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Suleiman is gone, and Lebanon still has no president


Lebanon’s president Michel Suleiman left office on May 25, but even as the country struggles to contain the chaos — political, humanitarian and otherwise — that’s spilled over from Syria’s four-year civil war. Lebanon

Earlier today, Nabih Berri, the speaker of Lebanon’s national assembly (مجلس النواب), scheduled the seventh vote since April 23, to elect Suleiman’s successor.

Like the last six ballots, there wasn’t even be a quorum for the vote. Berri has scheduled the eighth attempt for July 2.

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RELATED: Lebanon’s parliament considers
presidential choice tomorrow

: In first ballot, Lebanon’s parliament fails
to elect new president

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Given that it took ten months for prime minister Tammam Salam to form a new government in February, and that Salam’s unity government came together almost solely for the rationale of getting Lebanon through the presidential election and through a new electoral law and fresh parliamentary elections, there’s no telling how long the standoff could last — perhaps months or even well into 2015.

After former president Émile Lahoud left office in November 2007, it took another six month — until May 25, 2008 — to elect his successor, Suleiman (pictured above).

Though the Lebanese presidency is largely ceremonial, it’s a vital component of the fragile balancing of confessional interests in a country with 18 officially recognized ‘confessions’ — or religious groups. Lebanon’s president must be a Maronite Christian, while its prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the Assemblée nationale (National Assembly) must be a Shiite Muslim. Of the 128 members of the National Assembly, 64 must be Muslim and 64 must be Christian.

In the meanwhile, Christian parties have said that they will boycott the national assembly’s sessions until a new president is chosen, arguing that the priority for Lebanon should be electing a new president, not routine legislation. That, in turn, makes it less likely that the Salam government can accomplish much of anything until Lebanon has a new president — and there’s no assurance that a new president will be in place in time for parliamentary elections scheduled (for now) to take place in November.

The problem is that Lebanon isn’t Belgium — on balance, it’s not great news for Lebanese governance that it has a caretaker government, with no hope of electing a president and no hope of holding parliamentary elections, which last took place in April 2009. That’s true in ‘normal’ times, but it’s especially true as Lebanon’s government works to hold off further violent spillover from the Syrian civil war, which has ignited sectarian tension in Beirut, Tripoli and elsewhere in Lebanon. The government is also struggling to accommodate over one million Syrian refugees currently living in Lebanon — that’s a staggering amount for a country that only had around 4.5 million people to begin with.

So why can’t Lebanon elect a new president?

Continue reading Suleiman is gone, and Lebanon still has no president

In first ballot, Lebanon’s parliament fails to elect new president


As expected, none of Lebanon’s presidential candidates emerged today with the two-third majority required to succeed Michel Suleiman as the next Lebanese president.Lebanon

Suleiman’s term is scheduled to end on May 25, and Lebanon’s parliament today held the first of what is expected to be several ballots to choose a successor. Under Lebanon’s confessional system, its president has traditionally been a Maronite Christian.

The ‘March 8 bloc,’ which includes Hezbollah and Lebanon’s other Shiite parties, some Sunni Lebanese and the Free Patriotic Movement of Maronite leader Michel Aoun, all cast blank ballots.

The ‘March 14 bloc,’ which includes Saad Hariri’s Sunni Future Movement and Lebanon’s other Maronite parties, supported Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanon Forces.

Walid Jumblatt, who leads Lebanon’s political Druze community, supported Henry Helou.

As I wrote yesterday, the first round is largely seen as a testing ground for the strength of the various blocs. Starting with the next round, a candidate needs to win a simple majority (65) in order to win the presidency. If the blank votes correspond neatly to the March 8 coalition’s strength, it means that neither a March 8-backed Aoun candidacy nor a March 14-backed Geagea candidacy will win without appealing to Jumblatt and the Druze community. Aoun and Geagea, both controversial, are longtime rivals, dating back to the Lebanese civil war of the late 1970s and 1980s.

That means that it’s likely that a consensus candidate might emerge, possibly including army commander Jean Kahwagi, central bank president Riad Salameh, or former minister Ziad Baroud.

