A year of opportunity: Lebanon/ Syria

04 January 2008
Lebanon’s fractious political chieftains may be close to electing the next president - former army chief Michel Suleiman is the clear front runner when parliament votes on 12 January. However, they could be frustrated in early efforts to form a unity government.

The pro-Western March 14 movement will struggle to form an effective platform for government in the teeth of a reinvigorated opposition. By naming a consensus candidate as president, the pro-Damascus bloc has torpedoed its rivals’ ambitions to free itself from Syria’s grip. Opposing camps are at odds about the composition of a new cabinet, and battles will continue over the division of spoils.

The security situation will remain tense. The threat of assassination will be ever-present for leading members of the anti-Syrian alliance. Threat levels may be tightly bound to the level of the country’s co-operation with the international tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of prime minister Rafiq Hariri - a toxic issue for Syria, where some members of the leadership have been implicated in the attack. Many fear that Damascus will exact a fierce retribution on its Lebanese enemies if the tribunal gains momentum.

Hezbollah will remain a potent paramilitary force, but looks unlikely to initiate an assault on Israel in 2008. The new president is unlikely to undertake any significant moves to disarm the Shia movement, which would seriously disturb the fragile peace in Lebanon. Signs of renewed militia activity, with reports of some factions rearming and training, point to the possibility of renewed civil conflict. Particularly troubling is the rise of the Jihadist Sunni militancy, centred on the Palestinian camps.

Syria’s renewed sense of confidence in being able to determine its neighbours’ political development will feed through into greater activism on issues that are close to its heart. Damascus will push strongly on the Golan Heights issue, emboldened by its inclusion in the Annapolis peace summit. But it will resist US efforts to split Syria from its regional ally, Iran. The Baathist leadership has too much to lose by embracing an agenda pushed by Washington.

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