Stabilizing Lebanon

June 12, 2007 Topic: Security Tags: Diplomacy

Stabilizing Lebanon

Whatever the outcome, the coming weeks will witness high stakes diplomacy at its best.

What appears to be a credible joint French-Saudi-Iranian initiative aimed at ending Lebanon's political crises surfaced over the weekend and is currently being discussed in Arab diplomatic circles. The initiative aims to hold direct negotiations in France later this month between the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Fouad Seniora and the pro-Syrian Hizballah-led opposition. Looming in the background is the September 25 presidential election which could yield two opposing governments absent a last-minute compromise.

Details have yet to emerge, but leaks thus far indicate that the initiative seeks: To integrate the current government and the opposition into a national unity government, granting the opposition cabinet veto rights; an agreement between the United States, France, Saudi Arabia and Iran on a new Lebanese president in conjunction with the unity government; an understanding on the Hariri tribunal that would ensure the stability of the Syrian regime by refraining from indicting ranking Syrian officials; a tacit agreement on Hizballah's weapons through ongoing backchannel Syrian-Israeli communiqués; and a Syrian-Lebanese understanding on the major contentious issues including borders, the Palestinian camps, security and establishing diplomatic relations.

The Syrians are not yet a direct party to the current diplomatic chatter, and although the reported initiative may contribute to a more positive near-term outlook on Lebanon, it will ultimately fail should Syria remain excluded. A similar initiative spearheaded by Saudi National Security General Prince Bandar bin Sultan and Iranian National Security Advisor Ali Larijani earlier this year failed to materialize after coming under fire from Syria's Lebanese allies. Although Syria has yet to officially comment on the current initiative, officials in Damascus have been quoted as saying that, "those who want our help must first come knock our door."

Perhaps what is most interesting about the latest initiative is that it points to a growing Syrian-Iranian divergence on Lebanon. While Syria-through its proxies-is actively destabilizing Lebanon in its efforts to thwart the Hariri investigation and tribunal, Iran is working with the Saudis and others to de-escalate the crisis and prevent yet another Sunni-Shi‘a conflagration in the region. Iran has much to loose if Hizballah-its Lebanese brainchild-is sucked into sectarian civil strife, while Syria has already lost much since the 2005 Cedar Revolution and appears willing to gamble.

In short, the current initiative is still in its early stages and many moving pieces will need to come together before an end to Lebanon's political deadlock materializes. Syria needs to be brought on board and given a stake in Lebanon's stability if efforts are to succeed; otherwise its Lebanese allies will probably boycott the upcoming September presidential elections, contest the legitimacy of the president-elect and possibly form a parallel government to that of Prime Minister Siniora. Whatever the outcome, the coming weeks will witness high stakes diplomacy at its best.

Firas Maksad is a Middle East Analyst at Eurasia Group.