Tag Archives: Michel Suleiman

National Dialogue and Hizbollah’s Weapons

by Sune Haugbolle.

Here is my take on the National Dialogue discussions that began today in Beirut.

The National Dialogue was launched in 2006, prior to Israel’s July-August 2006 war against Lebanon, as an ambitious attempt to tackle the fundamental differences between the country’s ‘March 8′ and ‘March 14′ coalitions. The last round was held in June 2009, ahead of parliamentary elections. Today’s resumption of talks signals a thaw in internal relations that was highlighted by Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s state visit to Damascus in December 2009. Yet it also reflects rising tensions in the region.

The topic that will overshadow all others is a new defence strategy, and (although Hizbollah won’t like it to be mentioned) the role of Hizbollah’s weapons. The weapons topic has been shelved since the government recognised the group’s right to resistance against Israel in December. A revival of the discussion was inevitable, given its highly controversial nature.

President Michel Suleiman’s call to resume dialogue followed a February 28 report by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 summer war with Israel. In the report, Ban urged Suleiman to push Lebanon’s parties towards consensus on a defence strategy.

Suleiman’s decision to hold meetings may also have been the result of US pressure.

Israeli threats

National Dialogue discussions coincide with heightened tensions caused by an exchange of threats between Israel on the one hand and Hizbollah, Syria and Iran on the other. The tensions have put renewed international spotlight on Hizbollah’s weapons.

The Shia party is believed to have increased its arsenal of rockets from 15,000 before the 2006 war to 40,000 today, some of which may be able to reach Tel Aviv. During a February 16 speech, Hizbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah offered a new vision of strategic parity with Israel — an uneasy ‘balance of terror’ — stressing Hizbollah’s ability to strike Israel’s interior.

Nasrallah’s decision to raise the stakes has provoked fears that Israel will feel forced into pre-emptive action against Lebanon, even if no conflict breaks out over Iran.

Israeli leaders have vowed to fight ‘all’ of Lebanon in the event of an outbreak of conflict (as opposed to targeting Hizbollah alone), as a result of the movement’s participation in government.

Nasrallah in Damascus

Nasrallah answered Israeli threats by closing ranks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad when they met last month in Damascus . The meeting conveyed two main messages:

First, that Washington has failed to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, and is unlikely to see more success in the near future. This was highlighted by the timing of the meeting, which occurred immediately after the US decision to reopen its embassy in Damascus, illustrating Syria’s newfound confidence and willing defiance.

And second that, in the event of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, Iran’s primary answer will be through Hizbollah and will therefore involve Lebanon.

Suleiman’s dilemma

Nasrallah’s conduct in Damascus as a ‘pseudo’ Lebanese minister of foreign affairs has drawn strong criticism from many March 14 leaders, who reiterate the sovereign right of Lebanon’s government to decide over matters of war and peace. This puts President Suleiman in a difficult situation at the National Dialogue meetings.

He will be determined to ensure national unity, having from the beginning of his tenure tried to position himself centrally. The dialogue meetings could be a means to calm tensions and avert conflict, but only if Suleiman is seen as a neutral arbiter. He must thus avoid siding too openly with March 14 against Hizbollah.

He will also need to respond to international pressure on the weapons issue. He will hope that the National Dialogue gives the impression that the Lebanese state — and not Hizbollah — still makes decisions on war and peace.

Finally, he must decide on the extent of Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) cooperation with UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon. The two sides have recently performed joint manoeuvres on Mount Hermon, ostensibly designed to stem the flow of arms to Hizbollah. More extensive LAF cooperation with the UN could force a verbal confrontation with Nasrallah.

Outcomes

One should not expect too much from this week’s session. In reality, all parties know that, as Hizbollah demonstrated in the May 2008 fighting, its hand cannot be forced by any Lebanese party. It is also clear that no consensus can be reached in the current heated situation; and that the meeting is primarily a result of Suleiman needing to demonstrate to the West that he is doing something.

