Beirut faces real test of stability

24 August 2010

In recent weeks, Lebanon has survived a series of threats to its political stability. It may not hold out much longer as the UN tribunal finalises findings of the Rafik Hariri murder

In numbers

25 months: Peace and stability Lebanon has enjoyed since the Doha agreement

2005: Year Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a bomb blast

Source: MEED

Since the Doha agreement of May 2008 ended an 18-month-long political crisis, Lebanon has enjoyed two years of peace and stability.

No small achievement for a country whose recent history has been characterised by a series of destructive domestic and international confrontations. But 25 months of calm have not proved enough to dispel the feeling in Beirut that the current stability is no more than an interlude before the next crisis.

Nobody in Lebanon wants the fighting to start up again. People … have seen the benefits of peace

Beirut-based diplomat

The speed with which tensions rose during July and early August shows just why the expectation of conflict is etched into the national psyche. In late July, an incendiary speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened to destabilise the country’s coalition government. Just a few days later, a skirmish between Lebanese and Israeli military in south Lebanon brought renewed anxiety over how long peace will hold out between two neighbours who were at war as recently as 2006.

Stakes raised

In a statement on 22 July, Nasrallah announced that the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) was set to accuse ‘rogue elements’ of Hezbollah of the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Hariri’s son and current prime minister Saad Hariri had told him so in May, claimed Nasrallah.

The STL was set up in 2006 at the request of the Lebanese government in order to outsource an investigation that was too politically sensitive to be dealt with within the country’s borders. But this has made it no less controversial for Hezbollah. In an earlier speech, Nasrallah labelled the STL an ‘Israeli project’, claiming that the telephone records that are central to the investigation have been tainted by Israeli spies accused of infiltrating the country’s state-run telecoms company.

He [Nasrallah] appears concerned about the indictment of Hezbollah members. He wouldn’t just act on a rumour

Paul Salem, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

In a two-hour speech on 9 August, Nasrallah raised the stakes still further, unveiling Hezbollah intercepts of Israeli aerial reconnaissance transmissions covering the area between the St. George Club where Hariri was killed and his residence in Qoreitem, as well as other routes frequented by the former leader. The reconnaissance, dating from 1997, was part of a body of evidence that suggested that Israel was seeking to frame Hezbollah for an attempt on Hariri’s life, said the Shia leader.

Just as Lebanon was facing the greatest threat to its political unity in more than two years, the spectre of external conflict raised its head. On 4 August, Israeli attempts to cut down a tree standing on the Lebanese side of the security fence separating the two nations were met with armed resistance from Lebanese forces. Two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist and an Israeli colonel were killed in the ensuing exchange of fire. Israel and Hezbollah both issued warnings that they would protect what they believed was rightfully theirs, while Lebanon’s Economy and Trade Minister Mohammad Safadi praised the “heroic Lebanese army” for confronting “an Israeli attack”.

That disaster was averted despite the coincidence of such internal and external flashpoints is a major achievement. In contrast to previous such incidents, this time when Lebanon’s political factions collided, its neighbours sought not to fan the flames but to quell them. And while Israel and Hezbollah huffed and puffed over the border clash, neither showed any desire to escalate the incident.

On the external front, the reaction of Syria and Saudi Arabia was particularly significant. Along with Iran, Syria provides the bulk of Hezbollah’s funding, while Saudi Arabia is a longstanding ally of Lebanon’s Sunni political parties. Prior to 2008, when Lebanon has been divided, so have they. But as the events of recent weeks have unfolded, they have kept in perfect step.

Saudi-Syrian push for regional peace

Following a meeting of President Bashar al-Assad and King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in Damascus on 29 July, the two leaders decided that Al-Assad should accompany the Saudi king on his scheduled visit to Beirut.

When King Abdullah’s private jet touched down in the Lebanese capital the next day, the two leaders emerged side by side in a sign of their joint commitment to the Doha agreement that they had been so instrumental in engineering. Throughout the streets of Beirut, Saudi and Syrian flags fluttered alongside those of their host, reinforcing the sense of a region united.

The key difference between the events of recent weeks and those of 2006 or 2008 is that this time none of the parties involved wanted another conflict in Lebanon. Syria’s interests lie in having a stable neighbour to enable it to focus on its own affairs, and in ensuring that its influence in Lebanon is not threatened by other regional players and can be maintained without direct intervention.

