Lebanese politics feels like it’s on a knife-edge, with the formation of a cabinet that strongly favours Hezbollah occurring just as four of that organisation’s members are found guilty by an international tribunal of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri’s assasination. Alongside this, a variety of fractured internal groups split along religious and ethnic lines, combined with the interference of strong outside forces, add to the country’s volatile mix.
MENA Fund Review talks to Reva Bhalla, director of analysis at global intelligence agency Stratfor, about the potential for unrest as a result of this cocktail of competing interests
FOLLOWING five months of political impasse Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati finally formed a 30-member cabinet in June.
It was a move cheered by a section of the population, viewed with suspicion by some, and met with fear and anger by others.
Although Mikati vowed to serve the needs of all the Lebanese people “without discrimination,” the make up of the cabinet is decidedly tilted towards the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition, and has already sparked protest.
Its creation comes off the back of Hezbollah’s political maneuvering that toppled Lebanon’s unity government in February, when the Syrian-backed organization, along with its allies, quit the cabinet after the former Western-backed prime minister Saad Hariri refused to convene ministers to discuss how to deal with the naming of suspects in the killing of his father
The background to this was the assassination of Saad Hariri’s father Rafiq Hariri in 2005, when a 1,700kg truck bomb killed him and 23 other people outside the St George’s Hotel and Yacht Club on Beirut’s seafront road, the Corniche.
Last year tension across Lebanon rose dramatically as an international tribunal into the killing began to near a conclusion, with members of Hezbollah expected to be named.
At that time, Sheikh Naim Qassem, the Shiite militant group’s second-in-command, warned any charges against Hezbollah members would be “equivalent to lighting the fuse, to igniting the wick for an explosion.”
The recent cabinet announcement was met with mixed reactions in Lebanon, a country split along numerous ethnic, political and religious lines.
Accusing Mikati of discriminating against the Druze community and other minority groups, Arslan, a member of the March 8 coalition, tendered his resignation from the new cabinet. According to reports, the highway leading to the southern village of Khalde, Arslan’s stronghold, was blocked by his supporters who also fired rounds into the air in protest.
By contrast, the appointment of Faisal Karami, former prime minister Omar Karami’s son, as one of the new Sunni ministers in Mikati’s cabinet, was greeted with celebratory gunfire in his hometown of Tripoli.
The new cabinet greatly favours members of the Syria-backed March 8 coalition and sidelines members of the Saudi-backed March 14 alliance. Hezbollah and its allies have eighteen seats of the total thirty.
Former prime minister Saad al-Hariri’s March 14 alliance refused to join the cabinet, which given its composition, is likely to look for ways to thwart the search for justice for his father’s death.
It is a complicated situation, set against an even more complex history, and with a variety of intertwined players behind the scenes pulling strings and making deals.
“The first rule to understanding anything about internal Lebanese politics is to walk away with the assumption that the Lebanese government itself doesn’t really have direct authority over most of the affairs of the state,” according to Reva Bhalla, director of analysis at global intelligence agency Stratfor.
“So any Lebanese political machination is usually a product of external forces and that’s really just a function of the country itself. The fractures – ethnic, sectarian and political – in the country, they run so deep, and I think this cabinet is certainly representative of that.”
Essentially, Lebanon’s political scene is a battle between two factions – the Hezbollah led and Syria-backed March 8 coalition and the Saudi-backed March 14 group, led by the former prime minister Saad Hariri. Within this there are various religious or ethnic factions such as Shia, Sunni, Druze and Maronite, aligning themselves with a particular side for their own reasons.
“You’re constantly having different interests pulling at each other,” says Bhalla.
Hezbollah’s main aim at present is to deal with the ramifications of the international inquiry into Rafiq Hariri’s assassination and strengthen itself while it holds a powerful hand in the government.
“Internally Hezbollah wants to make sure it has enough clout in the government to insulate itself, so when it comes to things like the special tribunal and the Hariri indictments and things like that they have enough of their loyalists in place to deflect any meaningful action against them, and so far I think they’ve done a pretty efficient job,” according to Bhalla.
Essentially, Hezbollah, with Syrian backing, killed Rafiq Hariri, and got away with it, she says. And they have since successfully managed to reduce the special tribunal into his killing to political theatre, with forces outside Lebanon playing it as a pressure tactic within the country.
“Internally in Lebanon of course the feeling of vengeance is very legitimate,” she says. “But in terms of fundamentally altering the political landscape in Lebanon I don’t think the tribunal has that much effect. I don’t think anybody wants to rock the boat too much in pushing these indictments against Hezbollah or Syria, and you can see that even in the Saudis restraint and others restraint in pushing the special tribunal issue.”
