A walkout by five Shiite cabinet ministers over the weekend has
deepened Lebanon's political crisis and sharpened the divisions in a
larger, "cold war" struggle for influence over the Middle East.
The tense power struggle within Lebanon's government is, in fact,
a key front in a diplomatic battle that pits the US, which backs the
government coalition, against Iran and Syria, which support the
powerful Shiite Hizbullah party and militant group.
The resignation of the Shiite ministers in the 24-member
government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora came after Lebanon's top
leaders reached deadlock in a week-long series of round-table talks
to discuss opposition demands for creating an expanded national
unity government. The opposition, spearheaded by Hizbullah, is
seeking a one-third share of the cabinet, granting it veto power
over government decisions.
The walkout threatens to prolong political gridlock in Lebanon
and raises the threat of Hizbullah launching street protests to
demand early parliamentary elections.
"We are going to witness a peak in this political, media, and
popular cold war that we saw in the aftermath of the Hariri
assassination, only this time around the consequences are going to
be much more profound for Lebanon, the region, and the United
States," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace's Middle East center in Beirut.
Key role of the Hariri investigation
Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, was killed in a
massive car bomb explosion in February 2005. Monday, the government
is due to discuss a draft United Nations resolution on the creation
of an international tribunal to try those accused of Mr. Hariri's
murder. With Syria widely blamed for the assassination, anti-Syrian
Lebanese believe Damascus has mobilized its Lebanese allies to block
the government from approving the bill.
"We are sure that Syria does not want to have the possibility of
facing the international tribunal, which is why they are trying to
[prevent] Lebanon from having an agreement with the UN on the
formation of the tribunal," says Boutros Harb, a leading Christian
The tribunal can still be approved by the UN even if the Lebanese
government rejects the draft resolution, but its credibility would
be tarnished without formal Lebanese support.
Despite unyielding pressure from Washington, the Syrian regime
has been strengthened in recent months due to a reinvigorated
relationship with Iran, continued influence in Lebanon, and the
weakening position of the US in neighboring Iraq. But, analysts say,
the conclusion of a UN investigation into Hariri's murder represents
a "sword of Damocles" from which Syria's leadership cannot escape.
"Syria and its allies are looking to close off this threat, or to
diminish it, or neuter it anyway they can," says Andrew Tabler, a
Damascus-based fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs and
editor-in-chief of Syria Today magazine. "The unfortunate outcome of
the Hariri investigation is that it is internationally supercharged
and Hizbullah [and its allies] feel that it's a Western threat - an
American and Israeli threat - to the balance of power in Lebanon,
and they want to stop it. …