Lebanese Government Collapse Adds to Obama Problems

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2011 | Go to article overview
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Lebanese Government Collapse Adds to Obama Problems


Crisis in Lebanon

By Jim Lobe

The collapse of the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Jan. 12 adds to the growing list of challenges faced by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama across the Middle East.

Increasingly concerned about mounting unrest in Tunisia and Algeria and sectarian violence in Egypt, Washington is also worried about what looks to be a protracted impasse in its efforts to promote peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and the potentially explosive impact of unabated Jewish settlement activity in the occupied territories and East Jerusalem.

The break-up of the Hariri-led unity government adds yet another potential flashpoint-one in which, as in nearby Iraq, Washington finds itself in a contest for influence with Iran. Tehran strongly backs the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance, whose departure from the cabinet precipitated the current crisis.

"Lebanon is once again falling victim to the regional tug of war between the U.S., Israel and their allies on the one hand, and Syria, Hezbollah and Iran on the other," wrote Joshua Landis, a regional expert at the University of Oklahoma on his widely read blog.

The government's collapse is regarded as unlikely to result, at least in the short term, in renewed violence of the kind that saw Shi'i-led Hezbollah quickly dispatch Sunni militias in pro-Hariri strongholds in West Beirut in May 2008. But it will no doubt increase sectarian tensions in the country and curb the tide of investment that boosted the Lebanese economy over the last 18 months of relative stability, according to veteran observers here.

The fact that Hezbollah's move appeared timed to coincide with Hariri's meeting with Obama in the White House added to the impression that it was directed as much at Washington as at the prime minister himself.

Indeed, Hezbollah and its allies have accused Washington of sabotaging Saudi-Syrian efforts to negotiate a solution to the political crisis impasse that precipitated the collapse-the anticipated indictment, as early as Jan. 14, of several Hezbollah militants by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) established by the United Nations to investigate the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, Saad's father.

The assassination provoked mass protests by the Hariri-led March 14 movement that eventually resulted in the so-called "Cedar Revolution" and the withdrawal of Syrian troops-Hezbollah's most important foreign backer-from Lebanon. The March 14 movement was backed strongly by U.S. President George W. Bush, whose chief aim at the time was to weaken Syria and its ally, Iran.

"The big push of the Bush administration was to separate Lebanon from Syria and bring Lebanon within the U.S. and Israeli sphere of influence," said Landis. "But that has clearly failed, and what we've seen in the last several years is the unravelling of the Bush agenda."

Under Obama, Washington has remained the STL's biggest international booster, in part because it sees the tribunal as one of the few and diminishing points of leverage it can use to affect the balance of power in Lebanon.

If Hezbollah is formally implicated in the assassination of Hariri, who was Sunni, its efforts to establish itself politically as a national, rather than a sectarian, movement will be badly set back, according to analysts here.

"Hezbollah cannot afford the blow to its popular legitimacy that would occur if it is pinned with the Hariri killing," wrote Thanassis Cambanis, author of a highly critical book on the Shi'i militia, in the Jan. 13 New York Times. Other analysts noted that it would also deal a serious blow to Hezbollah's standing, which soared through the Arab world after its 2006 conflict with Israel, elsewhere in the region.

As a result, the group and its allies have exerted pressure on Hariri to denounce the tribunal and cease all Lebanese cooperation for its work, a step that many analysts believe would amount to political suicide.

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