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What Really Just Happened in Lebanon? May 26, 2008

Posted by tkcollier in cool stuff.
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Michael Young’s columns: Something radically new after Doha
Reports of a breakthrough on the Syrian-Israeli track, the Iraqi Army’s entry into Sadr City, certainly with an Iranian green light, and signs that a truce may soon be agreed in Gaza, suggest a regional package deal may have oiled the Lebanese deal.

One thing that will not change, however, is the attitude of a majority of Lebanese when it comes to Hizbullah’s behavior. Party officials have recklessly downplayed their armed occupation of Beirut two weeks ago, but no one, least of all the Sunnis, will soon forget what happened. So even if genuine politics return, those of compromise and shifting calculations, the structural inability of Hizbullah to coexist with a sovereign Lebanese state will not disappear. This may push domestic parties to acquire weapons for when Hizbullah again uses bullets to overcome its political shortcomings.

If there was one message emerging from the recent fighting, it was that Syria could not conceivably return its army to Lebanon without reconquering the country. Hizbullah committed several mistakes, of which two were especially egregious for Syria: The Sunni community, like the Druze and many Christians, are mobilized and will fight any Syrian comeback; and the Lebanese file is more than ever an Iranian one, because Hizbullah’s destiny is at stake. Syria’s allies, other than Hizbullah, were ineffective in Beirut and the mountains, in some cases even siding with the majority. This confirmed that Damascus has less leverage than ever when it comes to employing those smaller armed groups it completely controls.

Can Hizbullah be pleased with the result? It will now be able to say that it received veto power in the government and that the matter of its weapons was not discussed in Doha. It will also be able to convince its supporters that this was its latest victory after the government’s decision to withdraw the two decisions last week that Hizbullah found offensive. But that may be only half the story. By so foolishly taking over Beirut militarily, the party only scared the other communities into sustained hostility. The two decisions the government went back on were decisions it could never have implemented anyway, so Hizbullah effectively revealed its coup plan at an inopportune time and for little gain. The party also has lost two cards: It has dismantled its downtown protest camp and won’t be able to close the airport road for some time. Its weapons have become a subject of legitimate national discussion. And what kind of war can Hizbullah hope to wage against Israel in South Lebanon when most Lebanese, and quite a few Shiites, have no desire for war? Most importantly, Hizbullah has been about the negation of the state. If the post-Doha process is about the building of a state, then the party and that state will eventually clash.

The election of a president, even if he is the troubling Michel Suleiman, opens a new phase in Lebanon, one in which it is possible to imagine consolidating a state gradually breaking free from Syria’s grip. That’s the priority today, and has been the priority since April 2005 when the Syrian Army withdrew from the country. Whether Suleiman likes it or not, from now on he is a president, not a candidate maneuvering to become a president, which will require him to take a strong position on defending the sovereignty of the state both vis-ˆ-vis Syria and Hizbullah. That could either push him closer to the position favored by March 14 and most Lebanese, or it could damage him if he proves to be indecisive.

Much will depend on Michel Suleiman. That the president will get only three ministers in a new Cabinet affirms he has serious credibility problems on all sides. Suleiman is an unknown quantity. Will he be a faithful partner of Syria, as when he was army commander? Or will he realize that he can be more than that? In many ways Suleiman is a peculiar creation as president, someone never destined to inherit the office. Now he has a chance to become the long-awaited patron of a new and consensual Lebanese political order. Let’s hope he’s up to it.

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