Hezbollah trapped in regional turmoil
By: Rudy Sassine

October 27/11

No particular event has had the dramatic effects of altering Lebanon’s political scene in favor of March 8th coalition, despite the fall of the pro-west Hariri government in January 2011 and the formation of a new cabinet joining independent Sunni and Christian figures and controlled by a coalition grouping Hezbollah and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun. On the contrary, signs of regional developments favoring March 14th are now evident with unrests in Syria threatening the Assad regime, and a partial retreat for the Iranian influence on the Arab streets.

Unfortunately for Lebanon, the issuance of indictments implicating some of Hezbollah’s members in the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri are expected to precipitate a direct confrontation between the Party of God and his political rival, March 14th. In the absence of any deterrent force, the showdown between the two would most likely reach the phase of sporadic street clashes yet not totally translate into an all-out civil war anytime soon.

Given that March 14th has now abandoned all attempts to come to an agreement with Hezbollah after having realized how difficult it is for an Islamic party tied ideologically with Iran to integrate into mainstream politics, it is highly unlikely that Hezbollah would be able this time to extract valuable concessions under the veil of national dialogue. Though it is perhaps too early to predict how Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah would be willing to behave in the face of external and internal pressure. The fact that Hariri is now out of the government and Jumblatt still undecided about his political positioning, makes of the use of force a costly choice. Therefore, other scenarios are plausible for Hezbollah. The latter could either paralyze the government through suspending the participation of his ministers in the cabinets’ meetings, or trigger the breakdown of the government by opting along with the Change and Reform bloc of General Aoun for a wholesale resignation. While the latter option will probably lead to a constitutional void, any hasty decision will increases the opportunity cost of Hezbollah.

In light of this, Mikati would be left with little choices. His margin of maneuver will depend on whether his international connections and his relation with March 14th could buy him some breathing spaces. Obviously, because his reputation as a conciliatory and reliable figure has suffered, the man has to keep up with his promise of not surrendering to Hezbollah’s dictates of ignoring the tribunal. Approving Lebanon’s share of the funding will restore his “Sunni” credibility and prevent further erosion of his political career. However, it is dubious that he will succeed in reconciling Hezbollah’s coercion attempts with March 14th newfound firmness.

Regionally, the system that allowed for the emergence of an Arab sponsored settlement in Lebanon has begun to vanish. Neither Turkey nor Qatar, the countries that have previously showed a great deal of latitude in solving the Lebanese crisis, will be able or willing to advance a settlement agreement similar to that witnessed in Doha in 2008. The fact that they both opted for a reorientation of their politics on the wake of the Arab spring makes it difficult for any to play a neutral conciliatory role in the region.

The events in Syria are yet another major determinant of the crisis in Lebanon. Because Syria’s internal troubles are being perceived as a comeback of Washington in the Levant and resurgence for the pro-American forces in the region, Hezbollah and his Christian allies are trying to warn against the dangers of a regime change in Damascus. This comes in sharp contrast with March 14th position, whose leaders have already taken the side of the protestors. The central point of contention remains how each faction views Syria’s popular unrest; While March 14th has made clear that it holds no fear of what might ensue in Lebanon in case the Syrian regime falls, General Aoun has repeatedly insinuated in his televised speeches and interviews, that an end of the Assad regime would plunge the region in a sectarian war and put the fate of the minorities at stake. Obviously, such an development will continue to have a deepest impact on the Lebanese scene in the form of increasing sectarian sensibilities, street clashes and inflammatory political discourses.

Knowing that March 14th can ill afford giving Hezbollah the luxury of a new unclear and time-consuming dialogue, the latter is expected to react in a swift way to shape the future of the government, but not of Lebanon.

*Rudy Sassine
Project Coordinator
Lebanese for Economy and Development