(By Tony Badran)
The resignation of Hizbullah and its allies from the Lebanese government was, in many ways, foreseeable. Hizbullah and Prime Minister Saad Hariri''s respective positions on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) were clearly irreconcilable. That is why the hype behind the so-called Syrian-Saudi “initiative” that would ostensibly hammer out a compromise was always unrealistic, if not surreal. Hizbullah is now likely to ratchet up pressure on Hariri to force him and his regional allies to capitulate. Meanwhile, Syria will try to opportunistically take advantage of Hizbullah''s escalation to bring the Saudis and other suitors back to its doorstep.The resignation has forced the collapse of Hariri''s government. A day before quitting, Hizbullah and its allies gave Hariri an ultimatum to either convene the cabinet and take a stand on the STL, ending all association with the legal body, or the government falls. The decision came following the announcement by Hizbullah''s ally, Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun, that the Syrian-Saudi talks had reached a dead end. Aoun disclosed in a press conference that there had been a call between the Saudis and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, after which Assad informed Hizbullah and its allies that the conversation had ended without any results. Naturally, Aoun and the Syrians blamed the impasse on Hariri and his supposed yielding to US demands.
The notion that a compromise with Damascus on an issue as critical as the STL was possible – especially when Iran and Hizbullah had staked out a maximalist position on it – was silly. It was simply absurd to think that the Syrians were going to go against their fundamental interests, or to pursue (leaving aside their actual ability to enforce) a policy at odds with their main regional allies, who control the ground in Lebanon.
By taking this step, Hizbullah has signaled intent to continue escalating in the hope of getting Hariri and his regional and international supporters to finally cave in. However, the Party of God has boxed itself in somewhat. If the extent of the escalation remains confined to such political moves, the March 14 camp will likely manage to absorb them. As Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea put it yesterday, it''s not as though anyone misses this cabinet, which Hizbullah had paralyzed for months anyway.
Therefore, Hizbullah would like to keep everyone convinced that things could get violent, much like 2008, when the Shia militia turned its guns against its domestic adversaries. At a time when everyone has expressed concern that things may deteriorate to that extent, it is in Hizbullah''s interest to exploit that fear even if it may not necessarily prefer matters coming to that.
As such, Hizbullah may push for some form of street action, perhaps under the cover of workers'' unions. Given the tensions on the ground, that type of action could lead to skirmishes. This becomes a game of chicken, to see how much it would take before concerned actors opt to intervene in order to keep the violence at bay. Geagea has already anticipated this and declared that a replay of the Doha Accord – the agreement that followed Hizbullah''s armed takeover of Beirut in 2008 – was out of the question. Geagea also stated his belief that unlike in 2008, this time the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) will maintain order and security. That remains to be seen, and the performance of the LAF and the security forces will be closely watched, especially in Washington.
Of course, none of these maneuvers necessarily affects the work of the STL. Moreover, Hizbullah had hoped to use the threat of chaos to get Hariri to disown the tribunal before the indictments were issued, and failed. An approach of gradual escalation could drag out for too long, without achieving the desired outcome. Once the indictments are released, it becomes even more difficult politically for Hariri to trash the tribunal. Therefore, the reluctance to openly endorse street action at this point may be indicative.
Meanwhile, Syria will try to use this situation and the threat of instability to bring the Saudis and French back to the bargaining table. Already the contacts with Saudi Arabia were said to be concerned with preventing a slide to violence in Lebanon. Similarly, the French are reportedly “relying” on the Syrians to play such a role. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has already called his Syrian counterpart, and is said to be in favor of a broad conference on Lebanon that would include Syria.
This is where the US has to step up and take the lead. With rumors now circulating of a French-Qatari initiative – with a potential role for the Turks – to substitute the supposed Syrian-Saudi one, the Obama administration would do well to keep these ever-increasing cooks out of the Lebanese kitchen, especially when they are either unreliable or too close to Damascus for comfort.
Washington would also be advised to reject Sarkozy''s awful idea of a broad conference involving Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has done well to exclude Syria from the list of countries she announced the US was consulting with over the Lebanese situation. It has to be made clear, to Assad as well as to allies like France and Saudi Arabia, that Syria''s attempts to manipulate the crisis in order to re-impose itself in Lebanon will not be countenanced under any pretext, just as any shady “deal” over the STL in the name of “conflict resolution” or “compromise” should not be entertained.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article was first published on NOW Lebanon.