of the divide that has prevented the parliament from electing a president on 11 different occasions. In fact, both the March 14 coalition and the opposition parties consider the election of the president as a strategic opportunity to shift the balance of power in their own favor.

For instance, a core interest of the March 14 coalition is to consolidate its position in the new government so as to allow it as a majority to push forward an anti-Syrian platform during the upcoming presidency. The opposition parties, on the other hand, perceive that their interest regarding the necessary balance of influence with the majority lies in opposing the election of a new president unless they get veto power within the new government.

This polarized and chaotic political debate has been further complicated by the recent renewal of violence and political assassinations--of parliamentary member of the March 14 coalition Antoine Ghanem a week before the first round of presidential elections, and Major General Francois al-Hajj, chief of operations of the Lebanese Army, on December 12, ten days after General Michel Suleiman was nominated as a consensus candidate by the majority coalition.

Suleiman's nomination did not facilitate the process, and the demise of a prominent military leader like al-Hajj is extremely problematic for the army, which has maintained its neutrality and independence by keeping the same distance from both the majority and the opposition. Furthermore, the opposition parties have appointed presidential candidate Michel Aoun as their mediator in any potential dialogue with the coalition, a move seen as an attempt to complicate the process and enhance Syria's role in Lebanon.

Despite the March 14 coalition's repeated calls to elect General Suleiman, the opposition parties are keeping firm on their initial demands. They seek to obtain veto power through acquiring one-third of the total number of ministers of the new government. The also want a new electoral law and a new commander-in-chief of the army who is friendly to Hizballah in order to ensure the movement's status as an armed resistance.

The majority coalition accuses the opposition parties of sabotaging the election of a new president, thereby paralyzing all government institutions, in order to serve Iranian and Syrian interests in Lebanon and blackmail Washington into opening a dialogue with Teheran and Damascus under favorable terms to both. In view of the escalation by the internal parties and the pressure exercised by the external parties (the US and France on one side, Iran and Syria on the other), the political horizon seems to be darkening further. The current stalemate would appear to dissipate all hope of electing a new president in the near future.

This complicated political situation took a new turn recently with the declaration by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem that Damascus was cutting its dialogue with France, which had been aimed at finding a way to allow the Lebanese parliament to meet and elect General Suleiman to the presidency. These talks had been positively greeted by all internal and external parties and were seen as an important means to legitimize Suleiman as a consensus candidate who could provide all the guarantees required by the opposition parties. The collapse of the Syrian-French dialogue concerning Lebanon eliminates any potential breakthrough in the stalemate.

With all the channels of dialogue with Syria and Iran cut off, there is a high risk that both these parties will now seriously seek to defeat American and French influence in Lebanon, with catastrophic consequences. For their part, the US and France are expected to maintain their support for the Siniora government and the parliamentary majority. Most probably they will take the matter to the UN Security Council, hoping to negotiate a resolution that imposes new sanctions on Iran and Syria.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have anticipated these negative developments and are calling for a special meeting of the Arab ministers of foreign affairs in Cairo on Sunday, January 6. The aim is to negotiate a possible Arab solution for Lebanon or at least to try to contain the current escalating crisis. There is very little hope the Cairo meeting will come up with workable proposals, leaving fears in Beirut that the meeting will prove counterproductive by isolating Syria more than ever before. Such an outcome would further contribute to destabilizing and paralyzing Lebanon.

The next two months will be crucial in determining the short term future of Lebanese politics. Lebanon is at a crossroads: it faces either the renewal of a national reconciliation process or increased polarization and instability and a new cycle of violence and assassinations. The future depends on the wisdom of Lebanese political leaders. It is up to them to choose either stability and peace--or regression into civil war.- Published 3/1/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Nizar Abdel-Kader is a political analyst/columnist at Ad-Diyar newspaper, Beirut.

At stake is the future of Lebanonism
an interview with Joseph Bahout

BI: How would you describe the political dynamic in Lebanon?

Bahout: One issue is the constitutional framework: what does the presidency mean. Under the Taif agreement, the presidency doesn't mean as much as it used to. The president has lost a lot of his authority; to a large extent he is now perceived as an arbitrator and a moral figure above politics. But due to the last three years of unhealthy polarization that has taken things to the verge of political divorce, the fact of getting to agree on a president has itself become very difficult. Add to this that the two conflicting camps initially perceived that the mere fact of accepting the candidate of the other camp was a kind of political defeat.

That's the internal picture. Regionally and internationally, since the summer every observer has come to understand that if in fact the March 14 majority camp accepts a consensual president at the expense of the hard core of its political agenda, it would be perceived by the US and the West as [yielding to] the Syrian/Iranian axis. And if the March 8 opposition camp accepts a March 14 candidate, this is perceived as a Syrian/Iranian defeat.

