Across the Bay

Friday, September 21, 2007

Showdown in Lebanon

Michael Young has an excellent piece in today's WSJ on the Lebanese presidential elections and the Ghanem assassination. Michael outlines what's at stake:

The outcome will also help determine whether Syria can win an important round in a regional struggle pitting its alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas against a loose coalition of forces including the United States, the mainstream Sunni Arab regimes, and European states. Amid heightening polarization throughout the Middle East, a Syrian victory in Lebanon could also exacerbate simmering tensions elsewhere.

In fact, the election might conceivably not take place at all. Mr. Assad realizes that any successor to Mr. Lahoud who seeks to consolidate Lebanon's sovereignty would be a barrier to the revival of Syrian supremacy. Damascus's Lebanese allies, most significantly Hezbollah, agree.

Hezbollah, which presides over a semi-autonomous territory with a private army of its own, knows that only renewed Syrian sway over Lebanon would allow it to continue its struggle against Israel and the U.S. Iran backs Syria, both to keep alive Tehran's deterrence capability against Israel (thanks to the thousands of rockets it has supplied Hezbollah in south Lebanon), and because Syria is a vital partner in allowing Iran to expand its reach across the Middle East.
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This election is not just about a president; it is also, for many of those involved, about existential issues. Hezbollah, a revolutionary, military party that feeds off conflict (or "resistance") to survive, has no place in a liberated, liberal, cosmopolitan country at peace with the world. Similarly, Syria's most prominent enemies -- the Sunni leader Saad Hariri, the Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt and the Christian Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea -- all risk political and even physical elimination if Syria triumphs. Damascus, if it cannot impose its man or a cipher whose flimsiness would allow Syria to gain ground, will encourage its allies to create a political vacuum as leverage to subsequently push a favorite into office.

Syria is also waging an existential fight. The tribunal to convict those responsible for the assassination of Hariri has been approved under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, and several weeks ago the Dutch government agreed to locate the court in the Netherlands (the exact location as yet undecided). For Mr. Assad, whose regime is a prime suspect in the Hariri murder, the signs are ominous. By again bringing Lebanon under his authority, the Syrian president doubtless feels he can hamper the court's proceedings, perhaps until more favorable circumstances allow him to negotiate a deal similar to the one that got Libya's top leadership off the hook for the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, as well as that of a UTA French airliner in 1989.
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That is why Mr. Assad might, after all, be more interested in holding a presidential election now, so Syrian allies in Beirut can gum up the tribunal's machinery before it's too late. In this scenario, Damascus would want a weak consensus candidate who stands somewhere in the middle. However, the nub of Syria's strategy could be to ensure that its comrades in Beirut, in collaboration with the Christian politician Michel Aoun, gain veto power in the government that will be formed after the election. That veto power -- plus a limp president and Syria's control over parliamentary procedure through the pro-Syrian parliament speaker -- would give Damascus substantial influence in Beirut, including over administrative decisions relating to the tribunal and to the implementation of the U.N. resolutions to disarm Hezbollah and maintain tranquility in the southern border area.

If Syria does prefer a president to a vacuum, this vulnerability must be exploited in coming weeks by those who want Lebanon fully freed of Syrian domination. Mr. Assad will play hardball, but he faces some heat. An Israeli air raid against Syria earlier this month, though reported to be directed against some sort of nuclear facility, may conceivably have been interpreted by Syria as an effort to intimidate it before Lebanon's election. In recent weeks, moreover, Saudi-Syrian hostility has escalated to unheard-of levels. Both King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt are fearful of Syria's close ties with Iran. For these two countries, a hegemonic, Islamist, Shiite Iran threatens their regional power and their Sunni-led regimes. This Sunni-Shiite rivalry happens to be playing itself out in Lebanon, where the results could have serious consequences for the Saudis and Egyptians.

The U.S. also knows the hazards of the Lebanese presidential election, and the Bush administration will not sign off on a president it regards as pro-Syrian. The difficult situation in Iraq, like Saudi- Syrian tensions, will probably make the administration tougher in opposing candidates it doesn't like. However, the European states -- France, Spain and Italy -- making up the bulk of the U.N. force in South Lebanon, worry that a void in Beirut might harm their soldiers. All have made it amply clear to Syria that it must change its ways in Lebanon, but they remain vulnerable on the ground, amid suspicion that Syria played a role, direct or indirect, in an attack last June that killed six troops of the Spanish U.N. contingent.

All sides, even Syria, would like to avoid a Lebanese vacuum at the end of November when Mr. Lahoud's time will be up -- if they can achieve their goals. The danger is that in the quest for compromise we might be heading toward a lowest common denominator on the presidency, thus giving Syria and its allies precisely what they want: a weak, ineffective president followed by a decisive advantage in any new government. That would only aggravate the current polarization in the country. Lebanon has the startling potential of becoming either the Middle East's salvation, or its nightmare. What happens here will have serious repercussions for what happens in the region as a whole.

Addendum: Here's what Walid Jumblat said after the funeral of Antoine Ghanem today:

"Whatever the capacity of the Syrian regime and its allies for sabotage and criminality, we will not bow down. We will go democratically, peacefully to the election and we will say yes for a sovereign, free, independent Lebanon, just like when all the people of Lebanon stood on March 14, 2005. But we will not bow down. They had better not, those in Damascus or their allies in Lebanon, they had better not think we will bow down. They will not be able, even if they killed more MPs, to bend the will of a free and proud people to live and bring it to its knees. It's impossible for a people that wants to live in freedom to bow down."

Addendum 2: See also Walid Jumblat explain the dangers of a so-called "compromise president."