Thursday, August 6, 2009

Lebanon’s Reversal of Fortune

By Barry Rubin

Do you think the moderates—that is the March 14 bloc—won the Lebanese elections, while Hizballah and its Iranian-Syrian sponsors lost? Well, not so fast. Negotiations have been going on about what the government will look like and it appears that the pro-Syrian, pro-Iranian, favorable to Hizballah forces are going to have veto power over government decisions, to say the least.

Basically, the plan so far is to have three components in the cabinet. There will be 15 for March 14, 10 for the Hizballah-led opposition, and 5 for those chosen by President Michael Suleiman. And Suleiman was—wait for it, as the British army sergeants say in giving an order—the candidate of Syria.

But there’s more. Now Druze leader and March 14 stalwart Walid Jumblatt has switched sides. Jumblatt, a master politician, was a critical leader in forcing Syrian troops out of Lebanon. Now, however, he says the handwriting on the wall. America is weak; France, Lebanon’s traditional protector, is out to reconcile with Syria and Hizballah; Hizballah has the strongest militia; and the Syrians kill people. In the past, Jumblatt has been content to work with Syria, now he is signaling a return to that strategy.

This could mean that there will be three equal blocs, a formula for anarchy. Lebanon, however, can live with a certain amount of anarchy at the center since it is today a country only of loosly connected zones controlled by different ethnic-political forces defined by religious identity. Of course, this is terrible for the country's economic well-being.

It also means that all the U.S. military aid provided to the Lebanese army is practically at the command of Syria and Hizballah, including its participation at least as a supporting force in any future Hizballah-Israel war. Don't worry about Hizballah stealing the army's U.S.-made weapons, however, as the militia is so well equipped that it doesn't need them.

In other words, the experiment in Lebanese independence may be at an end, not because Hizballah has taken over the country but because it has total freedom of action. Nobody is going to defy Syria and Iran as they have done in the past.

That means Hizballah—unbothered by the weak UN presence which has been unable to uncover a single one of the thousands of Hizballah missiles in southern Lebanon—once again owns the south. Syria’s involvement in terrorism against its Lebanese critics will go unpublicized and certainly unpunished. The United States and the West cannot count on Lebanon for anything, including, of course, participation in any regional peace process.

Some seek to portray the Lebanese election results as a victory for the West and the Obama administration. As of today, that doesn't seem to be a realistic assessment though things could have been far worse, too.

This situation doesn’t mean another Israel-Lebanon war in the near-term future, something not on the agenda of Tehran, Damascus, and Hizballah at present. Hizballah needs to consolidate its Shia base and rebuild from the 2006 war that it set off. But another round with Israel is certainly possible in, say, three to five years, more likely if Israel ever attacks Iranian nuclear facilities

So while Hizballah didn’t “win” the election, it along with the radical Iran-Syria bloc, has won the political situation. It isn’t a total victory but it is sufficient for the purposes of Hizballah and Damascus at present.

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