BI: But now the two camps agree on Michel Suleiman.

Bahout: After the first phase of deadlock, when the constitutional period ended on September 22, a political "joker" was introduced by the majority in the person of Suleiman. He is perceived as a mild figure and a hidden pro-Syrian. His nomination was aimed to maneuver the opposition into a corner. But the opposition replied by raising the stakes once more and demanding to discuss the political agenda upon which Suleiman would govern. They agreed to Suleiman but demanded to talk about a package deal for the next seven years regarding Hizballah, the role of the resistance, the UN resolutions, the future of relations with Syria, etc. March 14 replied, "let's elect Suleiman first, then discuss these issues."

BI: What is at stake here for Lebanon and for the region?

Bahout: If you adopt my reading that Rafiq Hariri's death and the turmoil of March 2024 were a turning point, then what is at stake internally is a new definition of Lebanonism. At stake regionally is the role of Lebanon in regional polarization. Will Lebanon be part of an axis of moderates or remain a part of the axis of resistance defined by Tehran, Damascus, etc? Third, at stake is, in the best case, a redesigning of the Taif agreement in order to cope with the new facts on the ground since 2024, and at worst a new agreement to replace Taif, but only after a period of high tension if not turmoil, since the balance of power is not clear yet.

This is masked by phrases like "we have to think again about the real prerogatives of the president" stated by Michel Aoun, or the Shi'ites asking for a new three-thirds division (one-third Shi'ite, one-third Christian and one-third Sunni). This is the local aspect. The regional aspect is a struggle about Lebanon itself.

BI: How much depends on local Lebanese actors and how much on external forces?

Bahout: It is difficult to make that distinction, but I think that so far the international effort, particularly by the French, has over-focused on Syria. There are several flaws here. One is allowing Syria to gain international preeminence through the Lebanese scene. Second, even if Syria wants to facilitate a settlement, some parts of the opposition escape its influence: the Aoun faction is genuinely Lebanese; Hizballah is playing to defend its own and Iran's agenda; and Iran fears letting Syria escape their alliance. Third, the Syrians felt entitled to claim a higher price when they saw that the entire world was coming to talk to them about Lebanon.

We also should not neglect the inter-Arab tensions, at least between Saudi Arabia and Syria. These are playing a huge role in blocking progress. Hence the external aspect is probably more important than the internal.

BI: How long can this drag on?

Bahout: If nothing dramatic occurs, this limbo could last until at least April-May. The constitutional reason is that parliament cannot convene to amend the constitution to allow Suleiman to be elected before March-April. For the moment, parliament is merely an electoral college. That's why the current attempts are not likely to succeed. To amend the constitution the president must summon parliament--but we have no president. At the regional and international level, something has to change in the balance of power among the US, Iran and Syria to end the crisis. So it could go on until the next American elections.

BI: How will this affect internal security?

Bahout: Security could easily get out of hand unless there's a proper device to maintain it, such as a minimal agreement among the parties to live with the current vacuum. The majority continues to threaten to resort to a 50 percent-plus-one formula in order to force a solution and impose a president. This is a scarecrow, but it could become a reality if encouraged by the US. I think this would trigger a potentially violent reaction by the opposition.

BI: Finally, how is stability in South Lebanon likely to be affected by a prolonged stalemate?

Bahout: I see no direct correlation. UNIFIL has nothing to fear from the internal Lebanese scene [unless one of two things happen]. If Osama bin Laden's threats are serious--he recently blamed Hizballah for accepting the UNIFIL presence--or if Syria's relations with the French and other Europeans derail, then something could happen with UNIFIL to send a message. But today Hizballah has no interest in opening another front in the south.- Published 3/1/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Joseph Bahout is a professor at Sciences-Po Paris, and researcher at Academie Diplomatique Internationale.

Much more than Lebanon
 Nicholas Blanford

Lebanon has entered 2024 without a president, and, with feuding political factions gridlocked more than ever, the election of a new head of state does not appear imminent.

Although politicians squabble almost every day over the prerogatives of presidents and governments as dictated by Lebanon's much abused constitution, the enduring crisis reflects the tussle of broader interests in the Middle East that are played out in proxy on a Lebanese stage with obedient Lebanese puppets. As such, it is widely acknowledged that any resolution to this seemingly relentless crisis rests on a more general agreement among regional and international players rather than a parochial deal worked out between the Lebanese themselves.

