A story I filed for the _Singapore Strait Times_:
BEIRUT — Lebanon found itself hurtling further toward political crisis today, brought on by a head-on collision between pro- and anti-Syrian blocs over what appeared to be disputes concerning power-sharing in the government and the approval of an international tribunal to try suspects in the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
The tensions boiled over when five Shi’ite and one Christian cabinet ministers resigned from Prime Minister Fuad Siniora’s government yesterday and today after a new round of national reconciliation talks broke down last week. The Shi’ites, represented mainly by the militant group Hezbollah, are demanding a “national unity” government with one-third of the seats in Siniora’s cabinet for themselves and their pro-Syrian political allies, a distribution of power that would give them veto power over any decisions the government makes.
And one of the decisions concerns the approval of an international tribunal to try suspects in the murder of Hariri, who was killed along with 22 other people on Feb. 14, 2005, in a massive car bomb in central Beirut. Siniora’s cabinet approved the tribunal Monday after a three-hour meeting downtown, despite the absence of the six pro-Syrian ministers.
“Our aim is to achieve justice and only justice,” Siniora said after the meeting. The draft document now goes to the Security Council for endorsement.
But whether Lebanon’s prime minister can achieve anything with Hezbollah and its allies arrayed against him is questionable. Were Hezbollah and its allies to gain the veto power they want, the could scuttle the international tribunal.
“We have been waiting for the court to take shape and to reach this day,” said Tourism Minister and Siniora ally Joe Sarkis. “If the intentions of all were pure, everyone should have participated in uncovering the truth about who killed Rafik Hariri. … We should have all been united over this and they could have resigned tomorrow.”
Under Lebanon’s complicated rules of governance, if one-third of the cabinet resigns, the government collapses and a new must be formed. The remaining 18 ministers seem loyal to Siniora, however, and seem unlikely to resign.
That hasn’t stopped some opposition figures from from questioning Siniora’s legitimacy. President Emile Lahoud, a Maronite Christian and Syrian ally, said Sunday that Siniora’s government was no longer legitimate because the Lebanese constitution requires that “all sects should be justly represented in the Cabinet.” He further claimed that with the Shi’ite walkout, all decisions of the cabinet were “null and void.”
Siniora says his government has all the legitimacy it needs but without Hezbollah’s backing in Parliament, he will find it difficult to get any legislation passed, especially the international tribunal. After its endorsement by the Security Council, it is handed back to the cabinet for final approval, signed by the president and passed by parliament.
The Shi’ite militia has threatened massive street protests unless the cabinet is reshuffled more to its liking, a political switch-up that the group says reflects its real support among the Lebanese in the wake of this summer’s 34-day between Hezbollah and Israel, brought on by the group’s capture of two Israeli soldiers on July 12. It was a war that ended in what could best be called a stalemate, but which Hezbollah supporters hailed as a “divine victory.” Hezbollah’s enemies in the government, however, saw the war as a reckless adventure into which the group dragged Lebanon against its will.
The Shi’ite group was emboldened however, and with what the United States says is backing from Iran and Syria, has made a political putsch against the current, pro-Western Siniora government. There are many in Lebanon who feel that the international tribunal will implicate senior members of the Syrian regime, which relies on Hezbollah to guard its interests in Lebanon and to serve as a vanguard against Israel.
However, the frightful Israeli military response likely left Hezbollah more damaged than it’s willing to let on, and its enemies smelled blood in the water. This wasn’t something Hezbollah could allow.
“Hezbollah is more concerned, more weakened,” said Reinoud Leenders, a former analyst for the International Crisis Group in Beirut. The walkout, the threats and the demands, he said, are intended to tie up the political process in Beirut and buy them time to rearm. “This ‘unity government’ is clearly designed to paralyze any decision-making process.”
Not so, counters Nawar Sahili, a Hezbollah member of parliament but not a cabinet member. By walking out, he says, they are following in the tradition of democracy in which opposition parties don’t take part in government.
“I don’t think this is very dangerous,” he said, but added that elections aren’t scheduled until 2009 and that’s too long to wait for the pro-Syrian bloc. “Why should we wait when we don’t have any power in the government?” he asked.
He played down the possibilities of street protests, which have been effective weapons for Hezbollah in the past. “Maybe it will come later,” he said.
But with these latest developments, Lebanon has found itself back in an unwelcome role: as a battlefield for regional and global powers to play out their conflicts. With Iran and Syria backing Hezbollah and its allies, and the U.S. and the West backing the Siniora government, Lebanon’s political crisis is a another battle in the new cold war shaping up between Iran and the United States for dominance in Southwest Asia and its oil.
The feeling here is one of nervous tension among the Sunnis and the anti-Syrian Christians (mainly Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces) and confidence among the Shi’ites and their allies, including the Christian Michel Aoun. (He really wants to be president and sees an alliance with Hezbollah as the way to get there.)
Ultimately, however, this is a proxy battle in the current tussle between the U.S.-Western alliance, which includes Europe, Israel and the United States, and an Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah-Hamas axis. This is an idea I’ve been promoting for most of 2006. The idea was sparked by the May _contretemps_ between Hezbollah and Israel following the assassination of two Islamic Jihad members in Saida and a couple of Katyushas got tossed at Israel in retaliation. The Jewish state responded harshly, with air raids across the south, causing Hezbollah to counter-strike.
I said at the time, “Iran’s activities in Lebanon are part of its larger plans for the region. By working through and with local Shiite communities, which are found in Bahrain, Iraq, eastern Saudi Arabia and stretching through Syria to Lebanon and Israel’s northern frontier, Tehran is well on its way to creating a ‘Shiite Crescent’ — a regional axis that allows it to hold most of the cards in any confrontation with the United States or Israel. And nowhere else, with the possible exception of Iraq, is Iran so well positioned as in Lebanon.”
The May confrontation settled down after a day. But obviously tensions remained — until they finally boiled over July 12, when the Shi’ite militant group captured two Israeli soldiers and sparked a 34-day war that killed more than 1,200 people and left up to 4,000 wounded. Lebanon was devastated by the Israeli air force, but Hezbollah emerged politically stronger.
Since then, they’ve been flexing their muscles and trying to force their way into position in the cabinet that would give them the veto over any decisions — a recipe for governmental gridlock that would maintain their freedom to do what they please in the south without interference from the U.S.-backed Siniora government.