Lebanese Sunni leader’s path strewn with uncertainties

By agreeing to play the game of Russian roulette, Hariri endangers his own standing vis-a-vis the international community.
Sunday 05/08/2018
Stormy waters. Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri speaks at the presidential palace in Baabda, on July 25. (Reuters)
Stormy waters. Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri speaks at the presidential palace in Baabda, on July 25. (Reuters)

Politics, it is said, is all about compromise and the ability to transform conflict into cooperation. Lebanon, with its long tradition of conflict, has seen an equal share of reconciliation with the bitterest of opponents coming together, at least nominally, for the espoused sake of the national interest.

A case in point would be that of Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Saad Hariri, whose political career includes a December 2009 trip to Damascus, where he shook the hand of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a man he had long accused of killing his father, Rafik, in February 2005.

Hariri’s momentary normalisation with the Assad regime was part of a wider Saudi-Syrian rapprochement, in which Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud hoped to tempt Assad away from the Iranian axis. The failure of this rapprochement allowed Hariri to return to his anti-Assad stance.

That position is likely to change dramatically should Hariri agree to form the next cabinet under the auspices of his pro-Iranian and Syrian allies, as well as proceed with the Russian plan for the repatriation of Lebanon’s Syrian refugees.

Named last May by the newly elected parliament to form the next cabinet, Hariri has struggled to put together a lineup that could muster the support of the various political factions. Many assumed that the main points of contention centred on shares allotted to the different parties, as each faction vies for lucrative portfolios that allow them to bankroll their clientelist networks.

While factional infighting has contributed to the delay, ultimate blame for the length of time taken to form a cabinet lies with Hariri and his allies’ refusal to relinquish the one-third quorum that allows them to block any attempt to force the resumption of relations with Syria. By holding ten members from the projected 30-member cabinet, Hariri and other anti-Syrian elements can stand firm, refusing to revoke the government’s disassociation policy that theoretically allows Lebanon to stay away from the regional conflict.

By openly declaring its disassociation, Lebanon has appeased many of Hariri’s Gulf state backers, who view Hezbollah’s membership in government and its meddling in regional affairs as a clear and present danger to regional stability. Despite his allies’ misgivings, Hariri has held his ground over normalising relations with the Syrian regime.

However, Hariri’s political career hangs in the balance, resting on his ability to steer the country away from economic troubles, including the Syrian refugee crisis and Lebanon’s desperate and crumbling infrastructure.

Nevertheless, the pressure to normalise relations with Syria continues, domestically and from abroad. Buoyed by their newly found confidence after the Helsinki summit with the United States, the Russians mooted their overambitious — some would say fraudulent — plan to return Lebanon’s refugees to Syria in record time, pledging this return would be voluntary as well as safe.

While the terms of the Russian offer are complex — and over-reliant on European financial support — it forces the international community, and principally Lebanon, to normalise relations with Syria by default.

Hariri met with the Russian diplomatic delegation to discuss its initiative. It quickly became apparent that the honey-laced words of the Russian envoys hid the fact that, should he agree, Hariri would have to coordinate extensively with the Syrian regime, eventually opening the door to normalisation between Lebanese and Syrian agencies to work together on the refugees’ return.

It’s unlikely to be a course of action Hariri would undertake without the support of his patrons in Saudi Arabia and their allies. Even were Hariri to swallow what must be an intensely bitter pill, there are no guarantees that the 1.5 million Syrian refugees would make it back home safely.

By agreeing to play this game of Russian roulette, Hariri endangers his own standing vis-a-vis the international community and allows for the return of Assad and his cronies to Lebanon.

Ultimately, such a gamble might prove more costly than the economic and social burden the refugees place on Lebanon generally and to Hariri, who had sworn never to allow Lebanon to slip back into Syrian tutelage, personally.