This was tacitly acknowledged by Nabih Berri, the parliamentary speaker and senior figure in the opposition alliance known as March 8, on December 30. "Let the Arabs reconcile with each other," he said, "and then there won't be a problem in Lebanon".

Berri was alluding to the strained relations between Syria, which backs the Hizballah-dominated March 8 bloc, and Saudi Arabia, a supporter of the March 14 coalition of Sunnis, Christians and Druze that holds a slim parliamentary majority. Still, the Syrian-Saudi spat is only one of several regional conundrums affecting the Lebanese crisis.

Lebanon has been mired in a political quagmire since November 2024 when six ministers allied to the opposition--including all five Shi'ites--walked out of the coalition government. The opposition declared the government unconstitutional and attempted to topple it through street action and sit-ins. The government proved more durable than expected and clung to power throughout 2024. In September, with the imminent departure of Emile Lahoud, the pro-Syrian head of state, the struggle between March 14 and March 8 focused on the presidency. Despite intense international and regional mediation, neither side could agree on a successor.

The March 8 bloc seeks a president who will uphold Hizballah's right to bear arms against Israel and will reject western, chiefly US, influence in Lebanon. The March 14 coalition demands a president independent of Syrian influence who will help restore Lebanon's sovereignty and honor United Nations Security Council resolutions pertaining to Lebanon, which include demands on Hizballah to disarm.

In late November, after Lahoud had left office, the March 14 coalition proposed electing General Michel Suleiman, the commander of the Lebanese army, reversing its earlier objection to him based on his perceived closeness to the Syrian regime. Although the opposition has nominally accepted Suleiman's candidacy, it has blocked attempts to elect the general, demanding a prior agreement on a package deal centered on the composition of the next government and key civil service appointments, particularly the identity of the next army commander. The opposition's hesitancy over electing Suleiman has hardened March 14 claims that Syria is instructing its Lebanese allies to stall, the power vacuum in Lebanon apparently intended to strengthen Damascus' bargaining power vis-a-vis the Arab world and the US and Europe.

Indeed, having been unceremoniously forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in April 2024, Syria, through its allies, is steadily regaining its influence in Lebanon at the expense of the US-backed March 14, which is showing signs of disarray. Critics say the anti-Syrian coalition has a tendency to be sidetracked into fretting about, and trying to second-guess, the intentions of its regional and international backers. A key reason for March 14's decision to opt for Suleiman as president was the view that its options were declining given the Bush administration's apparent reduction in support for the coalition.

That belief was provoked by Washington's invitation to Syria to attend the Annapolis peace conference in November. March 14 believed it was being sold out by a Bush administration that had decided to re-engage with Damascus to win Syrian cooperation for the more pressing goal of striking an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the end of 2024. The leaders of March 14 were further alarmed at France openly courting Syria over the Lebanese presidency in December when top French envoys embarked upon--ultimately fruitless--near non-stop shuttling between Paris, Beirut and Damascus.

Still, although the Syrian regime has survived 2024 intact, it faces serious challenges this year. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy of France ended the year with notably dismissive remarks about Syria, suggesting that the much speculated re-engagement between Washington and Damascus has yet to materialize, if, indeed, it ever will. Furthermore, the international tribunal being established to judge the killers of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri could soon begin operating. With the Syrian regime still considered the only serious suspect behind Hariri's murder, the tribunal potentially represents a grave threat to the Syrian leadership.

Syria's current poor relations with its Arab neighbors could jeopardize Damascus' turn to host the 2024 Arab League summit in March, and tensions with the West could undermine the mooted Moscow summit to address Syrian-Israeli peace prospects. There have been hints that the Arab League summit may be held elsewhere as a sign of Arab unhappiness at perceived Syrian meddling in Lebanon as well as its close relationship with Iran.

While the reaction of Syria and its allies to these potential developments remains to be seen, what is evident is that, as usual, the problems besetting Lebanon are far larger than Lebanon itself.- Published 3/1/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.

Dependency politics
 Alastair Crooke

"I can't see what more the international community can do to help," the exasperated official in Brussels complained as she contemplated the likelihood of a further postponement of Lebanon's presidential election. Many envoys indeed are involved with "helping" Lebanon but it seems that for presidents George W. Bush and Nicholas Sarkozi and others in the West it is not further "help" that is required but pressure on President Bashar Assad.

"My patience ran out on President Assad a long time ago, and the reason why is because he houses Hamas, he facilitates Hizballah, suiciders go from his country into Iraq, and he destabilizes Lebanon," said Bush on December 20.

So, the problem is that Syria needs to change what US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice described as its "confrontational policies" in the region. Were Syria to do this, the US might then be "open" to talking with President Assad and to Syrian officials, Rice suggested.