Under pressure from the US to resume direct Middle East peace negotiations and chastened by the international outcry at its forceful intervention against Turkey’s aid flotilla to Gaza, it is not in Israel’s interests to spark a conflict that could also threaten the involvement of Iran.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia and its fellow Gulf states have no interest in seeing a deterioration in the regional security situation. At the very least it could threaten their trade, and at worst their own security.

Within Lebanon, Hariri and his March 14 allies do not want to start a fight with Hezbollah that they know they cannot win, while Hezbollah wants to reinforce its image as a party with a constitutional role to play in government.

Call for stability in the Middle East

“Nobody in Lebanon wants the fighting to start up again,” says a senior diplomat in Beirut. “People are doing relatively well, they have seen the benefits of peace and of normality, and there is pressure to keep a lid on things.”

Unfortunately, a desire for stability is no guarantee that it can be maintained. The controversy surrounding the special tribunal has returned Lebanon to a pre-Doha paradigm in which the discourse of the 14 March movement is fundamentally at odds with that of Hezbollah. And although the border skirmish with Israel blew over, at the time many in Beirut and Damascus expected the worst. Several Western governments changed their travel advice for Lebanon following the incident, counselling against all but essential travel.

Internally, much now depends on the STL’s official findings and how they are dealt with. Government and diplomatic figures in Lebanon have been quick to publicly support the investigation and to stress that it has not reached any conclusions. But privately many believe that there is no smoke without fire.

“Nasrallah isn’t making a fuss for nothing – he may be better informed than others,” says the Beirut diplomat. “He appears genuinely concerned about the indictment of Hezbollah members,” says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut. “He wouldn’t just act on a rumour.”

A formal indictment of Hezbollah by the STL could lead Nasrallah to pull his party out of the coalition. With a majority in parliament, Hariri could form a new administration, but it would have no legitimacy under the Doha accord, which gives veto power to Hezbollah. “At the very least Hezbollah’s withdrawal would paralyse the government, and there’s a risk that it would fall,” says Salem.

Even more worrying is the possibility that an indictment of Hezbollah could further radicalise the organisation. If Hezbollah were forced to choose between denouncing its own members and quitting the government, it would only be a small step for them to take up their arms, as they did in May 2008 when a year and half of political deadlock culminated in fighting on the streets of Beirut.

“If the issue is pressed by the government or by external players, it risks a backlash from Hezbollah,” says Salem. “They have indirectly warned they won’t co-operate with the tribunal, and that if asked they will defend themselves. The risk of them using their guns internally is high on people’s minds.”

“Lebanon is a political tinderbox,” says the Beirut diplomat. “It’s being politely dealt with around the table at the moment, but there’s still a mass of weapons around and if they’re not partying they’ll be fighting. There’s no middle ground.”

The indictment of Hezbollah by the STL could put Hariri in the invidious position of having to choose between accepting the tribunal’s findings, as he has promised, or preserving his country’s political stability.

Some analysts argue his best course of action would be to accept the findings, but not enforce them. But this is not an easy path either. On the one hand, ignoring the STL would risk international criticism, on the other it would not necessarily be enough to repair the pride of a wounded Hezbollah.

Fragile peace in the Middle East

At best, Hariri might hope that the evidence of the tribunal is sufficiently weak so that the implications of its findings can credibly be sidestepped, or that a deal can be reached with Hezbollah behind the scenes that mitigates the impact of their indictment. Even then, the issue will most likely remain unresolved, and could well be exacerbated.

Hezbollah may be keen to avoid external conflict, but they also want to build up their weaponry as a deterrent. Israel has been disquieted by Hezbollah’s rearmament efforts since 2006, and in particular its apparent acquisition of scud missiles.

Many believe that having failed to crush the organisation in 2006, it is waiting for the right moment to finish the job. “Hezbollah could easily cross some unseen red line that could inadvertently trigger an Israeli attack,” says the Beirut diplomat. If Hezbollah is indicted by the STL, Israel may feel it has yet more grounds to justify such an incursion.

With so many players involved, both domestically and externally, the potential for miscalculation is great. Conflict has been averted for the time being, but Lebanon’s political stability remains in the balance.

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