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NEWS & COMMENTARY 2008 SPEAKERS 2007 2006 2005

Monday, November 06, 2006

The struggle for Lebanon

Syria and its allies move to reassert their influence in Lebanon, pushing for the overthrow of the government of PM Fuad Siniora.

Commentary by Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv for ISN Security Watch (06/11/06)

Lebanon's deeply fragmented political scene is trapped in a deepening crisis amid power plays by major regional actors and a significant rise in inter-communal tensions.

Lebanon has suffered from political paralysis since the February 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri. The murder led to the election victory of the anti-Syrian March 14 Alliance under the leadership of al-Hariri's son Saad and Druze political chief Walid Jumblatt. The murder also sparked a large-scale protest movement, which, along with international pressure, forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops in April 2005.

Efforts by parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri to forge agreement on key issues, such as the future of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud and the disarming of Hizbollah, have come to naught, precipitating a direct confrontation between pro-and anti-Syrian factions.

Syria has moved in the months since the 34-day Israeli-Hizbollah war to reassert its influence in the country.

Syrian allies including Hizbollah and Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) have signaled the end of Berri's national dialogue, pushing strongly for the overthrow of the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. They would like to see the formation of a grand coalition including the FPM - Hizbollah already has two ministers and endorses a third - that would greatly increase Syrian influence over the government.

In a three-hour interview broadcast on Hizbollah's Al-Manar television station on 31 October, party leader Hassan Nasrallah accused the Siniora government of plotting to secure the disarmament of the Shi'ite movement's armed wing. The "party in power is seeking to make UNIFIL [...] occupy Lebanon and disarm the resistance," he said, referring to the UN's expanded peacekeeping force in the south.

The UNIFIL mandate allows the international force to disarm militants. However, the Lebanese government made a deal with Hizbollah shortly after the end of the war that prevents invasive weapons searches, allowing the movement to maintain its arms as long as they are not publicly displayed.

Nasrallah added that he would call his movement's supporters into the streets to demand new elections unless a unity government emerged by mid-November from ongoing, piecemeal political negotiations.

The Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon allowed the US and its EU allies to exercise significant influence over the Lebanese political scene for the first time in years.

While the March 14 Alliance succeeded in winning a parliamentary majority, its efforts to set the legislative agenda and further weaken the Syrian role in Lebanon have been largely stymied by pro-Syrian political elements.

White House spokesperson Tony Snow said last Wednesday that the US was "increasingly concerned by mounting evidence that the Syrian and Iranian governments, Hizbollah, and their Lebanese allies are preparing plans to topple Lebanon's democratically elected government."

The claim was a repetition of claims made by Jumblatt in his meetings with US officials last week and was immediately repudiated by the Syrian state media and government officials.

There has been growing speculation in the Arab and Israeli media that the US could be willing to ease its boycott of the Syrian government. According to some commentators, Damascus would be allowed to strengthen its influence in Lebanon through the formation of a unity government in return for action on securing the Syrian-Iraqi border ahead of a US withdrawal from Iraq.

This theory has seemingly been bolstered by Saudi championing of the unity government concept. Through its Beirut embassy, Saudi Arabia has reportedly initiated a series of behind-the-scenes discussions between Lebanese leaders designed to secure stability through the coalescence of a grand coalition. Aoun has also received an invitation to visit Riyadh, the Saudi capital, for talks with King Abdullah Bin Abdel-Aziz, but has yet to give a response.

It is likely that the Saudi initiative was launched in coordination with the US State Department and it may reflect an unspoken US deferral to the kingdom on the issue.

However, it is unlikely that the US is giving up on the Siniora government - a move that would directly contravene stated US policy to isolate Syria. The theory that the US would again seek security guarantees from Syria ignores a recent major US troop drawdown from Iraq's western al-Anbar province and a recent call by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for the imposition of sanctions against Syria.

A meeting of donor countries in Paris set for early 2007 will see a renewed US and European push to provide Siniora with further financial aid to counter Iranian-funded Hizbollah war reconstruction efforts, if the government survives.

The US continues to push strongly for the establishment of a UN tribunal to try those charged with the al-Hariri murder. The international judicial body was requested by the Siniora government.

A UN probe into the killing of al-Hariri has implicated high-ranking Syrian and Lebanese officials in the assassination plot and is expected to deliver a damning final report in two months.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called representatives of the five permanent member states of the UN Security Council to his office last Wednesday in an unsuccessful bid to win consensus on the establishment of the court.

In a bid to strengthen its relations with Syria, Russia is reportedly refusing to approve the establishment of the tribunal, citing concerns about the timing of its formation and the court's independence should Annan be allowed to select the presiding judges.

It is hard to predict whether the Siniora government will survive the current political crisis given the constant shift of political allegiances in Lebanon. The maintenance of the anti-Syrian majority in the ruling coalition brings the concomitant threat of pro-Syrian groups launching a full-scale civil struggle, raising the specter of a slow deterioration to civil war.

However, the formation of a unity government, while shoring up the political system and preventing a possible escalation of inter-communal tensions, would only serve to exacerbate the current political crisis and stymie moves to extend Lebanese sovereignty.

Syria is ratcheting up pressure on the Lebanese government in a bid to secure a whip-hand over a unity administration ahead of the possible prosecution of Syrian officials by the UN tribunal.

The initiation of criminal proceedings could lead to either an easing of pressure for a unity government or a new wave of Syrian-instigated political violence. Both would serve to bolster support for the Siniora government and the March 14 Alliance.

Dr Dominic Moran is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East.

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