Home inFocus U.S. Challenges in Lebanon and Syria

U.S. Challenges in Lebanon and Syria

Mustafa Abul Mahasen Winter 2010

Few were the countries whose attention was not completely distracted by Egypt’s events. Lebanon, a self-preoccupied small nation with endless political bickering, was halfheartedly following news from Cairo’s Tahrir Square—and for good reason. Beirut has its own problems.

In mid-January, Hezbollah forced the collapse of Western-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s cabinet in Lebanon. And it did so in dramatic fashion, precisely at the moment Hariri was meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. Hezbollah later twisted arms to force Hariri to lose his parliamentary majority so that a Hezbollah candidate, Najib Mikati, could form a new cabinet, allowing a terrorist group to effectively take control of the country. While the full effects of Hezbollah’s cunning operation in Lebanon remain unknown, its destruction of Lebanon’s democratically elected cabinet proved one point: Democracy is impossible in Lebanon with Hezbollah militarily armed.

Lebanon in Crisis

After the resignation of Hezbollah’s ministers from the Saad Hariri cabinet in January that forced the collapse of the government, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman announced his schedule for holding consultations with lawmakers, as stipulated by the constitution, to name the new prime minister. Druze leader and lawmaker Walid Jumblatt said his 15-member bloc would rename Hariri, thus maintaining the parliamentary majority that the Hariri-led March 14 Coalition had won in the June 2009 elections.

Shortly after Jumblatt’s statement, President Suleiman announced the rescheduling of consultations until further notice, thus pushing the country into a political vacuum under Hariri’s caretaker government. A few days later, Jumblatt held a press conference in which he said he had picked “the side of Syria and the resistance,” thus reneging on his promise to give his blocs’ votes to Hariri. The incumbent prime minister therefore lost the 72-MP majority he had inside the 128-member parliament. In the final tally, Hariri received 60 parliamentary votes. Najib Mikati, who had originally made it to parliament on Hariri’s ticket, defected and ran against Hariri as Hezbollah’s candidate. Mikati received 68 votes and was given the call to form the new cabinet, thus ousting Hariri.

Forcing Hariri out of power, rescheduling presidential consultations, and twisting Jumblatt’s arm to switch sides so that Hariri would lose his March 14 majority all bore the fingerprints of Hezbollah’s armed militia.

But why did Jumblatt cave? The veteran politician, who had been the most prominent of the pro-democracy, anti-Hezbollah, anti-Syrian March 14 Movement, was defeated in May 2008 when Hezbollah’s fighters swarmed areas of his followers in the southern part of Mount Lebanon, killing several of them and kidnapping many others. Even though Jumblatt’s Druze followers had shown valiant fighting qualities and caused Hezbollah unexpected fatalities, their leader realized that their arms stock was low—compared to the infinite supply of weaponry on the Hezbollah side. Since May 2008, Jumblatt has surrendered his political fate to Hezbollah and its allies who rule in Damascus, having made the calculation that no one will protect him should he side with Hariri.

The Back-Story

The story of forcing Hariri out of power started on February 14, 2005, when the motorcade of Hariri’s father and predecessor, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was bombed, killing him. The Hariri assassination provoked popular fury and massive demonstrations that, coupled with international pressure and UN Security Council Resolution 1559, forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after 29 years of occupation.

The swift reaction of the Security Council to Hariri’s murder by a U.S.-led international coalition proved instrumental in keeping Hezbollah and the regime of Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Asad on their toes. Because the Security Council labeled the Hariri murder as a terrorist attack, the assassination became an act that threatened global peace and mandated that the council remain updated on all issues related to the crime, including the unveiling of the perpetrators.

The UN-deployed investigators later created an international investigation committee. Because the Lebanese judiciary, controlled by Syria and Hezbollah, could not act on the findings of this committee, the Lebanese government and the UN commenced negotiations for the creation of a joint tribunal. Syria and Hezbollah dug in their heels and refused to allow the approval of the tribunal’s creation in the Lebanese Parliament. They shut it down through Syria’s puppet, Speaker Nabih Berri.

Eventually, the UN created the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) under Chapter VII of its charter, which allows for the use of force should governments fail to cooperate with the tribunal. Headed by Hariri’s ally Fouad Siniora and dominated by the March 14 majority, the Lebanese cabinet at the time signed a protocol of understanding with the UN under which it agreed to fund 49 percent of the tribunal’s costs and supply Lebanese judges.

Syria’s Play

Since the Hariri murder in 2005, the international investigation and later the creation of the STL have dictated Syria and Hezbollah’s actions. The two allies have tried a variety of tactics to undermine justice on the Hariri case, whether through terrorizing STL staff and Lebanese politicians supportive of the tribunal, or through requests that Syria made to its friends in Paris, Ankara, and other world capitals urging them to scrap the tribunal.