The presidential vote is the first major decision of the national unity government of prime minister Tammam Salam, which formed in February after ten months of tough negotiations. Lebanon’s next president will face strong pressures as Syria’s civil war enters its fourth year, with elevated tensions between Lebanese Sunni and Shiite constituencies, and with a deluge of Syria refugees challenging Lebanon’s infrastructural capacity.

Lebanon’s parliament considers presidential choice tomorrow


aounWith the term of Lebanese president Michel Suleiman set to expire on May 25, the country’s 128-member parliament will convene tomorrow, April 23, for the first of what will likely be weeks of voting and negotiating to select a replacement.Lebanon

Though the president has less day-to-day power over Lebanese governance, it’s a vital post at a time when national unity is stretched to its limits and Syria nears the third anniversary of the start of a brutal civil war that falls along precarious sectarian lines. Syria’s conflict has brought a massive wave of refugees into Lebanon, and it’s also caused significant unrest from Tripoli to Beirut, with some Shiite Lebanese intervening on behalf of the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and some Sunni Lebanese intervening on behalf of anti-Assad rebels.

Though Suleiman has only served as Lebanon’s president since 2007, his increasingly critical remarks against Hezbollah (حزب الله‎), the powerful social, political and military Shiite organization, have made it unlikely that he’ll win reelection. Hezbollah, among all of Lebanon’s political groups, has taken the boldest and most consequential steps into the Syrian war in support of Assad.

The presidential vote follows the successful formation of a new government in February, which itself followed ten months of difficult negotiations guided by Lebanon’s current prime minister Tammam Salam. The national unity government includes ministers from the ‘March 8’ bloc,* the ‘March 14’ bloc and top Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (الحزب التقدمي الاشتراكي‎), which has switched between the March 8 and March 14 camps throughout the past five years.

Under Lebanon’s complex confessional system, whereby 64 seats in Lebanon’s national assembly (مجلس النواب) are reserved each for Muslims and for Christians, the presidency traditionally goes to a Maronite Christian, the premiership to a Sunni Muslim and the speakership of the national assembly to a Shiite Muslim.

That means that the race will feature some of Lebanon’s most prominent Maronite leaders. But with a two-thirds majority required to win the presidency, no one believes that Lebanon will choose its next president anytime soon. (In the second round of voting, a candidate needs only a simple majority to win the presidency.)

Right now, the only major declared candidate is Samir Geagea (pictured above, top), the leader of the Lebanese Forces (القوات اللبنانية‎). For now, at least, Geagea is the candidate backed by the entire cross-confessional March 14 coalition. But Geagea isn’t the most uniting candidate, even within the March 14 camp. He’s unlikely to wield enough support, even in the second round, to win enough over votes from the March 8 coalition, which will likely cast blank ballots in tomorrow’s vote. The March 8 bloc’s top choice for the presidency will almost certainly be Michel Aoun (pictured above, bottom), the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (التيار الوطني الحر‎), the most prominent Maronite group within the March 8 alliance.

As it stands, the first round is more important for establishing the relative strength of each bloc than for electing a president outright — to that degree, both Geagea and Aoun (to the extent casting a blank vote is casting a blank vote for Aoun) represent stalking horses for the March 14 and March 8 camps. Continue reading Lebanon’s parliament considers presidential choice tomorrow

Lebanon’s new government cause for guarded optimism


No one had high hopes that Tammam Salam would form a new government for Lebanon, and now that he has, the expectations for the Salam government are low — that he’ll see Lebanon through to a presidential election in May and parliamentary elections that have been delayed since last year.Lebanon

Ten months after the resignation of former prime minister Najib Mikati, Salam has assembled a national unity government that tries to bring together elements within the ‘March 8’ coalition sympathetic to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, including the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, and other elements within the ‘March 14’ coalition that have closer ties to the West and sympathies for the Syrian rebels in a civil war that’s soon to enter its fourth year.  The Syrian conflict has flared occasionally in Lebanon as well, with anti-Assad Sunni Lebanese and pro-Assad Shiite Lebanese clashing in Beirut and other cities.  At the end of 2013,  the assassination of prominent ‘March 14’ leader and former US ambassador Mohamed Chatah only underlined the fragility of Lebanon’s security.

