January 12, 2011

Collapse of the Lebanese government - prelude to war?

Graffiti with image of Hizballah leader Sayid Hasan Nasrallah
Writing reads:
Victory from God

The timing was perfect. As Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri met with President Barack Obama at the White House, 10 of Lebanon's 30 cabinet ministers announced their resignations; another minister followed suit later in the day. The resignations of more than one third of the cabinet effectively and legally collapsed the government, and now further exacerbates the crisis in the country over the expected United Nations indictments of Hizballah leaders for complicity in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri (father of the current prime minister).

The Lebanese government was fragile to say the least. In November 2009, based on Hizbllah's strength and bullying tactics, the government agreed to a power sharing arrangement in which Hizballah was given two seats in the national unity government. The Shi'a group allied with another Shi'a movement, Amal and its three seats, and with a group of four Maronite Christians led by former general Mishal 'Aun, and a Druze minister. This group of eleven in effect had veto power in the cabinet.

The resignations are in protest to the cabinet's refusal to call an emergency session to somehow oppose the upcoming UN indictments of Hizballah officials. If there was any shred of evidence that the indictments are faulty, there would at least be a reason to resist them. Most Middle East observers, including me, believe that the indictments have merit. It would surprise me if Hizballah and Syria (and possibly Iran) were not involved in the assassination.

Crises in Lebanon are nothing new; the country has had a violent past, including a bloody civil war from 1975 to 1990. There have also been wars between Hizballah and Israel, between the Palestinians and Israel, and between the Syrians and Israel, all on Lebanese soil. Unfortunately, the current crisis has the potential to ignite yet another round of civil war.

Should that occur, I am of the opinion that Hizballah will likely emerge as the primary military power in Lebanon to complement its political power. A war serves Syria's interests as well. Just as they intervened in 1976, ostensibly in response to a request from the Lebanese government, they may intervene again, except this time the Lebanese government may actually request troops from Damascus. If the government does not request Syrian intervention and Hizballah emerges victorious, Syria still wins.

If you had to assess the events in terms of the world stage, another American ally is on the decline while Hizballah, Syria and Iran seem to be on the ascent.

The Lebanese may avert another civil war, but it will be close.