The Economist Intelligence Unit ViewsWire/nOVEMBER 14, 2006
Confrontation between rival political groups seems increasingly likely
The Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, has called the bluff of his political opponents by mustering his resignation-depleted cabinet to approve a UN draft statute for the establishment of an international tribunal to try those accused of involvement in the February 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri. The decision takes Lebanon one step closer to an open confrontation between rival blocs, broadly defined by sect and external association. Mr Siniora has UN legitimacy, the US, Europe and a solid parliamentary majority behind him; his opponents' assets include the populist appeal of Hizbullah and of Michel Aoun (a former general, who won a sizeable chunk of the Christian vote in last year's election), and the political and military support of Syria and Iran. The speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, who is also the leader of Amal, has indicated that he has not given up hope of a political compromise, but there appears to be little room left for manoeuvre.
The defection of the five ministers from the Shia bloc of Hizbullah and Amal, plus that of one minister loyal to the president, Emile Lahoud, was not enough to deprive Mr Siniora of the two-thirds majority he needed to pass the motion on the tribunal. These moves followed a series of national dialogue meetings at which Hizbullah, Amal and Mr Aoun had pressed for agreement on a government of national unity in which the opposition would hold the one-third of seats necessary for them to exercise a veto. The meetings finally broke down, with Hizbullah and Amal claiming that Mr Siniora had set impossible preconditions, while Saad al-Hariri, the head of the March 14th bloc that holds the parliamentary majority, said that the demand for a one-third stake in the government was a ploy to block the international tribunal at Syria's behest. (Mr Hariri did not mention Syria by name, but his meaning was clear in the phrase "a well-known murderous regime".)
Mohammed Raad, leading the Hizbullah delegation at the talks, acknowledged that the international tribunal was an important issue, but he insisted that it was not the fundamental one facing Lebanon. More important, in Hizbullah's estimation, is the danger of Lebanon falling under US and Israeli hegemony. Another prominent Lebanese political figure, the solidly pro-Syrian former interior minister, Suleiman Franjieh, went further, claiming that the international tribunal would open the way for Lebanon to be used a springboard for achieving regime-change in neighbouring states, with its airfields likely to be used as bases for NATO air strikes.
In the run-up to the national dialogue, Hizbullah's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, had suggested that if persuasion were to fail he would consider calling for mass demonstrations to press the demand for fair representation in the government. Both Mr Berri and Mr Aoun have expressed reservations about taking such a step, but it could well come back on the agenda now that Mr Siniora has forced through the decision on the tribunal
Adding to the sense of foreboding was the release of a statement in the name of al-Qaida in Lebanon from a base in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, close to Lebanon's northern border with Syria. The group vowed to destroy the "corrupt government, which takes its orders from the US administration". Lebanese officials have been quoted as saying that the threat is credible in light of information pointing to the infiltration of large numbers of Islamist militants into the north of the country from Syria.
Despite these indications that Syria is mobilising its political and military allies with the apparent aim of subverting the operation of the Hariri tribunal, there have recently been signals from some Western governments that the time has come to recognise that Syria has a potentially positive contribution to make to regional stability. Following a visit to Damascus by Sir Nigel Sheinwald, a senior foreign policy adviser to the UK prime minister, Tony Blair, British officials suggested that some elements in the Syrian regime, presumably including the president, Bashar al-Assad, were anxious to improve relations with the West and move out of Iran's orbit. In light of this initiative and the ongoing deliberations of the Iraq Study Group, some kind of trade-off seems to be envisaged, with Syria being rewarded for co-operation with the West in Iraq by being included in a new initiative to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Another incentive for Syrian's co-operation could be to revive the EU Association Agreement, a trade and aid package that was initialled in 2004, but which remains frozen.
However, such an approach is hard to reconcile with any serious effort to allow the Hariri tribunal to accomplish its task, given the strong likelihood that some of the most powerful figures in the Syria regime, possibly including Mr Assad himself, would be called to appear before this court. This seems to have been recognised by the Bush administration, based on the recent White House statement referring to the threat of an Iranian- and Syrian-inspired coup in Lebanon and on the depiction by Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, of Syria as a "dangerous state acting in a dangerous manner". And yet, if Syria were to prove its capacity to be useful to the US in Iraq it would come as no surprise to see the strength of Western support for the Siniora government fade.