By Riad Kahwaji
The recent power shift in Lebanon that produced a new government and parliamentary majority in favor of the Iranian and Syrian backed political parties – known as the March 8 Forces – has driven most Western powers and their Arab allies to review their relations with Beirut that could have negative consequences on aid programs to a country already suffering from acute socio-economic and security problems. After enjoying government as well as parliamentary majority for the past five and half years the pro-Western Lebanese political parties – known as the March 14 Forces –were moved to the opposition ranks following the defection of 12 of their members to the other side, upsetting expectations and plans by Washington and other European and some Arab countries to weaken Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon.
The sectarian makeup of Lebanon which borders Syria and Israel has left the country caught up in regional and international power struggles for decades. Ever since Syrian troops ended 29 years of presence in the country and pulled out of Lebanon following a public uprising instigated by the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri, the task of maintaining a fragile civil peace in the country has been a big challenge. Until the recent shift in power, civil peace in Lebanon was made possible by a power-sharing formula based on March 14 Forces controlling most of the executive power and comprising the majority of the legislature, in return for tolerating Hizbullah’s continued acquisition of a large arsenal of weapons under the pretext of resisting Israeli occupation of parts of south Lebanon. So although Lebanon was not fully in the camp of pro-Western Arab countries when March 14 was leading the cabinet, extensive efforts were exerted by Washington as well as other European and Arab countries to strengthen Lebanese state institutions and the military establishment in the hope of weakening Hizbullah and reducing the influence of Tehran and Damascus.
However, a series of miscalculations by March 14 Forces and their regional and international patrons have enabled Hizbullah and its axis allies – Syria and Iran – to weaken the other side and drive March 14 Forces out of power. Currently, the March 8 Forces have full control of the government and parliament and possess huge cache of arms. Now after the March 14 Forces moved to the opposition they no longer regard Hizbullah a resistance movement but rather an armed Shiite militia serving Iran and have demanded that Hizbullah give up its weapons arsenal. This situation has technically placed Lebanon within the Iranian-Syrian axis, even though the so-called centrist forces made up of the Lebanese President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Druze leader Walid Jumblat, appear to have been trying to prevent March 8 Forces from driving Lebanon all the way into the Iranian-Syrian axis. Nevertheless, the sharp ideological divisions and rising ethno-sectarian conflict in the region has narrowed the gray area. Regional countries and parties are more compelled now to take a firm stance and chose sides, either with the Iranian-Syrian axis or the other side. So although Mikati and President Sleiman have lobbied and pushed hard to keep Lebanon neutral, however, sooner or later fast evolving events, new realities and facts will compel them to take sides.
In a development that could further complicate matters and sharpen divisions in Lebanon and the region, the international tribunal charged with investigating the assassination of Hariri and other Lebanese political figures, issued on June 30 its indictment that has reportedly charged at least four members of the Shiite Hizbullah in the killing of Hariri, Lebanon’s top Sunni political figure. Mikati’s government political agenda has given loose support to the tribunal which was set up by the United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1757 under Chapter 7, which obligates all countries to cooperate with the court or else be subject to sanctions by the international community. Failure by Lebanese authorities to apprehend the indicted individuals and to cooperate with the tribunal could subject Lebanon and its executive power to retributions by the UN Security Council, and possible international isolation.
In the meantime, all forms of aid to Lebanon have or will likely be frozen. Much of the financial and economic aid to Lebanon was under the patronage of the late Premier Hariri, and his legacy was carried forward by his son Saad Hariri who headed the recently ousted government. It is not certain whether this aid would continue, and there are big doubts it would any time soon. Most observers fear that aid to the Lebanese military establishment would be most affected. Military and security aid to Lebanon had reached unprecedented levels between 2005 and 2010, with tens of millions of dollars spent by the U.S. and some EU powers along with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to equip and arm the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Internal Security Forces (ISF). This buildup of Lebanese regular troops and security agencies was part of a strategic objective to establish a strong military capable of confronting terrorist movements and standing up to Hizbullah in the future to disarm it. Now, with the Lebanese government perceived as part of the Iranian-Syrian axis, much of this military aid was (or will be) put on hold.