But since all of Syria’s attempts to stop international justice have failed, Damascus has devised a two-track strategy to confront it. First, Syria impressed on its allies in Lebanon the threat of civil war and more violence against the March 14 Coalition that supports the tribunal. Second, Syria put together a team of the best Western lawyers money can buy to show up before the tribunal and defend Syrian officials, should they be indicted.

Meanwhile, Syria has been courting whoever Damascus thinks would save its regime from international justice. Asad sent private and public messages of goodwill to American Jews, promising them to renovate ten historic synagogues in Syria in order to win them to his side and benefit from any potential political clout that they might hold with Washington. He also launched a public relations offensive inside Washington in an attempt to revive his good ties with the United States. The Syrian tyrant believes that if he succeeds in making himself useful in American eyes in terms of regional security issues, Washington might offer him a bargain and stop its financial and political support that has been crucial for the STL’s creation and work.

However, Asad’s promises to the West have consistently fallen short. Many observers believe that, unlike his father and predecessor Hafez al-Asad, a savvy politician who sponsored Hezbollah in Lebanon but never let it grow beyond Syria’s control, Bashar has committed the mistake of making a Frankenstein out of Hezbollah. Observers believe that even if he promises, Asad cannot deliver on reining in, let alone disarming, Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Also, since the death of Asad senior in 2000, Syria has grown more dependent on Iran, which for its part has become more assertive and bullish throughout the region. While Asad senior was in the driver’s seat in his alliance with Tehran, Asad junior has certainly conceded this privilege and let Iran take the wheel.

And so the familiar pattern continues: Bashar seeks to play all sides against each other and pocket any concessions, without making any irreversible changes in policy. Since his regime has never been held to account, Asad feels emboldened that he may yet regain domination over Lebanon.

STL’s Future Fallout

What happens if the STL proceeds and points fingers at Hezbollah and/or Syrian officials in committing the Hariri murder and a series of other assassinations that removed their opponents in Lebanon?

Hezbollah’s original plan was to continue hiding behind former prime minister Saad Hariri, reasoning that his ties with Western capitals will shield the state from possible UN sanctions because of the party’s uncooperative behavior with the STL. But Hariri refused to trade his support for the STL tasked with investigating his father’s murder for his stay in power. Therefore, Hezbollah was forced to invent a Hariri-like prime minister: Enter Harvard-educated billionaire and friend of Syria’s Asad, Najib Mikati. When Mikati assumes power, Hezbollah expects him to chair a cabinet vote that ends Lebanese cooperation with the STL.

Syria, for its part, has nowhere to hide. If an STL verdict finds any of its officials guilty, Asad might have to hand over these perpetrators, or risk possible UN sanctions and international isolation. But if Asad hands over any one of his operatives, he would lose the confidence that his aides have in him.

Alternatively, Asad might choose to head into a “Grand Bargain” with the West. This would entail Asad breaking with Iran, once and for all, flushing out terrorist groups that take refuge in Damascus, and stopping the transfer of arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In return, Asad would be spared the handover dilemma and would be rewarded with winning the Golan Heights on the back of a peace treaty with Israel. Such a price would likely prove too steep for Asad to pay. That is why Syria’s dictator has been fighting, tooth and nail, to make the STL disappear. The best way Asad knows to kill the STL is create additional problems in Lebanon. He hopes if this happens, the world will come to him to put Lebanon back together, and in the meantime offer him a dead STL.

Washington’s Support

Asad’s influence has declined over the past decade in favor of Hezbollah’s control. Yet Hezbollah currently has little interest in sparking a civil war because such an adventure would open Lebanon to various Western intelligence operatives, putting the personal safety of Hezbollah’s leaders at risk. Hezbollah has so far not heeded Syria’s calls to escalate towards a more full-scale form civil strife. Instead, it has raised the stakes through intimidation and by reminding its political opponents that it has the ability turn its weapons against them with great efficiency—as Hezbollah’s actions in May 2008 clearly demonstrated.

Washington should continue to support the STL’s continuation. As it stands, if the tribunal proceeds and a verdict finds that Hezbollah and Syria were involved in Lebanon’s assassinations, the two allies would lose serious political clout in the region. Then, compromises in the form of Syrian strategic realignment away from Iran and Hezbollah might be in the cards. With its main artery of weapons supplies blocked, Hezbollah might find it harder to wage wars against Israel and the Party of God might eventually be pacified, finally leaving Lebanon to pick up the pieces and start a new, terror-free government. Regardless of the STL’s conclusions, the United States should carefully weigh its relations with Lebanon based on the conduct of the new government.

Mustafa Abul Mahasen is a Middle East analyst and journalist based in Springfield, VA.