The visit to Lebanon of Jeffrey Feltman, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, is another visible sign of why Lebanon can expect to hit turbulence as the situation in Syria deteriorates. The Middle East is being transformed, the Syrian regime is under great pressure, and therefore political actors in the region and outside are preparing, among other things, for the aftermath in Lebanon.
Last weekend, Syria and Hezbollah showed how they were willing to play Lebanese vulnerabilities in their favor. There seems increasingly little doubt that they manipulated Palestinian outrage on Nakba Day to create incidents on the Lebanese border with Israel and on the Golan Heights, in order to better underline that the fall of the Assad regime would heighten Israeli insecurity. This echoed Rami Makhlouf’s comments to The New York Times last week, in which the cousin of President Bashar al-Assad warned, “If there is no stability [in Syria], there’s no way there will be stability in Israel.”
It was very useful of Makhlouf to remind us that the Assads have pegged their survival to guaranteeing Israeli tranquility, despite occasional pin pricks. However, both the Americans and Israelis have taken unkindly to the border incidents. The decision on Wednesday of President Barack Obama to sanction Bashar al-Assad, like the statements he made in a speech a day later, puts the US president on a path where he will almost certainly soon demand the Syrian leader’s departure from office, since the regime in Damascus cannot reform.
Feltman’s visit came in the midst of this maelstrom. The United States could see an opening in Lebanon to regain some, or much, of what it has lost in recent years. On Thursday, Obama announced a new initiative on the Middle East, and the unrest in Syria means that Washington, for the first time in a long time, has an opportunity to push Iran and Hezbollah onto the defensive in Beirut and beyond.
Certainly, the Lebanese have been sensitive to American displeasure. When the US government fired a shot across the bow of the Lebanese Canadian Bank some months ago, accusing it of having laundered money on Hezbollah’s behalf, people paid attention. Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh flew to Washington and quickly arranged the bank’s sale, to protect the banking sector. Now, there is considerable speculation that Salameh’s tenure may not be renewed, given the opposition of March 14 to the holding of a special parliamentary session to address the issue while a caretaker government is in place.
That the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, is pressing for such a session and that March 14, by rejecting his initiative, is effectively undermining Salameh’s chances of being reappointed, suggests that the Central Bank governor may be at the heart of a political-financial dispute. And if that’s the case, it could signal that the Americans may still hold the governor responsible for the Lebanese Canadian fiasco. For one parliamentarian I spoke to, the heart of the matter is money: Washington is playing hardball to choke off Hezbollah’s financing.
The prime minister-elect, Najib Mikati, is also very much aware that his margin of maneuver with respect to Washington is limited. Personal business interests aside (and they are hardly negligible), Mikati appears to have no intention of locking himself into a fixed position in a new government where he would have to submit to Hezbollah, when much might change in the foreseeable future. When he took on the task in January, the prime minister-elect still expected his strong Syrian backing to be a counterweight to Hezbollah and Michel Aoun. But today he is incapable of making such a calculation.
We’re beyond the stage to legitimately doubt the formation of a government “of one color,” and Feltman’s visit will have hardened that reality. Hezbollah understands that the ground is shifting, even if it will do everything to prevent it from shifting in the party’s disfavor. Lebanon is entering a decisive phase in the rivalry between the US and most Arab states on the one side, and Iran on the other. The country will be a front line in that confrontation.
Expect more regionally-influenced thrusts and parries in the foreseeable future to define what, conceivably, a post-Assad Lebanon might look like. Not a particularly difficult prediction to make, you say. Indeed, but if it’s so obvious, then much more needs to be done to fill the yawning political vacuum in Beirut. Since Mikati will not be able to form a government of national unity and, evidently, refuses to put together a cabinet that would be dominated by Hezbollah and Aoun, it would seem that his only option is to lead some sort of team of technocrats. That’s not ideal, it will perhaps not work, but it may be better than allowing the void in the executive branch to persist.
The likelihood, however, is that the prime minister-elect will do nothing at all. With so much in motion around him, he is simply unwilling to commit to anything that might burn him later on. Does that mean that March 8 and Aoun will withdraw their support for him? That’s improbable. New parliamentary consultations would almost certainly benefit March 14 and Saad Hariri. So expect a long interregnum without a government. Another easy prediction to make.