Pulling Strings in Beirut

A Lebanese man uses a public phone near a poster featuring Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad (R) and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah on May 8, 2013 in the southern Lebanese city of Naqura. (Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images)

A Lebanese man uses a public phone near a poster featuring Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad (R) and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah on May 8, 2013 in the southern Lebanese city of Naqura. (Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images)

At least twenty-six Lebanese drowned last month when the boat smuggling them from Indonesia to Australia sank in the Indian Ocean. With a caretaker government and incapable ministers reigning in Lebanon, former prime minister Saad Al-Hariri—who lives in exile—volunteered to send an envoy to Jakarta and pulled some strings in a bid to recover the bodies.

The incident illustrates what life looks like without a Cabinet, at a time when the country needs one the most. Tammam Salam, the prime minister designate who was tasked with forming a Cabinet in April, has yet to do so as he navigates the seemingly unbridgeable gaps between the nation’s various political groupings.

But why the stalemate? Mostly, it’s a result of the fact that Lebanon’s political factions are connected to foreign sponsors. This means that with a changing regional scene, particularly in Syria and Iran, many of these factions are hedging their bets and preparing for a wide array of possibilities, which vary between civil war and peace. Making matters worse, foreign sponsors do not always articulate what they are up to, leaving their Lebanese protégés guessing. In fact, many of these sponsors themselves are not certain of what comes next.

In Iran, the gloves are off and a match seems to have started between the reformists and the conservatives over a possible nuclear deal with the United States, and maybe even a future thaw in relations. In Syria, Bashar Al-Assad—apparently under pressure from Russia—suddenly announced that he sits on a huge chemical weapons arsenal that he is committed to destroying under international monitoring.

With regional powers in flux, Lebanon’s political parties have become confused. Even though Hezbollah, the country's strongest political and military force, is tied to Iran’s conservatives and might act to sabotage any upcoming peace deal with the United States, the party looks nervous about whether Iran will end up throwing it under the bus in the aftermath of a deal.

At the very least, Hezbollah might find itself coping with two diverging Shi'a currents in the region, both in the short and medium terms. The Shi'ite moderates in southern Iraq have recently reconnected with some in Tehran over the election of the seemingly moderate President Hassan Rouhani, several years after cutting ties with Iranian officials under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Along these lines, Shi'ite Grand Ayatollahs in Najaf received Iranian foreign minister Mohamad Javad Zarif early last month, ending a years-long boycott. The warm welcome signaled the possible formation of a moderate Shi'a axis that, like its radical rival, transcends national borders and extends from Iran to Iraq to Lebanon. If this is the case, then Hezbollah's grip on Lebanon's Shi'ites might weaken, and so will its general standing in Lebanese politics.

Therefore, the problem Hezbollah now faces is that it doesn’t seem to have any conclusive instructions from Iran on how to proceed. The mixed signals were reflected in one particularly awkward incident: Only a few days had passed since Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, had launched vitriol against Saudi Arabia when rumors emerged that the Kingdom had extended an invitation to Rouhani to visit Riyadh for high-level talks. Hezbollah officials found themselves back-pedaling most of their earlier comments and predictions.

Political confusion breeds stalemates, and that is why Lebanon has been unable to form a Cabinet, to the detriment of most Lebanese people. Events, however, cannot wait until Lebanese leaders decipher regional signals or receive instructions from their patrons. Over the past few months, the UN Refugee Agency figure for the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has surged to more than 760,000. That is the equivalent of America receiving 56 million refugees, according to World Bank Group president Jim Yong Kim.

So heavy is the burden of Syrian refugees on Lebanon that it forced leading countries to hold a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to help Beirut deal with the crisis. At the UN, US president Barack Obama met with his Lebanese counterpart, Michel Suleiman, and pledged USD 74 million in aid for the refugees. He also promised USD 8.7 million to help the Lebanese Armed Forces protect the border from violent spillover and fight illicit goods smuggling.

Obama also hailed Suleiman for standing up to Hezbollah's participation in the Syrian war. Suleiman, for his part, urged countries “to provide real support for the contents and aims of the Baabda Declaration,” in which Lebanese parties promised to stay out of the Syrian fray. But Hezbollah later reneged, surprising hardly anyone.

With news of the US–Russian deal over Syria, and with signs of US–Iranian rapprochement and rumors of similar Saudi–Iranian talks, the regional picture might start looking rosier—if not for Syria, then at least for Lebanon.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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