Political battle around Lebanese Army chief position
LONDON - For many observers, the political crisis gripping Lebanon that has left the country without a president for more than two years is the fault of the Hezbollah-backed Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader Michel Aoun and his struggle for the presidency.
Lebanese Army chief Jean Kahwaji’s term comes up for renewal in September. With a political battle raging around the issue, Aoun’s rejection of Kahwaji’s replacement is being framed as an attempt by the presidential hopeful to reignite Lebanon’s Christians against what his supporters see as their marginalisation.
Those who criticise Aoun say that keeping Kahwaji as commander of Lebanon’s armed forces is not only necessary domestically, given the difficult situation Lebanon is going through, but also internationally. Such views have been boosted by the recent visit of US Central Command Commander General Joseph Votel to Lebanon, his meeting with Kahwaji and his comments confirming the Lebanese Army as an important strategic partner with the United States, particularly in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).
“The Lebanese armed forces is a strong institution and America has been and will continue to be the army’s steadfast and foremost security partner,” Votel said.
The FPM, which is part of the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance, and unaffiliated Christian ministers boycotted a recent cabinet meeting to pressure embattled Prime Minister Tammam Salam. Some of Aoun’s aides, complaining about the so-called marginalisation of Lebanon’s Christian community, which Aoun sees himself the protector of, intimated that future cabinet meetings could be similarly disrupted.
This Aounist escalation coincides with an escalation in the rhetoric from the rival March 14 alliance’s Future Movement against Hezbollah. Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, a member of the Future Movement, accused Hezbollah of being responsible for Lebanon’s presidential vacancy, saying this created a dangerous constitutional vacuum. He condemned Hezbollah’s military adventures in Syria at a time when Lebanon is dealing with a political crisis.
Machnouk began his term in office with seeming openness towards Hezbollah, calling for dialogue between his Future Movement and the group. When Future Movement leader Saad Hariri was in self-imposed exile, many believed Machnouk was trying to promote himself as a future consensus prime minister. Hariri’s return, however, dispelled such hopes.
Hariri surprised everybody by nominating Marada Movement leader and Hezbollah ally Suleiman Frangieh for president in December 2015. The former prime minister said he viewed Frangieh as the figure most capable of breaking the deadlock surrounding the presidency.
However, Hezbollah rejected Hariri’s initiative, saying that it preferred Aoun as president, with Hariri’s allies believing this was due to regional, not domestic, considerations. They claimed that Iran, which is backing Hezbollah, prefers the presidential crisis to continue, viewing this as one of a number of regional issues it would prefer to link together to strengthen its negotiating position, thus explaining its continuing support for Aoun.
Lebanese commentators agree that the FPM’s rhetoric about the rights of the Christians, along with the escalation in the Future Movement’s opposition to Hezbollah, is a smokescreen meant for domestic consumption and ultimately will not affect the Beirut’s political paralysis.
The international community is committed to ensuring a relative level of stability in Lebanon and ensuring that the country does not slide into open conflict. So the Aounist escalation, threatening Christian protests and civil disobedience, could be explained as an attempt to prompt the international community to take a more active role in Lebanon and resolve the crisis.
The recent regional developments over Syria, where Hezbollah is fighting alongside Syrian government troops, could lead to a political settlement of the civil war. Turkey’s direct military intervention in Syria, alongside rapprochement with Russia and signs of rapprochement with Tehran, has changed the regional dynamic and could also affect Lebanon’s domestic political situation. Lebanon is preparing for new developments triggered by a new regional situation.