Lebanon: Back from the Brink?
The election of the new president comes as a relief to conflict-stricken Lebanon. Michel Suleiman's formal victory on Sunday followed six days of intense negotiations in Qatar, where rival Lebanese leaders reached a deal on May 21 to end eighteen months of political conflict that had led the country to the brink of civil war. As part of the agreement, the Lebanese governing coalition granted Hezbollah veto power over any cabinet decision and signed an accord endorsing Suleiman for president. In a conflict that many view as a proxy battle of Iran and Syria versus the United States and Saudi Arabia, many hope some progress has been made. At the Nixon Center on May 23, three experts weighed in on the significance of the Doha agreement and the future of Lebanon. The Nixon Center's director of Regional Strategic Programs, Geoffrey Kemp, moderated the discussion.
Hisham Melhem, a PBS NewsHour regular and the Washington bureau chief for the Lebanese newspaper An Nahar, called the Doha agreement "at best an intermission." David Schenker, a senior fellow and the director of the Program in Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it was a "hutna, a temporary peace." And Emile el Hokayem, a research fellow at the Stimson Center, deemed it "the first ceasefire in the Lebanese civil war."
Melhem began his remarks with a frank assessment of Doha, noting that the fundamental causes of the conflict remain. Hezbollah's status as a state within a state, its retention of arms and weapons, and its implementation of its own taxation system, call into question the "very ethos of the country." The contradictory visions of Lebanon's future have not been reconciled and Hezbollah will continue to attempt to reshape the political landscape.
Hezbollah's strategic, ideological, religious and political alliance with Iran is "unique and unprecedented" in Lebanon's history. Melhem explained, "It's not an exaggeration to say that some of them [Hezbollah] dream of transforming Beirut into a Tehran on the Mediterranean."
Melhem clarified, however, that the recent Hezbollah insurrection was not motivated by a desire for leadership of the country. Rather, Hezbollah wants a weak state, a weak president and a weak prime minister that would accept Hezbollah's special status in the country-and that's what it got. "They played it brilliantly," said Melhem. The expert further explained that Hezbollah does not see itself as a nationalist group; it identifies itself as the "party of God" and doesn't seek nationalistic power.
Yet Hezbollah is still a serious threat to Lebanon's identity. Although Hezbollah has established a sovereign military, an independent taxation system, an autonomous foreign policy, and even its own telecommunications system, Melhem saw its most dangerous initiative as its change to Lebanon's political landscape. Melhem elaborated, "We may be witnessing the beginning of the end of Lebanon's traditional Western orientation. . . . [And] for the first time, Iran is a major player in the eastern Mediterranean." As for the veto power granted to Hezbollah by the Doha agreement, Melhem noted that now "nobody will even dare to discuss their weapons or their arms."
David Schenker echoed many of Melhem's sentiments, noting several outstanding issues and the emergence of a new political dynamic. In regard to Hezbollah's military power, Schenker pointed out that the organization will utilize the period of peace to strengthen its forces and increase its weapon cache. The Doha agreement "avoided this issue entirely."
The political dynamic that will emerge after the Doha agreement will largely be determined by the relationship between President Michel Suleiman and Hezbollah. Schenker recounted a previous conversation between himself and Suleiman in which Schenker asked Suleiman about Hezbollah's purchase of weapons from Syria. Suleiman replied, "What weapons?" When Schenker pressed on with official statements from the United Nations regarding the trade, Suleiman again denied any knowledge and instructed Schenker to talk to the UN.
Schenker called for a re-evaluation of U.S. policy, particularly its economic support of the Lebanese government and the Lebanese Armed Forces. He also warned that simply undercutting Hezbollah's reputation would not be fully effective. After making several suggestions in how to support the Lebanese reformers, Schenker noted that the Lebanese government "has paid a heavy cost for its pro-Western orientation." He urged Washington to protect its valuable ally and warned that if the United States does not act soon, "it's almost assured that this fragile U.S. ally will be consumed by its adversary." Schenker also cautioned that losing Lebanon would be a severe blow to U.S. credibility in the Middle East.
Emile el Hokayem shed some optimism on the situation, pointing out that the Doha agreement bought a needed respite and was the best agreement possible given the circumstances. He explained that although many see the Doha agreement as a victory for Hezbollah, many overestimate its significance. "In reality the shift in the military balance of power inside Lebanon has not profoundly altered the political balance of power," Hokayem said. He noted that some of the gains can be reversed in the political realm and that the veto power recognized the reality of the current situation.
Hokayem also pointed out that although Hezbollah has obtained valuable political gains, it obtained them at a high cost domestically. Many in Lebanon are wary of Hezbollah reaching for more power. In terms of plotting the future, the expert explained that the initial election, the choice of prime minister, and how the two opposition camps behave and position themselves, particularly in regard to the cabinet, will provide a sketch of the new political picture in Lebanon.