Therefore, the meetings are largely symbolic, though the stakes are high. If things go badly, the discussions could underscore the gulf between March 8 and March 14, reversing the tide of their improved relationship under the Hariri government. In any case, March 14 and others will treasure having a platform to express their deep concerns over the prospects a new war with Israel, which may in the end restrain Hizbollah. In the best case scenario, provide the platform for real negotiations in the future about a defence strategy formula that integrates Hizbollah’s weapons into the LAF.

War drums

Despite the fact that Hizbollah will not disarm and Israel increasingly sees the group as an existential threat, a regional war involving Hizbollah is unlikely in the coming months.

Having learned the lesson from the 2006 war, the group will not get easily drawn into a new conflict and will resist minor Israeli ‘provocations’, let alone staging military operations against Israel. In order to maintain national and international legitimacy, it is necessary for Hizbollah to fight a defensive war, if anything at all.

On the Israeli side, despite the usual gung-ho rhetoric, the leadership cannot politically justify an unprovoked attack on Hizbollah. It may seek an excuse, thus provoking Hizbollah into small clashes, but the latter is aware of this and will seek not to respond. The Israeli leadership will heed US warnings and refrain from attacking Iran before more diplomatic efforts have been exerted. If it does strike, it will do so no earlier than the autumn.

In the longer term, a clash is more likely — whether it arises from an Israeli strike on Iran, or some other action. Hizbollah will wait until a war fits its strategic thinking, since the need to maintain domestic legitimacy at present tops its strategic agenda. Nevertheless, these priorities are not set in stone; strategy may change should there be a shift in the balance of power within the group.

In conclusion, Suleiman faces a hard task containing the March 14 coalition’s deep reservations about Hizbollah’s weapons. If he succeeds, the National Dialogue meetings could strengthen the government. If not, Lebanon will once again appear divided, risking the stability of the fragile unity government, and increasing the chance of outside powers taking advantage of domestic divisions, as they routinely do in times of conflict in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s government deadlock explained

 by Sune Haugbolle.

My last piece on Jumblatt’s defection from March 14 somewhat optimistically predicted a short delay in the government formation process. Since then things have gone really sour again. Here is an analysis of the obstacles and their implications.

Since the June parliamentary elections, the March 14 coalition has failed to use its victory to dictate the terms of a new government. The negotiations have faltered on March 8’s demand for a blocking third of cabinet posts. More deep-seated disagreements over Hizbollah’s weapons and Lebanon’s regional alliances add to the complications.

In July, the two camps appeared to have agreed on a compromise solution granting 15 posts to March 14 (short of a majority) and ten to March 8 (short of veto power), with President Michel Suleiman choosing five and thus having a decisive say. However, in recent weeks disagreement over the exact allocation of ministries has taken the process back to the start, and raised the tone of personal bickering and media slander to its shrillest level since 2008.

Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun has been at the centre of the latest crisis in government formation. On August 16, Aoun demanded that his Reform and Change bloc be allotted the Interior Ministry and that his son-in-law, caretaker minister Gebran Bassil, keep the Telecommunications Ministry for another term.

This uncompromising stance has prompted March 14 to criticise Hizbollah’s inability or unwillingness to mediate. Saad al-Hariri has made it clear that he is unlikely to accept Aoun’s conditions, which means that for now negotiations are deadlocked. Unless there is truth to al-Akhbar’s story from yesterday about a Saudi-Syrian push to kickstart talks, the most likely scenario now seems to be that the deliberations over a new cabinet will be postponed until after the end of Ramadan in late September.

As ever, domestic political wrangling in Lebanon reflects regional power struggles. Courtesy of US rapprochement, Syria has moved decisively out of the cold, and returned to its favoured position as the necessary diplomatic bridge between Iran and the West. Damascus’ relations with Saudi Arabia have yet to improve, as a scheduled meeting between King Abdallah and President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in late July was cancelled. Syria’s relations with Egypt, another key ally of Hariri, have been deep-frozen because of Egyptian allegations that Hizbollah members have been spying and plotting bomb attacks in Egypt. The first trial took place in Cairo yesterday, and the fallout is surely more bad blood between Egypt and Hizbollah.   