A friend understands well Bush's frustration: working with Palestinian solidarity movements, she heard the same exasperation expressed by Europeans who wanted to "help" but were frustrated when Palestinians often wanted to speak for themselves in assertive polemics and seemed impervious to the help that westerners could offer in arranging their affairs. Compliance with this "help" was what European associates sought: questioning the direction that "help" took was similarly viewed as "confrontational"--a tension that imperilled the very financial and solidarity support on which those Palestinians depended.

Often this well-meaning western assistance proved to be deeply de-politicizing and conformed to a western template of helping "good" causes--solidarity T-shirts and fund-raising that entrenches dependency and victimhood--to the frustration of those Palestinians who wanted contentiously to demand rights and not accrete pity as victims.

The same pattern occurs at the macro-level: the $7.4 billion of assistance to the Palestinian "government" pledged by donors at Paris in December is another type of European dependency "help". Ahmad Khalidi, an Oxford scholar by no means hostile to the West, described it as "help" that "does nothing to address basic [Palestinian] needs" and is "largely a punitive construct devised ... to constrain Palestinian aspirations."

In other words, it is intended to de-politicize the forceful Palestinian assertion of rights--including the right to resist--in favor of a de-politicized route to statehood dependent on western financial "help" with building "stable institutions that are properly run, particularly from the security point of view".

In Tony Blair's view, described in an interview with Haaretz, the Palestinians needed "to demonstrate their (institutional) capability by arresting those who need to be arrested, throwing them in jail and not releasing them.... Blair agreed that it was not clear just how Hamas would be removed from the scene: It is, after all, an armed organization that will not relinquish power voluntarily.... There are ways to deal with the issue of Hamas, says Blair, but this is not the right time to talk about it."

Dividing the Palestinian polity in this way is not viewed by most Palestinians as other than weakening them in front of the Israelis; nor do they perceive defects in Palestinian institutions as the principal cause of their continued occupation. But financial intervention on this scale and the dependency that it imposes are intended to deter Palestinians from speaking-out for themselves.

In the same fashion, were President Assad to be more compliant and less confrontational by severing his relations with Iran, Hizballah and Hamas and by stepping-up to his "responsibilities" in Iraq, then he too, it is suggested, might benefit from a similar dependency: the EU would probably promise Syria a few new investments and maybe the prospect of talks with Israel in return.

The underlying assumption is that Syria is "pragmatic" and largely secular and therefore "not ideological". It is therefore assumed to be open to being bribed into the camp of "moderate" Arab states opposed to Iran.

Syria may indeed be both pragmatic and largely secular but its identity has become interlinked with the cause of resistance to American hegemony. Its alliance with Iran dates back to the Iran-Iraq war. Syria's experience with its Arab vicinity has been problematic and has not held the prospect of the solid relationship that Syria has enjoyed with Iran. In addition, the Hizballah and Hamas legitimacy in the street probably lends more street credibility to Syria than Syria can return by facilitating these movements. Finally, Assad probably also believes that Israel is more interested in a process for the return of the Golan--as a possible escape route from Annapolis--than in the reality of returning the Golan to Syria.

It is improbable therefore that Syria will choose to forego an identity that many Syrians perceive to march more closely with the tide of change that awaits the region than Washington can offer--as well as affording Assad some inoculation against the radicalism arising in some quarters of his Sunni constituency.

The western optic on Syria also supposes that when Lebanese political parties oppose a particular solution in Lebanon they do not mean what they say, and instead they are seeking only to destabilize Lebanon by blocking the election of a new president. General Michel Aoun may say that his objective is to restore Lebanon's traditional power-sharing arrangement in Lebanon; Hizballah may say that they support Aoun's candidacy for the presidency and its secretary general may say that Hizballah seeks only to participate fairly in government, but they do not mean it. When Lebanese politicians state these things, western policy-makers, and some anti-Syrian elements in Lebanon, suggest it is no more than camouflage.

These opposition expressions of a desire to find a way back to consensus for a viable power-sharing structure in Lebanon's complex multi-confessional circumstances are either completely ignored, or else debunked as mere instruments in a power struggle--not genuine expressions of meaning. The American strategy has been to aggressively sideline anything having to do with pointing up the differences in Lebanese political needs from the western centralized nation-state model, debunking and de-politicizing all of this as mere fancy words, dressing-up the respective groups' roles as no more than proxies in a brutal struggle for power in which Syria seeks to resume its dominance over Lebanon.

Many European political leaders have bought into this--debunking Lebanese opposition statements and positions, merely because these people are thought of as "the enemy"--and, being the converse of western dependents, the West has no scope to its vision, other than to brand them as Syrian dependents rather than persons expressing real positions.

