This article originally appears in The American Thinker
With the resignation of 5 Hezb’allah and Amal cabinet ministers following the breakdown of the National Dialogue talks last weekend, the tiny nation of Lebanon may be on a downward spiral toward civil strife or worse – a wave of violence that would threaten the stability and safety of the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
It is impossible to overstate the danger to the fragile democratic coalition that took power with such high hopes in the summer of 2005 as a result of millions of ordinary Lebanese taking to the streets demanding and independent Lebanon free from Syrian control. But despite the removal of Syrian troops and the ouster of the hated Damascus controlled Secret Police, the March 14th Forces have been unable to deal effectively with Syria’s armed proxy Hezb’allah whose tentacles have now encircled the neck of the Lebanese government and have begun to squeeze.
Hezb’allah’s spiritual and political leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah seems to have played his cards perfectly. From making the decision to join the government rather than remain outside of it back in 2005 to his current power play against Siniora’s cabinet, Nasrallah has proved himself a canny politician with the instincts of a predator and the nerve of a riverboat gambler. And nowhere was his nerve on display more than last summer when he deliberately provoked the Israelis into a war that he guessed would do more to damage the fragile government of Lebanon than his own armed militia of fanatical followers.
He guessed correctly. While the Israelis tentatively attacked Hezb’allah positions on the border – positions long prepared to inflict maximum casualties on the Israeli Defense Forces – every day that Hezb’allah remained an effective fighting force was a victory for Nasrallah and his “resistance,” raising the level of popular support among ordinary Lebanese of all sects. Simply the act of starting the war made Nasrallah de facto head of government. His pronouncements during the conflict made it seem that he considered Prime Minister Siniora little more than an errand boy who, with his permission, could negotiate for prisoner exchanges but little else.
Siniora’s hands were tied. Faced with massive bombing of his country that was systematically destroying much of Lebanon’s infrastructure and given that the Lebanese army was virtually useless to resist Israeli forces, Siniora acquiesced in Nasrallah’s temporary ascendancy. The rest of the March 14th Forces were placed on the defensive as a result of the bombing and Israeli incursion. After some initial criticism of Nasrallah taking the country to war without the government’s approval, most coalition leaders remained relatively quiet, preferring to let events play themselves out.
Within weeks of the UN-brokered peace deal, Nasrallah began his play for power, starting with calls by his partner, ex-Prime Minister and head of the mostly Christian Free Patriotic Movement Michel Aoun for a “government of national unity.” He accused the Siniora government of corruption and incompetence while calling for more Shia representation in the cabinet. Aoun, whose naked ambition to replace Syrian puppet President Emile Lahoud has driven him into his unlikely alliance with the Shias, has proved himself a thorn in the side of the March 14th forces ever since his return from exile in the days following the Syrian exit from Lebanon.
Throughout the fall as tensions in the country rose, the March 14th Forces resisted calls for the National Dialogue to take up the issue of a unity government and Shia representation. In the end, it became apparent that the only way to head off civil strife was to convene the group of leaders from all parts of Lebanese society to determine if a compromise could be achieved. The group sat down last week for talks in what was described as a “tense and cold” atmosphere.
Of course, Nasrallah was not looking for compromise. He was looking not only to expand Shia representation in the cabinet so that he had absolute veto power over actions taken by the majority March 14 Forces but also head off cabinet discussion of the formation of an International Tribunal to try the perpetrators of the assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. That Tribunal will probably indict high level members of the Syrian government as well as several prominent Syrian allies in Lebanon.
For the majority’s part, they no more wanted Hezb’allah in the driver’s seat than Nasrallah wanted a political settlement. By offering to grant Hezb’allah their expanded cabinet representation, the March 14th Forces added a poison pill to the deal; the new Shia ministers would be forced to sign off on approval of the Tribunal.
That ended the National Dialogue and caused the resignation of the Hezb’allah and Amal ministers (as well as the pro President Lahoud environmental minister). In a tactical move to buy time, Prime Minister Siniora has rejected the resignations out of hand and declared that the Shias were still members of the cabinet. Under Lebanese law, if one of the various sects removes themselves or is thrown out of the government, no major issues can be decided by the cabinet. By rejecting the Shia resignations, Siniora is gambling that another round of talks will produce a compromise more palatable to the majority while heading off a possible civil war. And yesterday, his cabinet approved the UN Tribunal despite the absence of the Shia ministers. It is unclear at this point whether the cabinet’s actions have the force of law or not.
Nasrallah could probably care less if the cabinet’s actions were legal or not. He’s got what he wants; a cabinet crisis and fears of renewed civil war. He holds the whip hand on both counts and now must decide his next move. Does he allow the ministers to rejoin the cabinet with the proviso that discussion of the Tribunal is off the table? Or does he force the issue through street demonstrations that will almost certainly devolve into confrontations with armed militias opposed to him?
The answer is perhaps both. In a statement released yesterday, Hezb’allah announced that there would indeed be “peaceful” street demonstrations but that the “timing of the action had not been decided.” Nasrallah may want the political pressure to build on the March 14th Forces to see if they can be convinced to give him what he wants with no strings attached. At the same time, his threat to send his highly trained, fanatical militia into the streets could be seen as a powerful sign that his patience has its limits.