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon issued indictments for four members of Hezbollah at the beginning of July, a move which was immediately played down by interior minister Marwan Charbel who said it was, “just an indictment, and not a final verdict.”
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah’s resonse was less reserved: he threatened to “cut off the hand” of anyone who tried to arrest one of the organisation’s members.
Saad Hariri, by contrast, called the indictments a “historic moment” for Lebanon.
These reactions leave many waiting to see what the next step will be, according to Bhalla.
“Will anything meaningful take place against these people, I doubt it,” she says. “Hezbollah has been pretty good about deflecting any sort of punishment and the Syrians have certainly helped in that regard.
“I think Hezbollah has been worried every time that Syria has started to bargain with outside powers. Other powers are trying to get Syria to constrict Hezbollah’s actions and there could be some sacrificial lambs in Hezbollah that Syria could look at, so I think Hezbollah is also always wary of Syrian intentions as well.”
Whatever the final outcome, it is unlikely to fundamentally undermine Hezbollah as an organisation. The only real question, according to Bhalla, is does Hezbollah see the indictment as serious enough to take destabilising action, as they have done before? The last time the Lebanese government tried to take action against Hezbollah’s communications network, in 2008, they launched a defacto coup and laid siege on Beirut.
Any such action is a serious fear for Lebanon, as Hezbollah’s power far outweighs that of the military. If Hezbollah feels threatened it could resort to its previous tactic of car bombing opponents.
“Literally in the summer following the Hariri assassination you had a whole string of car bombings,” says Bhalla. “If you looked at it closely you could see the anti-Syrian factions being winnowed down one by one through these assassinations. Sadly that’s how Lebanese politics works. The potential for violence is always high. It is still very much a product of outside forces and although Syria is extremely distracted right now I don’t think there is any question that its authority in Lebanon is still very strong.”
While the tribunal brings with it the potential for unrest, outright violence is something Hezbollah would prefer to avoid. It is concentrated on maintaining cohesion as an organisation and making money. In addition, its patron, Syria, is embroiled in maintaining stability at home.
The Syrian regime is unlikely to topple, according to Stratfor’s assessment of the situation there, but it is concentrated on more immediate issues than Lebanon, as well as subduing the interests of outside powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which have a long-term objective of restoring Syria to Sunni Muslim power.
This long-term objective is both beneficial and threatening for Syria and in turn for Hezbollah. It enables the Syrian regime to receive support from both Saudi Arabia and Iran, which could be particularly needed if unrest at home persists. However, it could also be a dangerous game in the long-term.
“I don’t see this playing out in the short-term as Hezbollah still has a lot of clout. They are a very organised force in Lebanon, the military doesn’t dare to confront them, and they have plenty of their own agents in the security apparatus so they still have plenty of insulation for now,” according to Bhalla.
Similarly, the potential for conflict between Hezbollah and Israel looks unlikely in the short-term given the outside forces affecting Syria and Hezbollah’s desire to consolidate its position of political strength. “The potential is always there but I think Hezbollah is not interested in starting a conflict with Israel,” says Bhalla.
“At this point in time I think Israel as well wants to see Hezbollah contained. They are much happier allowing the Saudis to try to pressure Syria to come back into the Arab fold and distance itself from Iran.”
Hezbollah’s primary objective right now is insulation, according to Stratfor’s observations. According to the organisation, outside forces, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are increasing their influence in the Levant region. The stronger these forces become the more capability they will have of undermining Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon, and in turn undermining Syria and Iran.
“Hezbollah has learned, with the help of Syrian and Iranian intelligence over the years, how to ensure that they are in all the right places to make sure that when and if things get particularly intense down the line they, at least within the Lebanese structure, are not going to be severely threatened,” says Bhalla.
Stratfor does not expect any major fluctuations in the Lebanese situation in the next six months while Hezbollah looks ahead and plans for the future
“You’re certainly going to see friction, you’re going to see shifting alliances, and that is a very regular occurrence in Lebanon. It would be surprising if you didn’t see that. But I think Syria is going to be able to maintain its influence in Lebanon for the foreseeable future and as Syria tries to recover its bandwidth at home it is going to try to show its neighbours that it still retains that ability in Lebanon so it is probably going to use its proxies there to assert its influence,” she adds.
While Saudi Arabia has begun to play a more major role in the Levant region and has made attempts to win over Syria, it is overburdened dealing with events in other parts of the region at present and realises the limitations of any negotiations with Syria.
According to Bhalla: “While the Saudis will certainly back their allies like Hariri and their Sunni allies, and make sure that they can maintain their strength as a counterbalance against Iranian influence and their proxies like Hezbollah, I still see it as very much a holding pattern. Lebanon isn’t going to swing dramatically one way or another.”