By Michael Young
What did Walid Jumblatt mean when he told the daily Al-Akhbar this week that Hezbollah did not want to form a government?
And when the Druze leader went on to say that a government was necessary for the party and Syria as well, was that a discreet way of saying that it was Damascus that was holding up the government-formation process – a thought that Jumblatt, of course, immediately perished by refusing to link the Syrian tension to the Lebanese government crisis?
There can be no serious doubt that the situation in Syria weighs heavily on the stalemate in Beirut. The explanations are many for why Najib Mikati has been unable to form a government, and quite a few happen to be true; but perhaps the most significant is that Syria has been lukewarm in pushing for a new team. The prime minister-designate is not about to embark on fashioning a Cabinet without strong Syrian backing, especially a partisan Cabinet in which he would have to stand his ground against Hezbollah and Michel Aoun.
Which returns us to the implications of Jumblatt’s remarks. The regime of President Bashar Assad evidently has no real interest in a Mikati government, because it has no interest in filling a Lebanese political vacuum that it seeks to exploit in order to survive at home. Through Lebanon, Damascus can send, and has sent, warning shots regionally and internationally, to the effect that it must either be the Assads and their Makhlouf cousins in power, or else chaos will ensue. That was the essence of what Rami Makhlouf, the financial pillar of the Syrian regime, told The New York Times in a recent interview.
Since that interview was published, two things have happened in Lebanon to bring home Makhlouf’s message. Hezbollah, with perceptible Syrian approval, and in a move coordinated with similar measures on the Golan Heights, helped mobilize demonstrators along the Lebanese-Israeli border to commemorate Nakba Day. This was a pinprick, destined to echo Makhlouf’s comments that “If there is no stability [in Syria], there’s no way there will be stability in Israel.”
And last Friday, an Italian UNIFIL unit was the target of a bomb attack in Rmeileh. It’s unclear who planted the device, but the attack came at the very moment when foreign embassies were indicating that Makhlouf had pointedly mentioned, in an off-the-record aside during his New York Times interview, that United Nations forces in Lebanon might be assaulted. If there were any doubts, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had earlier dispelled them when declaring, after the European Union imposed sanctions on Bashar Assad, “I say this measure, just as it will harm Syria’s interests, it will harm Europe’s interest. And Syria won’t remain silent about this measure.”
Although Hezbollah is siding with the Syrian regime against Syrian protesters, as its secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, made clear last week, you have to wonder whether the party and Syria share the desire to maintain a void in Lebanon. In strict terms Jumblatt may again be right that Hezbollah doesn’t want a government, but is this a matter of choice, or is the party obligated to follow the Syrian lead?
Only a few months ago Hezbollah was willing to take the hazardous step of barring Saad Hariri’s return to office, in the hope that it could follow this up by swiftly forming a favorable government that would face supposedly imminent indictments issued by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Today, we must believe that Hezbollah’s sense of urgency has evaporated and that the party is no longer concerned with the likelihood that the tribunal will formally accuse party members of involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri. There is a disconnect here, one suggesting that Syria’s objectives and Hezbollah’s may not be as closely aligned as some assume over delaying a Cabinet.
It is a matter of anxiety in Beirut how Hezbollah might react if the situation in Syria were to deteriorate further and the Assad regime’s hold on power were loosened further. In that event the existence of a Lebanese government would help Hezbollah, because if the party has to watch one of its principal allies collapsing, it would prefer to do so after having anchored itself in the legitimacy of Lebanese state institutions. In other words the party needs a government in place that it can dominate, both to bless its weapons and help it absorb the aftershocks of a tribunal indictment and radical change in Syria.
The assessment of some foreign observers is that if the Assads are ousted, Hezbollah will respond by striking a harsh blow domestically to reaffirm its authority. Perhaps, but this, more reasonably, would be an act of desperation. In the Lebanese context it might lead to civil conflict, particularly if the party were to take such a step minus its valuable Syrian partner, in the presence of a new order in Damascus bound to be hostile to Hezbollah. Another May 2008 would fail, even more so when we recall that Hezbollah was hard-pressed to end its military operations quickly at the time, after the triumph in western Beirut. Seizing territory is easier than controlling it. Hezbollah would be reckless in assuming that it can successfully overcome all of Lebanon.
The deadlock will persist in Beirut, with Najib Mikati remaining unable to form a government. However, it’s still an open question whether Hezbollah truly gains from this state of affairs, even if Syria does. Assad wants an open Lebanese playing field to manipulate. Yet at some stage Nasrallah needs the state to be credible, as it may become the last bastion between Hezbollah and regional and international demands that the party surrender its arms.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster), listed as one of the 10 notable books of 2010 by The Wall Street Journal. He tweets @BeirutCalling.