In fact, Nasrallah seems confident that he will get what he wants soon – one way or another:
“This government will go and nothing associates us with it (government) after the resignations,” Nasrallah late Monday told a crowd of about 6,000 residents who lost their homes in Beirut’s southern suburbs during the destructive Israeli war on Lebanon over the summer.
He was referring to the resignation of the six ministers, five of them from Hizbullah and Amal, hours after the national dialogue collapsed on Saturday.
“This country is ours. We sacrificed tens of thousands of martyrs, wounded, prisoners and disabled for the sake of safeguarding it (Lebanon) as well as protecting its dignity and glory; and we will not give up (these sacrifices),” the daily As Safir quoted Nasrallah as saying.
A key figure emerging in the crisis is Speaker Nabih Berri. Surprising some observers, Berri has called the cabinet’s approval of the Tribunal “constitutional as long as more than two thirds (of the ministers) remain in the government.” Whether this leaves the door open for genuine compromise could become clearer once Nasrallah makes his next move.
Speculation on what that might be has centered on the Parliament where Nasrallah controls around 60 of the 128 member body. If, as some speculate, the next act in the crisis would be for Shia, Amal, and Free Patriotic Movement MP’s to resign from Parliament, the country would almost certainly be thrown into chaos. This would make it impossible for Siniora’s cabinet to maintain any semblance of legitimacy and calls for new elections would almost certainly be in the offing.
Mid-East expert Walid Phares plays out this scenario:
The next move is to have Hezbollah, Amal, and their allies in the Parliament also resign, thus creating “conditions” for what they will coin as new elections and a collapse of the cabinet. Most of these moves have already been accomplished or are on the eve of being implemented. The pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud will declare the Government and the Parliament as “illegitimate,” and call for early legislative elections. The latter, if they take place will be under the smashing influence of Hezbollah’s weapons (a show of force was performed in the summer) and of the cohorts of militias and security agencies. Result: a pro-Syrian-Iranian majority in parliament, followed by the formation of an “axis” government in Lebanon. The rest is easy to predict: A terrorism victory.
What it comes down to is what has always been the greatest threat to Lebanon’s democracy; Hezb’allah and their guns. Faling to disarm the militia as they were required to do under UN Security Council resolution 1559, the March 14th Forces paid for their inability to rally enough popular support to suppress Hezb’allah first with the Israeli War and now with an existential threat to the existence of a free and independent Lebanon. Perhaps it was inevitable given the enormous difficulty in governing a country so riven with factional and sectarian divisions. But history’s judgement will be no less severe if the small group of brave democrats cannot find a way to stop Nasrallah from carrying through with his plans.
As for the United States, there is very little we can do to assist. Siniora is already battling charges that he is Washington’s stooge – charges that ring true with many ordinary Lebanese thanks to effective Hezb’allah propaganda spewed forth from Al-Manar, the terrorist media organ in Lebanon. And as Dr. Phares points out, Nasrallah’s push for power has not taken place in a political vacuum; both he and his patrons in Tehran and Syria know how to read US election results:
The perceived results of the midterm elections in the U.S. were read as positive by Tehran and its allies, in the sense that it froze vigorous reactions by the U.S. against any Iranian-Syrian move in Lebanon via Hezbollah. The feelings in Tehran and Damascus, have been that if in the next weeks and months a “thrust” takes place in Lebanon to the advantage of the pro-Syrian camp, Washington will be in no position to react or counter. Ahmedinijad and Assad believe (or have been advised to believe) that “lobbies” are moving in Washington and Brussels to restrain any strong deterrence by the U.S. against the “axis.” The theory is that the Bush Administration is too busy “negotiating” with the new leadership in Congress to “dare” a mass move in the Middle East. The analysis also predicts that strong lobbies within the Democratic Party are now positioned to block any serious response to a change in geopolitics in Lebanon. It is believed that the window of opportunity won’t be too long before the Administration and the upcoming Congress “understands” the Tehran-Damascus maneuver and create a unified response. Thus, the expectation is that Hezbollah and its allies were told to achieve their goals before the end of the year, and before the new Congress begin business on the Hill.
Lebanon is entering a period of enormous tension and trial, the results being difficult to predict at this point. What seems clear is that the forces for freedom and independence are facing their greatest challenge and that the next few days and weeks will determine their fate and the fate of their tiny country for many years to come.
I don’t necessarily doubt Malik’s analysis but I wonder how he arrives at that conclusion given the statements recently by Gemayal’s Phalange and Gaeges Lebanese Forces militias. Both seem dead set against a Nasrallah dominated government. And here’s what Malik wrote:
There has been much discussion (including on this blog) about the divisions within the Christian community. Interestingly, this division might make the Christians safer. The Christians proved last year that they would not respond to violence with violence. With the Lebanese Forces in 14 March and Michel Aoun aligned with 8 March, the Christian community will not be at the center of any sectarian clashes for, perhaps, the first time in modern Lebanese history.
What would LF do if the FPM joins Hezb’allah in the streets?
With Lebanon and Lebanese politics, you just never know…