TCS Daily

The Lebanese Linchpin

By Nicholas Blanford - May 9, 2006 12:00 AM

BEIRUT -- Lebanon recently marked the first anniversary of Syria's troop withdrawal, but with the Lebanese torn by competing visions over the future of country, Damascus is once more becoming an increasingly influential force here.

Syria's Lebanese allies are gaining confidence and forging new political alliances to further undermine the "March 14" majority coalition which is beginning to unravel, crippled by internal disagreements, a weak government and sluggish pace of economic recovery. The pro-Syrian Shiite Hizbullah party has become about the most powerful political entity in Lebanon, having cut some unlikely but astute deals to successfully fend off a growing clamor for its disarmament. Even Emile Lahoud, the unashamedly pro-Syrian president, continues to cling to office, a lonely figure shunned by visiting dignitaries, despised by most Lebanese and whose top aides languish in jail on suspicion of involvement in the murder last year of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri who died in a St. Valentine's Day bomb blast.

A year ago it was all very different. Standing in the balmy spring sunshine at a Lebanese army base in the Bekaa Valley, I watched the Lebanese and Syrian army command try to gloss over the humiliation of Syria's troop withdrawal from Lebanon by staging a colorful farewell parade.

A platoon of crack Syrian paratroopers had been bussed in from across the border for this last hurrah on Lebanese soil. Tall and lean, the red-bereted soldiers were a cut above the poor ill-educated conscripts that the Lebanese were accustomed to seeing at checkpoints around the country.

The Syrian top brass was there, perspiring beneath their brown wool uniforms dripping with gold braid as they sat stiffly in the grandstand. Notably absent, however, were Syria's Lebanese civilian friends, the parliamentarians and ministers who bestowed a veneer of legitimacy on Damascus' long stranglehold on Lebanon. They had been ardent defenders of the Syrian presence and equally ardent critics of international attempts to expunge Damascus from Lebanon; but on that last day they were nowhere to be seen, lying low, licking their wounds and wondering what the future would hold for them in the new post-Pax Syriana era.

Clearly, it was a low point for the Syrian regime which had been under increasing pressure from the West, chiefly the US, since the invasion of Iraq two years earlier. Some analysts believed that the humiliation of losing Lebanon signaled the inevitable demise of the Assad regime.

Assad, however, instead of showing some contrition and using the Lebanon withdrawal to address pressing domestic needs, resolutely stuck to his policy of defiance. And it appears to have paid off for the time being.

The election last summer of the confrontational Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran led to a strengthened alliance between the two countries, providing a vital spine-stiffener for the young Syrian president. The election victory of Hamas was another boost for Syria and Iran, granting them greater leverage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Political turmoil in Lebanon led to the postponement of a donor conference, initially scheduled for November last year in which a core group of wealthy nations and international lending agencies were promising to provide necessary funds to boost the moribund economy and re-energize the economic reform program. As of the end of April, the conference has yet to materialize, its fate apparently held hostage to movement on issues of importance to the US, principally Hizbullah's disarmament.

But Hizbullah has overcome calls for its disarmament by some deft political maneuvering. It struck an alliance with its long-time rival for the Shiite vote, the Amal Movement, thus turning the disarmament debate from one targeting a lone political party into one perceived as targeting the Shiites as a whole. In December, the five Shiite ministers staged a cabinet walk-out, paralyzing the government for over a month, a muscle-flexing gesture that underlined the Shiite alliance's clout.

In early February, Hizbullah concluded a memorandum of understanding with the Free Patriotic Movement led by Michel Aoun, a former Lebanese army commander and once one of the fiercest critics of Syrian domination of Lebanon. Aoun's transformation from arch foe of Syria to tacit ally is one of the more extraordinary political transformations Lebanon has witnessed in the past year. The MOU with the Free Patriotic Movement effectively brought within Hizbullah's orbit a large section of the Christian community for whom Aoun is the figurehead.

The flagging March 14 coalition attempted to regain the initiative by pledging on the first anniversary of Hariri's murder to oust Lahoud within a month. But even that goal collapsed when Lahoud, backed by Hizbullah and some pro-Syrian politicians, adamantly refused to go and the March 14 coalition was unable to force the reluctant president out of his palace overlooking Beirut. It couldn't even agree on a suitable alternative head of state. When the coalition vowed to take to the streets to seek Lahoud's departure, Wiam Wahhab, one of Syria's most faithful allies, warned "If they want to hit the streets so will we, and this will have dire consequences."

Like a pack of wolves scenting wounded prey, Syria's allies have gone on the offensive. Omar Karami, the colorless scion of a respected Sunni family who was prime minister at the time of Hariri's death, announced that he was forming a National Opposition Front, grouping the leading pro-Syrian politicians, "to confront the difficult situation and impose real reform". Just this week, Karami said that his new political alliance will sign cooperation agreements with Hizbullah, Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement and a neutral political movement called the Third Force, led by veteran former prime minister Salim Hoss.

Islamist groups and independent Salafist clerics in northern Lebanon, who have no great love for Syria's nominally secular regime, are planning to form an Islamic Action Front which will cooperate with Karami's National Opposition Front as well as Hizbullah and other pro-Syrian organizations.

"The choice was whether to side with the Arab identity of Lebanon or whether we should return to a Western identity and join with the Americans in their Greater Middle East project," says Sheikh Fathi Yakan, former secretary-general of the Jamaa Islamiyya, Lebanon's branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a leader of the Islamic Action Front.

And there's the rub; as political polarization of Lebanon into generally pro-Western and anti-Western camps has been aggravated to a large extent by foreign interference. Lebanon's small size - as well as politically and confessionally diverse population -- traditionally makes it a tempting arena for larger countries to pursue their regional interests by proxy. Presently, the US, France, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UN all pursue separate or linked interests in Lebanon, backing one Lebanese faction against another in a bid for regional leverage.

Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, paid a high profile visit to Washington and New York two weeks ago and was greeted warmly by Bush and senior administration officials, as well as by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York. The Bush administration solidly backs the Siniora government and regards Lebanon as a useful tool with which to prod the recalcitrant Syrian regime into better behavior.

"The Lebanese people can remain assured that after Siniora's visit to the US, the American long-term, non-negotiable commitment to Lebanon remains as strong and vibrant as ever," said Jeffrey Feltman, the US ambassador to Beirut.

The problem is that such manifest American support for the Lebanese government, and by extension the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition, serves to further alienate the pro-Syrian elements in Lebanon and complicate Siniora's attempts to reconcile with Damascus. In response to Siniora being feted by the Bush administration, an irritated Syrian regime indicated that a long-awaited rapprochement trip by the Lebanese premier to Damascus would not be forthcoming.

"The Lebanese must work to prevent their country from being vamped into regional struggles, ones in which they become fuel or tools," wrote columnist Sahar Baasiri in Lebanon's An Nahar newspaper last week.

That may prove easier said than done.

Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based reporter and author of Killing Mr Lebanon - The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and its Impact on the Middle East, to be published by IB Tauris in August.


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