On the other front, Assad has moved to shore up relations with embattled Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad during a state visit on August 19. Here, Assad emphasised the necessity of resolute defence against Western influence in the region.

Syria’s strengthened position indirectly provoked the latest breakdown in government negotiations, when Druze leader Walid Jumblatt declared on August 2 that he would leave March 14. As I argued in my earlier piece, his aim was to hedge against Syria’s rising influence, and his defection has been widely seen as a victory for Damascus.

This is because Jumblatt, who is known for his ever-changing allegiances, has, since 2005, formed one-third of a strong coalition of Christian, Sunni and Druze opposition to Syrian influence in Lebanon, which has dominated Lebanese politics. Although it does not sound the death knell for March 14, Jumblatt’s defection still marks a tide change in Lebanese politics and opens up opportunities for new alliances in the coming months:

First, although Jumblatt has hardly embraced the Syrians, they are in a much stronger position in Lebanon. Hariri, now left with distinctly anti-Syrian Christian allies Amin Gemayel and Samir Geagea, may feel compelled to move towards a more conciliatory position, lest he alienate his Sunni constituency.

Second, while taking no concrete action, Jumblatt has spoken with members of both March 8 and March 14, and is locating himself in a central position between the two without joining either. He has signalled that he will be associating himself with Suleiman, adding to the possibility of a strong conciliatory bloc emerging — which would mediate between the two existing groups — and may also include Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri.

If such a strong third bloc does materialise, Aoun may also be tempted to reconsider his alliance with Hizbollah, which has not landed him the presidency or gained him much actual influence.

The biggest decisions to be taken are surely Saad Hariri’s. As prime minister-designate, and with Suleiman preferring a neutral role, the onus is squarely on Hariri to form a government, but he is left with some hard choices following Jumblatt’s defection. He has several options:

He could of course accommodate Aoun’s demands, which would make him look defeated by Aoun and Hizbollah, but would leave March 8 with no legitimate reasons to oppose a quick government formation.

Alternatively, he could carry through a planned visit to Damascus, which has been postponed. Effectively this would mean giving up his resistance to Syrian influence on the government formation process, particularly as the Syrians have signalled that they want Hariri to visit Damascus before the cabinet is finalised.

Finally, he could continue to oppose Syrian pressure. By not going to Damascus so far, Hariri has been signalling that he intends to resist the Syrian endeavour to re-impose some sort of hegemony over Lebanon. US discouragement of such a visit and Hariri’s reluctance to do business with a regime he believes to be responsible for his father’s assassination are also playing a part. As Michael Young suggested recently, they may have also contributed to the cancellation of the scheduled meeting in Damascus between Abdallah and Assad.

In conclusion, although March 14 would like to see a new government formed, Hariri appears ready to hold out for regional events which would tip the balance in his favour. This could either be US President Barack Obama’s expected Middle East peace initiative next month. While Obama’s peace plan might deflect attention from Lebanon, it could also prompt Syria to work with Saudi Arabia over Palestinian reconciliation and accept a new Lebanese government in return for inclusion in the peace process.  

Alternatively, Hariri could be waiting for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to issue an indictment naming Hizbollah as a participant in the assassination of Hariri’s father, as predicted by the German magazine, Der Spiegel, earlier this year. This would leave Syria weakened and more eager to reach an agreement.

Whatever he does, Hariri holds the keys to further progress. If he chooses to accommodate Aoun’s demand for a key ministry, he may be able to form a new government and hence avoid the more serious choice between openly accepting or rejecting Syrian hegemony. If not, deadlock could well continue at least until the end of Ramadan.