As long as the West continues to project its dependency models on others and to treat questions about the future shape of the Lebanese model of governance as meaningless rather than as genuine expressions of sentiments, the longer the US de-politicizing construct of "Syrian dependency" will consume all debate and the underlying issues will be ignored or treated dismissively as mere subterfuge. And the longer a durable solution will prove frustratingly elusive.- Published 3/1/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Alastair Crooke is a director of Conflicts Forum.

More uncertainty in the new year
 Oussama Safa

On December 31, the Lebanese bid good riddance to 2024, a tumultuous year of upheaval that brought the country's political logjam to unprecedented heights. The passing year witnessed a string of assassinations of two parliamentarians and a senior military figure, a devastating war against the Lebanese army, and a series of destabilizing moves that included dangerous sectarian clashes in the streets of Beirut reminiscent of the civil war. Lebanese institutions of governance continue to be held hostage by the political crisis, with the government incapable of exercising its authority, the parliament not convening in over a year and, more recently, the presidency vacant. The Lebanese army, the single most trustworthy institution still functioning, took a debilitating hit with the assassination on December 12 of the head of its operations.

Intensive European and Arab mediation initiatives have failed to bring together the opposition and the government loyalists to elect a consensus president, the incumbent army commander-in-chief General Michel Suleiman. The naming of Suleiman by the loyalists as their candidate of choice took the opposition by surprise and ushered in a new chapter of political polarization. The election of Suleiman requires a constitutional amendment that must be proposed to parliament by the current government. The opposition, who consider the government illegitimate, has refused to accept any amendment proposal from it and has decided to up the ante by demanding a full agreement on the makeup of the next government, the appointment of heads of security agencies and a new electoral law before Suleiman can be elected. If agreed, these demands will strip the president-elect of significant powers to appoint ministers and fill security posts.

The new year comes with no end in sight to the political crisis in Lebanon and promises a continued escalation in the positions of both camps. Spearheading the current confrontation are the Sunnis who lead the government loyalists and the Shi'ites who lead the opposition, with each camp including Christian leaders engaged in an unending power struggle. The present impasse masks larger demands for power-sharing by the opposition that would potentially alter the fundamental principles on which post-civil war Lebanon rests. If the pro-Syrian opposition succeeds in securing a blocking minority vote in the next government along with the package deal it is currently demanding, and with parliament controlled by an opposition speaker, the opposition will effectively control the major institutions of Lebanon.

This will mean the anchoring of Hizballah's influence in the political system and will nip in the bud any talk of disarming its military units. It will also mean continued stalling of the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions to do with control of borders, the flow of arms and the establishment of an international tribunal to pursue the assassins of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Worse, it will mean the return to Lebanon of Syrian security and political influence at a time when the loyalists have been struggling to regain sovereignty and independence.

In 2024, we might see renewed international pressures exerted on Damascus to facilitate the election of Suleiman as president; this is probably the only glimmer of hope government loyalists can cling to. Meanwhile, the opposition led by Hizballah is reaping the benefits of crippling the government and other significant institutions. Seeing that time is on its side, Hizballah's security and military apparatuses have gone unchecked and are in fact stronger than ever before. While the government is under siege, the Party of God has been hard at work developing new military strategies, rearming itself and concocting plans for deployment and control of major roads and institutions should the confrontation escalate again into street violence.

It is clear by now that without the full approval and participation of the opposition, a president of Lebanon will not be elected. Yet the continuation of the presidential vacuum is a precedent that risks rendering that position irrelevant in the long term. The powers of the presidency are currently exercised by the government. If the republic can function despite the long absence of its head, then this will further weaken the presidency and marginalize its influence in politics; if the government succeeds in using the powers of the presidency to pass major decisions, this will end any relevancy that the presidency had. All told, these developments might warrant the re-examining of presidential prerogatives as dictated by the constitution.

Whichever way we look at the current crisis in Lebanon, its solution will not be found in a simple settlement of the constitutional amendment and election of a president. In the long run, the crisis has exposed the defects of the standing power-sharing formula that ended the civil war and that the Syrian regime nurtured for 15 years. If and when the issues between the loyalists and the opposition are resolved, it will be necessary to ensure that a damaging standoff does not recur. In order for this to happen, and to put the country on course toward political stability, a new assessment of the national accords that have kept the Lebanese together for almost two decades needs to be carried out seriously and objectively. Meanwhile, averting civil strife will be on every Lebanese mind in 2024.-Published 3/1/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Oussama Safa is general director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies in Beirut.

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