The new 24-member Cabinet allocates eight positions to the ‘March 8’ coalition, nine positions to the ‘March 14’ coalition and seven more positions to those close to Salam, top Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and outgoing Lebanese president Michel Suleiman.

Salam must still reach a compromise over his government’s ‘policy statement,’ which will likely include little more than caretaker steps to get Lebanon its next elections and attention to ameliorating the growing crisis for Syrian refugees that have fled their country for Lebanon.  His government must then win a confidence vote in the parliament — an outcome not entirely ensured if the two competing blocs can’t agree to even the most basic guiding policy statement.

Last month, former prime minister Saad Hariri, the leader of the Future Movement, a top party within the ‘March 14’ coalition, and the son of the late former prime minister Rafic Hariri, backed away from his opposition to participating in a government that also includes Hezbollah.

Hezbollah, which is openly backing Assad in Syria, now faces violent repercussions throughout Lebanon, with Shiite-dominated areas of Beirut and southern Lebanon increasingly targeted by Sunni militants in retribution for Hezbollah’s efforts in Syria.  Hariri, who has been living outside Lebanon for the past two years out of fears for his safety.

The tentative breakthrough between Hezbollah and the Hariri bloc could pave the way for future cooperation over electing Suleiman’s successor, enacting a new election law and, most importantly of all, reducing the sectarian tension that still threatens to engulf Lebanon.

Accomplishing much in the next three months, however, won’t be incredibly easy — meaning that the chief accomplishment of the Salam government might be the fact that it even exists. Continue reading Lebanon’s new government cause for guarded optimism

The legacy of Mohamad Chatah — and his tragic assassination


Mohamad Chatah, a leader of the ‘March 14’ coalition in Lebanon and former ambassador to the United States, was killed in a Beirut car bomb blast on Friday in perhaps the most chilling political assassination in Lebanon since former prime minister Rafic Hariri was killed in 2005. Lebanon

Just a couple of hours before his death, Chatah tweeted the following message out to the world:

It’s a macabre epitaph for a man who spent his career pulling his country away from the impact of both Sunni and Shiite militants in favor of a vision of a modern, moderate and prosperous Lebanon.  Chatah, who was born in Tripoli, the Sunni-dominant city in Lebanon’s north, was a top advisor to Hariri, and other relatively anti-Assad prime ministers, including Rafic Hariri’s his son Saad and Fouad Siniora.  An economist who worked at the International Monetary Fund between the 1980s and 2005, Chatah served as Lebanon’s ambassador to the United States between 1997 and 2000.  After Hariri’s assassination in 2005, Chatah returned to Lebanon, where he served as a vice-governor of Lebanon’s central bank and, from 2008 to 2009, its finance minister.

Since the 2005 assassination, Lebanese politics has been polarized between the ‘March 14’ coalition (comprised of moderate Sunnis and Maronite Christians) that opposed the role Syria played in internal Lebanese affairs and the ‘March 8’ coalition (comprised of mostly Shiite Lebanese, Greek Orthodox, other Sunnis and a minority of militant Maronites) that were more pro-Syria.  Druze political leaders, the most prominent of which is Walid Jumblatt, are often play the determining role in which coalition holds power.  As Syria has descended into civil war, however, the two coalitions have taken increasingly strong positions over Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.  Even as most of Lebanon’s political elite have strained to keep their country from being sucked into Syria’s violence, the ‘March 8’ coalition is much more sympathetic to Assad and the ‘March 14’ coalition much less so.

Chatah was certainly among the most vocal opponents of both Assad and of Hezbollah (حزب الله‎), the Shiite militia and political group that is now openly and notoriously working to support the Alwaite (a Shi’a sect) Assad regime and has ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose leadership is also Shiite.  Sunni Salafists from Lebanon are also fighting openly and notoriously on behalf of chiefly Sunni anti-Assad rebels.  Just last week, Chatah wrote an open letter to Iran’s new president Hassan Rowhani to help reduce Hezbollah’s role in Syria in the hopes of stabilizing Lebanon.  It’s hard not to see Chatah’s death as a direct message from Assad supporters to the ‘March 14’ coalition.