Even though several Western military officials have asked to keep the channels opened with their Lebanese counterparts and have some aid continuing to flow, however, pressure by various lobbies, like the Israeli lobby in the West, managed to freeze many programs. The more Lebanon slides towards the Iranian-Syrian axis, the worst it would be to maintain the military-military relations between LAF and U.S. and EU militaries. Events across the border in Syria where a public uprising has gripped the country there since middle of March have weighed in on LAF’s image and its relations with the West. Unconfirmed press reports of LAF forcefully repatriating Syrian soldiers and activists who fled to Lebanon escaping an onslaught by the Syrian military on villages near the Lebanese borders could tarnish the good human rights record of the Lebanese military and subsequently damage LAF relations with Western militaries. According to a Western diplomat in Beirut, the LAF has a good record when it comes to human rights and civil-military relations that have helped U.S. military commanders convince the Senate and the Congress to keep some aid flowing to Lebanon. “If reports of LAF handing over defecting Syrian soldiers and activists to Syrian authorities prove true then all forms of military and security aid to Lebanon from the West will most likely be frozen or even cancelled,” the diplomat said. He added that this message has already been delivered to the LAF command.
Failure to cooperate with the international tribunal could also affect security and military aid to Lebanon. The Lebanese judicial authority is expected to work with the LAF and the ISF on the apprehension of the indicted individuals and handing them over to the Court. However, failure to achieve this would also impact the extensive aid that was given to the ISF. It is worth pointing out that March 8 leaders have repeatedly called for halting all military and security programs with the West and to switch to dealing with Eastern powers like Russia, China and even Iran. The Iranian officials have already expressed their willingness to provide Lebanon with all the weapons and equipment it needs. Former Lebanese governments ignored Tehran’s offer. However, it is not yet clear whether the current Lebanese government would take the bold move of accepting military cooperation with Iran.
It should be noted that the LAF is an essential establishment that has been playing an important role in keeping the balance between the rival political parties and maintaining national unity. Its position in combating terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda has not ended and remains essential. Moreover, under the Lebanese system the LAF is run by its military council and not by the defense minister or the premier or president. It answers to the Lebanese government, not to individual political officials. The LAF managed in the past to ignore orders from defense ministers or the president when these orders contradicted with its values and doctrine. The best example was in March 14, 2005, when the LAF under Gen. Sleiman – who is now the president – refused to obey orders from the president and other cabinet members to forcefully prevent marchers from demonstrating against the Syrian military presence in Lebanon. This brought about the birth of the March 14 Forces and the eventual withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Over the past six years the LAF broke up many street fights that could have instigated a Sunni-Shiite civil war. LAF troops are still tracking down cells of Islamist terrorists linked to al-Qaeda.
So, weighing the overall situation one can conclude that the Mikati government is more or less in a fix. The government has one of three options: Either Mikati and his centrist cabinet members use their veto power effectively to limit March 8 efforts to drive Lebanon away from the West and Arab allies into the laps of the Iranian-Syrian axis, or succumb to pressure of March 8 Forces and become a virtual puppet to the Iranian-Syrian axis, or resign. So far, Mikati appears adamant on pursuing the first option, but there is no guarantee he would succeed. The next few months will be very tough for Lebanon. Civil peace and national unity will be repeatedly tested, as its usually good relations with the West and Arab States, especially in the Gulf, will possibly deteriorate. However, the West’s relations with the LAF must be maintained for the many reasons already mentioned. Besides, good mil-mil relations will help provide Mikati with strong allies within the military to keep Lebanon in the middle and also keep Western military values and doctrine rooted amongst LAF ranks. The fight in Lebanon and for Lebanon is far from over. Besides, Lebanon is hard to rule by one political group, especially when the Arab Spring is sweeping the region.
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA