Mohanad Hage Ali writes:
The toppling of the pro-western March 14 alliance in Lebanon by its pro-Syrian adversaries – including Hezbollah – has led to a worldwide media scare. Many western news organisations portrayed it as some sort of Islamist takeover. Even the BBC reported that the "Hezbollah nominee", Najib Mikati, won the most votes to succeed Saad Hariri as prime minister. Rupert Murdoch's Sky News went further in that direction, reporting: "Hezbollah gain control of Lebanese government". The fact is that they are all missing the point. Syria, and not Hezbollah, won control of Lebanon's government. In the past year, many articles have shown Syria recovering its political weight, and the latest developments in Lebanon are testimony to this.
At the heart of the recent change of government in Lebanon are 11 former "March 14" MPs, including Mikati, who until recently was supposedly a Hariri ally. Among this group is Walid Jumblatt, a major power-broker and the leader of the Druze group, which has seven MPs. He said earlier this week that "geopolitics [now a codeword for Syria's influence] dictated that we choose between the sea or going to the Arab depth: Syria". Jumblatt had previously accused Syria of assassinating his father, Kamal, and Rafik Hariri, the late prime minister, among others. Jumblatt was also a leading figure, if not "the one", behind the so-called "cedar revolution" of 2005 – the massive demonstrations that led to Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon, and the election of a western-backed anti-Syrian coalition government.
American support for the March 14 movement was overwhelming; Jumblatt and his allies spoke of a new era of American-infused democracy, specifically asking for the toppling of the Syrian regime that had dominated Lebanese politics since the end of the civil war in 1991. At the end of the Bush era, Jumblatt changed course; Syria opened its doors again, and welcomed him back as an ally.
For 14 years, Syria – openly through its direct military presence and local allies – controlled every aspect of Lebanese political life. Its military and security chief in Beirut chose the candidates for the key posts in governments, played local politicians against each other, and utilised Lebanese institutions to crush any opposition. During those years, the European and American governments tolerated Syria's influence, and dealt directly with Damascus on Lebanese issues.
Today, after the dust of the Bush era is brushed away in Lebanon, Syria is back with the aid of its allies, among them the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. And according a European diplomat I interviewed on Monday, "We have lived with Syrian influence for years, we don't welcome it, but there will be no sanctions or a Vietnam". The British foreign secretary, William Hague, visited Syria on Thursday to discuss – among other issues – "the political situation in Lebanon".
The change of government in Lebanon does not mean that Hezbollah will be "ruling from the shadows", as Newsweek overstated. It will be Syria ruling from the shadows – the same regime that kept Hezbollah in check throughout the 1990s and until 2005. Many here in Lebanon believe that the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon would have not have happened under a Syria-backed regime. In fact, and just days before the parliamentary consultations and the nomination of the new prime minister, Lebanese websites reported that there is a Syria-Hezbollah rift regarding the political situation, as the former wanted to give more time to reach a deal with Hariri. Jumblatt only announced his new stance after a quick meeting with the Syrian president, who had also met Mikati, an old friend.
With Syria's full support, this new government led by Mikati, a western-educated Sunni businessman, would probably lead Hezbollah back to its pre-2005 status, avoiding military confrontation and keeping a low profile on the anti-Israel front. Damascus considers this government a trial of what its influence would be like without military presence, so it will not let anyone, including Hezbollah, sabotage it. Syria's primary concern will be confronting the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri, and whose indictment is expected to name Hezbollah members and Syrian officials. Whether it will succeed or not depends on the international community's ability to keep the STL going with the Lebanese government's support.
Regardless of the outcome, Syria's comeback to Lebanese politics could only be secured if Damascus proved itself capable of playing Lebanese politicians against each other again. The Hezbollah-Jumblatt interaction and Damascus's ambiguous position in it were a sign of a return to that era. Will Hariri, now a former prime minister but still a very capable and representative leader, agree to play politics according to Syria's rules, like his father did for years before his assassination? After he lost the prime ministerial nomination this week, his parliamentary bloc severely criticised "Hezbollah's Iranian-backed coup", but when one of his MPs decided to condemn the Syrian president in a live speech, he was interrupted by a Hariri aide after receiving an anonymous call.
Jumblatt understands "geopolitics" and how to engage Syria's influence. Just like Hariri junior, he only joined politics after his father was assassinated, following a rift with the Syrian regime over invading Christian territory in the beginning of Lebanon's civil war. The question now is whether Hariri will follow Jumblatt's footsteps.