TCS Daily

Lebanon Kisses Syria Goodbye, Electorally

By Michael Young - June 22, 2005 12:00 AM

On Sunday, Lebanon successfully conducted the final round of its parliamentary elections -- ending the first stage of its post-Syria phase. The elections were far from perfect, sometimes acrimonious, and designed to favor a predetermined outcome; they were also much more democratic than all other post-war elections, frequently surprising, and, while the losers might deny this, created a parliament representing fairly well Lebanese society as it exists today.

Beyond what the elections mean for the domestic distribution of power -- no doubt an essential factor in establishing how Lebanon develops in the near future -- they will also have a bearing on how the international community, particularly the United States, addresses a number of regional issues related to Lebanon: the disarmament of Hezbollah, American relations with Syria, and the Bush administration's democracy project in the region.

Inside Lebanon, the elections did several things: First, they gave a parliamentary majority to those forces that turned against Syria following the February 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Indeed, the largest single bloc in parliament will be controlled by Hariri's son, Saadeddine, who, with his allies, will control around 70 or so seats in the 128-seat legislature.

Second, the elections finalized the split in the anti-Syrian opposition, with the followers of Gen. Michel Aoun going their own way and allying themselves with formerly pro-Syrian candidates to win parliamentary seats. However, Aoun appears to be pursuing a project to become president, and his alliances, while odd, were also expedient and not destined to return Syrian rule to Lebanon. Instead, the general was reacting to his isolation by other opposition groups (who sought to alone fill the vacuum left by the Syrians), and his electoral successes in the Christian heartland two weekends ago underlined how popular he is.

Third, the election results complicated already thorny issues that will have to be addressed in the coming days and months. While the Hariri-led opposition had hoped to use the election results to oust Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, the plan faces obstacles from within the president's Maronite Christian community. Maronites generally dislike Lahoud, but they don't want to see him overthrown by a coalition of Muslim politicians -- Hariri, but also the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and the Shiite speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri -- because they fear the trio would impose a successor unrepresentative of the Maronites.

Ironically, Aoun and the influential patriarch of the Maronite church agree with this, but for different reasons: Aoun doesn't want to see Lahoud, a onetime foe, removed now, as he feels that given his rivals' control of parliament, his chances of succeeding the president are slim (Lebanon's parliament elects presidents). The patriarch, in turn, doesn't want to leave a void in the institution of the presidency, which could damage the highest Maronite post, and the community as a whole.

Another tricky issue parliament will have to address -- dovetailing with Washington's anxieties -- is resolving the imbroglio of Hezbollah's weapons. Hezbollah has expanded its representation in parliament, and promoted its success as endorsement of its "resistance option" against Israel. The party has threatened to "cut off the hand of anyone" trying to disarm it, presumably by force, leading many Lebanese to assume the issue is resolvable through dialogue. Indeed, the forcible neutralization of Hezbollah is not a realistic option, and could provoke a new war. However, there is a domestic consensus that a negotiated disarmament of the group, perhaps in exchange for giving Hezbollah a greater share of the political pie, is best.

This approach may be too sanguine. While Hezbollah's fate must involve bargaining, a solution will be less simple that many believe. Without its weapons, without being able to pursue armed struggle against its enemies, Hezbollah loses its meaning. The party will negotiate, and it will act flexibly inside Lebanon, but its ultimate aim will probably be to buy time in order to retain its weapons for as long as it can, in the hope that a breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian talks will inject new life into its own militancy. Meanwhile, it will continue to anchor itself into the political system, to better withstand calls to fully surrender its arms.

The U.S. will be watching the process closely, but also shaping it by spurring the Lebanese government forward on the disarmament issue. The administration is reluctant to impose sanctions on Lebanon because of Hezbollah. But if they are seen as trying to transgress Resolution 1559, heightened pressure is likely.

What happens in Lebanon will also affect U.S. relations with Syria, but also what remains of the administration's democracy project. Washington has many difficulties with Syria, particularly its assistance to the Iraqi insurgency and to militant Palestinian groups. The Bush administration will be pleased by the results of Lebanon's election, which it saw as a nonviolent means of marginalizing Syria regionally. In the coming months, the U.S. will seek to consolidate this, both to ensure that the isolated Syrian regime cannot again use Lebanon politically and financially to reinforce itself; but also to show that American regional policy should not be judged solely through the prism of Iraq's instability.

Still, the "democracy dividend" in Lebanon should not be overstated. The administration was surely pleased to get Syria out, but it also exerted little real effort to achieve this; Syria simply folded under domestic Lebanese, international and Arab pressures. Lebanon was an easy victory for the U.S., and will be held up as an example of regional democratization. But the administration is concerned about Hezbollah, and achieving a satisfactory end result on that front may mean turning up the heat on the very democrats it recently backed against Syria. Democracy is welcome, but not if America believes its enemies are still a threat.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon, and a contributing editor at Reason magazine in the United States.


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