Realpolitik saves Lebanon, for now
Beirut - Realpolitik was a landmark shift in Lebanon’s politics at the end of 2016 — putting at rest more than a decade of acute political disputes during which prominent anti-Syria and anti-Iran/Hezbollah figures were assassinated.
After a 30-month presidential vacuum that almost brought the country to collapse, a new president was elected on October 31st, a new prime minister named shortly afterwards and a new cabinet formed in record time.
A so-called made-in-Lebanon settlement under which Sunni leader Saad Hariri agreed to endorse Michel Aoun — Hezbollah’s ally and a strong Christian leader — for the presidency had a domino effect. Hariri received enough backing and — most importantly — Hezbollah’s blessing to assume the post of prime minister, form a cabinet and win an overwhelming confidence vote in parliament.
All that happened in less than one month, a clear contrast to the fierce political rivalries that dominated Lebanon since the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, Saad’s father, and Syria’s abrupt withdrawal from Lebanon a few months later.
Normalising political life in the multi-confessional country and reviving state institutions was necessary to protect Lebanon from regional fires and keep Sunni-Shia animosity under check. However, what made the internally brokered settlement possible was major regional powers refraining from obstructing it.
“The regional factor was decisive. The Iranians, who have the upper hand in maintaining the existing balance inside Lebanon, benefit from such a settlement and have interests to see their (proxy) war with Saudi Arabia coming to an end,” said Michel Nawfal, an expert in Iranian affairs. “The Syrian regime has become so weak, depending on Russia and Iran for its survival, that it can no longer dictate policies or impose its conditions as it used to do in Lebanon.”
Saudi Arabia maintained a neutral stance until Hariri, its main Sunni ally in the country, returned to power.
As for Hezbollah, its main concern was to protect its back while fighting in Syria alongside the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The militant group reportedly received guarantees from Aoun that no one was to touch its huge arsenal, question its military involvement in Syria or block its movement through the Lebanese- Syria border up to Lebanon’s southern borders with Israel.
“A new phase has started in Lebanon,” Nawfal noted, adding, however, that the recent settlement was “a transitional one, an attempt to prevent the collapse of the country”.
The first test for the new cabinet will be to draft a new electoral law in time to have the long-overdue parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for May. They would be the first such general elections in eight years. Fears remain that the elections would be postponed if the major parties do not agree on a new law that would secure proportional and right representation.
The new government on January 4th approved two long-awaited and crucial decrees that specified conditions for oil and gas extraction off Lebanon’s coast. The move, which brings Lebanon closer to becoming an energy-producer, was delayed for more than two years because of political disputes and corruption.
It is yet to be seen whether Hariri’s government will be able to fight the widespread corruption at state institutions, as repeatedly promised by Aoun. Government corruption is costing the Lebanese treasury $3.3 million annually, said Nicolas Tueni, the first to assume the newly created post of minister of state for Combating Corruption.
With war raging in neighbouring Syria and the Islamic State (ISIS) and other radical groups losing ground there and in Iraq, the threat of terrorism remains high in Lebanon.
The army and various security services have dismantled dormant and active terrorist cells, arresting key terror figures and foiling numerous planned terrorist attacks targeting commercial malls, Casino du Liban and other key tourist and shopping areas.
The latest catch was an 11-member terror network linked to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — formerly the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front — which was instructed to blow up booby-trapped cars in Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut’s southern suburbs and kill civilians as well as current and former army officers.
“But it doesn’t mean that we are out of danger,” said a senior security source. “It is very likely that ISIS and other radical jihadists would try to sneak into Lebanon as they lose more territory in Syria and Iraq.”
The spillover from the Syria war will continue to affect Lebanon despite the battlefield successes of the Syrian regime and its Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies. Hezbollah is too engaged in the Syria battles to consider the withdrawal of its fighters from there or to provoke another battle with Israel on the southern Lebanese borders. However, a military operation initiated by Israel cannot be excluded whether in Lebanese or Syrian territories.
The election of Aoun has put Lebanon back on the political regional and international map but the country’s fate will be determined when regional settlements are achieved.