International tug of war complicating Lebanon’s election outcome

Lebanese political divisions deepened in the aftermath of last summer’s war between Hizballah and Israel. (Lucy Fielder/IRIN)

BEIRUT, 1 October (IRIN) - Lebanon’s tussling factions are headed for a stalemate, settlement, or war, and international actors as much as local ones will decide which, analysts say.

The presidential vote which was to be held on 25 September was deferred until 23 October after lawmakers failed to find a consensus candidate. Opposition members of parliament (MPs) boycotted the vote, arguing that Lebanon’s fragile sectarian political system requires a president agreeable to both camps.

A two-month period of horse-trading is permitted by the constitution and analysts say that in Lebanon the immediate election of a president is historically rare. However, by 23 November, MPs must choose a successor to President Emile Lahoud, whose extension by a Syrian-influenced constitutional amendment three years ago plunged Lebanon into chaos.

The UN Security Council urged Lebanon on 27 September to elect the president freely, fairly and on time.

Tiny country, big influence

Lebanon is a sliver of Mediterranean coast with a population of just four million, but international interest in the election is intense. The USA and Saudi Arabia lead most of the international community in backing Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

“The USA is interested in Lebanon for several reasons, including keeping Lebanon as a democratic success story and putting pressure on Syria,” said Oussama Safa, head of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies. “And the US does not want the opposition to get any mileage out of this election, especially Hizballah.”

Washington’s arch-foes Iran and Syria back Hizballah. “If the Iranians decide to fight it out with the Americans, things will probably escalate in Lebanon,” Safa said.

Finger on the triggers

Since last summer’s war between Israel and the armed wing of Hizballah — widely accepted as a strategic defeat for Israel — the international spotlight has shone on Hizballah’s weapons.

After the 1975-1990 civil war, Hizballah was the only militia to retain its arms by Lebanese consensus, forming what was called the “national resistance” to Israel’s continued occupation of south Lebanon. Israeli troops withdrew from the south in 2000 after a 22-year occupation and a war of attrition with Hizballah fighters.

The conflict that has cleaved Lebanon in two since Lahoud’s extension and the assassination in February 2005 of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which Washington and its Lebanese allies blamed on Syria, boiled over after last summer’s war.

Though the government had confirmed Hizballah’s “right” to “liberate” an Israeli-occupied border pocket, the Shebaa Farms, in July 2005’s National Dialogue sessions, on 13 August 2006, cabinet members called for a session to discuss disarming Hizballah.

That drew a furious response from Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who accused Siniora of being a “traitor” and of working to a US and Israeli agenda. The dispute escalated and last November all Shia ministers and one allied Christian resigned from the government.

“What does the United States want with Lebanon’s elections? A candidate who would serve their agenda, which is neutralizing the resistance,” said Amal Saad Ghorayeb, an expert on Hizballah at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Centre in Beirut.

Getting at Iran?

The USA is interested in depriving Syria and Iran of the critical card they have in Hizballah, another analyst said.

“In the larger scheme of things, the conflict with Syria and Iran is more important. Syria needs Hizballah more than Hizballah needs Syria, so they [the US] would like to take that away,” said Karim Makdisi, of the American University of Beirut.

US ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman said on 29 September that Washington “has never been involved in naming presidential candidates [for Lebanon], and will never be,” reiterating the US position that the election follows the constitution.

In a direct effort to boost the Lebanese Armed Forces, the USA has increased its 2007 military aid package to Lebanon up to US$280 million from US$45 million last year, according to sources at the American embassy in Beirut.

UN involvement

The UN is also watching Lebanon closely.

The UN Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) have around 13,000 peacekeepers stationed in south Lebanon and along the border with Israel, an area formerly tightly controlled by Hizballah.

UNIFIL have received a number of threats from what many analysts believe are Sunni militants working to an al-Qaida ideology. In June, six UN peacekeepers were killed by a roadside bomb while on a routine patrol in the Khiam area.

The UN is also involved in establishing an international tribunal to try suspects in Hariri’s assassination.

The assassination earlier this month of the fourth anti-Syrian politician since the Hariri bombing, which also killed Economy Minister Bassel Fleihan, has been added to the UN probe’s caseload.

The government accuses Syria of masterminding those assassinations and says Damascus wants to regain the dominance of its smaller neighbor by levering an ally into the presidential seat.

“Lebanon is very much a priority for the UN,” Safa said. “It is definitely afraid of the deteriorating security situation.”

Regional peace?

Makdisi said agreeing a consensus presidential candidate to avert disaster was still possible. Saudi Arabia appeared to be working behind the scenes to find a compromise with Iran, Safa said. “They can agree to keep a lid on things and stop them heading to a constitutional void.”

Whatever the motives for backing either faction, many Lebanese fear the foreign tug of war is preventing resolution of the problems that plague them.

“I think if it had been left to the Lebanese, a consensus would already have been found, along with a certain stability,” Makdisi said. “But so many powers are pushing and pulling.”

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