Friday, September 21, 2007

Lebanon On The Brink

Lebanon is in very real danger of collapsing as a free country.

With the parliamentary vote near on a president to replace out-going Syrian tool Emile Lahoud, the chances of a compromise that could avoid a political crisis, or even a return to civil war seems increasingly remote.

Lahoud's term as president was `extended' in a Syrian-promoted legislative session that took place literally under the guns of the Syrian army just before Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2005. Now, the the government and opposition have not been able to agree on a candidate and the possibility of the emergence of parallel governments or even a return to civil war is a real one.

Yesterday, Christian Phalange Party lawmaker Antoine Ghanem, 64, was killed in a bomb blast in Beirut that had Syria's fingerprints all over it. Ghanem, a possible presidential candidate left the country in June after Lebanese MP Walid Eido was murdered in a similar car bomb assassination. He had returned to the country from hiding just three days before to vote in the September 25 presidential election as the anti-Syrian March 14 Forces call in what's left of its faction in parliament.

Ghanem's murder serves two purposes. First, it reduces the anti-Syrian bloc's parliamentary majority to 68 of 127 MPs just a few days before the vote was scheduled to take place, a mere 4 seat majority.

The second reason was an attempt to scare the remaining anti-Syrian members of parliament witless and see to it that a pro-Syrian president is elected.

Due to Lebanon's arcane election laws, the parliament has to convene with a two-thirds quorum and agree on a president. After this latest murder,not only does the idea of being an anti-Syria presidential candidate have what we might refer to as sharply reduced job security, but even coming in to vote if you're part of the anti-Syria coalition in parliament is a tad risky, shall we say....which is exactly the message Syria wanted to send by taking out Ghanem.

In a desperate attempt to try to protect the others, the Siniora government is planning on housing the anti-Syrian MPs in Beirut's Phoenicia InterContinental under heavy security.

If there is no parliamentary quorum, Siniora's pro-government March 14 coalition is arguing that a simple majority vote should be held for the president.

And the idea of a simple majority vote for president is sending the pro-Syria/Iran opposition groups, led by Hezbollah and Amal, into violent apoplexy. If the March 14th coalition tries it, we could end up with two governments in Lebanon, or even civil war.

The crux of the matter, of course, is the ongoing UN tribunal investigation into the murder of Lebanon's anti-Syrian prime minister, Rafik Hariri. The investigation has already found substantial evidence of the involvement of Syria in Hariri's murder that of other anti-Syrian figures....and the trial points directly to Basher Assad and the highest levels of the Syrian government.

Lahoud, Lebanon's current president has been instrumental in blocking the efforts of the UN tribunal, which is why Syria badly needs to have a pro-Syrian president in Beirut.

Hezbollah, Amal and allied pro-Syrian ministers left the government after being refused a one-third blocking vote in the cabinet that would have allowed them to block government cooperation with the UN's tribunal.

Hezbollah and the pro-Syrian faction is supporting Michael Aoun, a long time advocate of Syrian dominance over Lebanon. The anti-Syrian opposition support is divided, mostly between Democratic Renewal Movement leader Nassib Lahoud and Rally of Independent Maronite leader Butros Harb.

This could go one of several ways.

The March 14 anti-Syrian bloc might just be intimidated enough by now to throw in the towel and allow Aoun to be which case the tribunal is pretty much over and Syrian can go to work on consolidating it's hold over Lebanon. As I've mentioned before, the Syrians can't be seen to directly invade Lebanon, so they're using their own interpretation of `Arab Democracy' to..umm....terminate the opposition.

Or, if the anti-Syrian majority elects it's own consensus candidate for president or Hezbollah, Amal and the other pro-Syrian parties boycott the presidential vote, the pro-Syrian parties would then elect their own president ( probably Aoun) and we would see two separate Lebanese governments and a likely chance of civil war.

There is another possibility, although it's a remote one. One of my notorious little birdies told me that there are ongoing negotiations going on right now between the Saudis and Syria to come to an agreement on a consensus candidate to preserve the status quo. March 14 leader and Sunni Future Movement head Saad al-Hariri's name is the one mentioned as the candidate the Saudis are supporting, which is interesting because by Lebanese law the president must be a Maronite Christian.

In the unlikely event these negotiations bear fruit, the Christian factions in Lebanon would have the choice of accepting al-Hariri and declining status in Lebanon, or a confrontation with the Syrians and Hezbollah.

If a civil war comes, rest assured that it would not stay in Lebanon. With the Syrians already in position in the Bek'aa Valley and Hezbollah re-armed and ready, it's doubtful that the Siniora government could survive for long..which would bring Hezbollah/Syria/Iran and Israel nose to nose again. The Israelis might even decide to take matters into their own hands and go back into Lebanon, especially if Hezbollah launches a few missiles or raids over the border.

As in Gaza, the Israelis made the classic mistake of giving up a strategic area simply for publicity purposes without ensuring that no future threat would emanate from there. Had the Israelis had the foresight to midwife the creation of a separate Christian/Druse State in south Lebanon before they precipitously pulled out, they not only wouldn't be facing a threat from Hezbollah, they'd have an ally and a buffer on their northern border.

And both the Druse and the Christians would be better off.

Today, in Lebanon's Daily Star, Druse leader Walid Jumblatt called on the international community to protect Lebanon "against the Syrian-Iranian alliance, which has brought nothing but harm to Lebanon."

True enough, Mr. Jumblatt. Unfortunately, it remains to be seen whether the international community would or could do anything meaningful at this point.

Meanwhile, Lebanon, once called the Switzerland of the Middle East is on the brink of disaster.

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