Breakdown in Lebanon: A New Round of Brinkmanship

Lebanon is an eternal exception to the maxim that all politics is local. With so many foreign powers meddling in the country’s perennially sectarian struggle for control, Lebanon functions as a kind of political barometer of the Middle East. And that’s why the news Thursday, Sept. 10, that Prime Minister–designate Saad Hariri had given up trying to form a consensus government three months after his ruling coalition won the country’s parliamentary elections is a sign of a more general unease in the region: Lebanon’s political crisis — and the broader Middle East cold war of which it is an expression — is far from over.

The election victory in June by Hariri’s U.S.- and Saudi-backed alliance seemed to promise the closing of a three-year chapter of war and political upheaval. Ever since it fought a 33-day war with Israel in the summer of 2006, the Shi’ite Hizballah movement has challenged the legitimacy of the Lebanese government, accusing it of secretly trying to disarm the anti-Israeli “resistance.” For its part, the ruling coalition has accused the Hizballah-led opposition of attempting a coup d’état at the behest of Iran and Syria. After Hizballah prevailed decisively in a brief armed confrontation in the streets of Beirut in the spring of 2008, the two sides agreed to settle matters at the polls. And when Hariri’s coalition won a slim majority and offered to share power with its opponents in a national-unity government, most of Lebanon — including many supporters of the losing side — breathed a sigh of relief. Tourists flocked back to make 2009 the country’s best-ever summer season.

But the unity government never materialized. The two sides agreed on a formula for dividing Cabinet seats — 15 for the majority, 10 for the minority and 5 to be appointed by President Michel Suleiman (widely considered to be neutral) — that would give the opposition a stake in major decisions but not the veto power it had demanded during the crisis. But when the Cabinet was submitted to the President for approval, the opposition balked. Reports in Lebanon suggest the reason for the breakdown is that Michel Aoun, the leader of a Christian party allied with Hizballah, is unhappy that his son-in-law wasn’t reappointed to the Telecommunications Ministry.

Given the petty nature of the dispute, it’s tempting to see the breakdown as a result of a regional game of brinkmanship. Syria has been slowly working its way back into the good graces of the international community after having faced widespread condemnation over accusations that it planned the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, father of the Prime Minister–designate. As the Obama Administration has reached out, Syria has made progress on some of the outstanding points of contention between the two countries. It has for the first time officially recognized Lebanese sovereignty, by opening a Syrian embassy in Beirut. (Damascus has traditionally viewed Lebanon as a Syrian province turned into a separate country by European colonial powers.) And it has made some effort to stem the flow of militants across the Syrian border into Iraq. Still, Syria appears wary of giving away too much and is especially wary of U.S. demands that it give up its strategic alliances with Iran, Hizballah and Hamas. Syria’s fears that breaking from its allies in search of a separate peace deal will cost it leverage needed to achieve its primary goals of recovering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and reintegrating into the international community. An ongoing Lebanese political crisis is certainly a reminder of Syria’s ability to help — or hinder — the achievement of U.S. goals in the region.

Hariri’s resignation, in fact, may be an attempt to call that bluff by demonstrating that he and his backers in Washington and Riyadh can play the confrontation game too. He is almost certainly going to be renominated as Prime Minster by President Suleiman, and his supporters are warning that Hizballah can forget about a unity government. That could return the Lebanese political deadlock to the dangerous days of 2006 and 2007, when the threat of violence loomed large.

Neither side is likely to go all the way in this game of chicken, however. Not only are the Lebanese people sick of internecine warfare, but engagement remains the order of the day — at least officially — in the Middle East, and no party in the region seems inclined to return to the confrontational politics of the Bush era.

The possibilities for diplomacy are not yet exhausted, but time is short. Tensions are also rising in the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, with Israel threatening military action against the Islamic Republic if it continues to defy Western demands. Should the regional confrontation escalate, there’s little chance that Lebanon’s squabbling politicians will avoid being sucked in.

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