Chatah was buried earlier today amid anti-Hezbollah chants, and Saad Hariri blamed Hezbollah directly on Friday:

“Those who assassinated Mohammad Shatah are the ones who assassinated Rafik Hariri; they are the ones who want to assassinate Lebanon,” the former prime minister said.

“The suspects are those who are running away from international justice and refuse to appear in the Special Tribunal for Lebanon; they are the ones opening the window of evil and chaos to Lebanon and the Lebanese and are drawing regional fires,” he added…. “Anger exists and we are heartbroken and we will remain heartbroken. But wisdom is needed so that we can build the Lebanon we dream of,” he added.

Though Lebanon hasn’t descended into outright war, sectarian tensions are rising: Continue reading The legacy of Mohamad Chatah — and his tragic assassination

U.S. move to support anti-Assad allies jeopardizes Lebanon’s stability

Hassan Nasrallah

The United States doesn’t typically like to hand gifts to Hassan Nasrallah, the longtime leader of Hezbollah, the Shi’a militia that remains a key player not only in the domestic politics of Lebanon, but throughout the Middle East. freesyriaUSflagSyria Flag IconLebanon

But when news broke last Friday that U.S. president Barack Obama was preparing U.S. assistance to arm Syrian rebels in their fight against Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, that’s in effect what the United States has done by broadening the two-year civil war in Syria, a conflict that neighboring, vulnerable Lebanon has largely managed to avoid in the past two years.

Hezbollah’s recent military mobilization against the mostly Sunni rebels, however, in support of Assad, was already rupturing the national Lebanese determination to stay out of the conflict.  The U.S. announcement of support for the rebels, however tentative, gives Hezbollah a belated justification for having expanded its own military support to Assad, and risks further internationalizing what began as an internal Syrian revolt against the Assad regime.

The U.S. decision to support anti-Assad rebels

The United States is signaling that it will provide small arms and ammunition to only the most ‘moderate’ of Syria’s rebels, though not the heavier anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry that rebel leaders have said would make a difference.  But even if the Obama administration changed its mind tomorrow, the damage will have already been done in the decision to back the largely Sunni rebels.  No matter what happens, Hezbollah will now be able to posture that it’s fighting on behalf of the entire Muslim world against Western intruders rather than taking sides in a violent sectarian conflagration between two branches of Islam.

Supporters of U.S. intervention credibly argue that Hezbollah’s decisive intervention earlier in May and in June in Qusayr, a town in western Syria, led to an Assad victory that will inevitably make Syria’s civil war longer and deadlier.  Hezbollah’s decision to intervene on behalf of Assad was a key turning point that marked a switch from indirect and clandestine support to becoming an outright pro-Assad belligerent in Syria, which brings tensions ever closer to exploding in Lebanon.  Furthermore, Russian support for Assad, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly strident opposition to Assad, as well as implicit Iranian support for Hezbollah, means that Syria is already a proxy for geopolitical positioning, whether U.S. policymakers like it or not.

But that doesn’t mean that the active support of the United States will suddenly make things better in Syria — after all, the United States has a controversial track record over the past decade in the Middle East.  It’s winding down a 12-year war in Afghanistan that, though it pushed the Taliban from power within weeks in 2001, has done little to establish lasting security or foster a truly national government.  Its 2003 invasion of Iraq, which toppled one of the two Ba’athist regimes in the Middle East in removing Saddam Hussein from power, and the subsequent U.S. occupation still failed to prevent vicious Shi’a-Sunni sectarian fighting that approached the level of civil war between 2006 and 2008 and that still simmers today.

It’s the same familiar kind of bloody sectarian violence that now features in Syria, the remaining Ba’athist regime in the Middle East.

Moreover, the risks to Lebanon are now even more staggering.  Lebanon, which had been set to hold national elections last weekend on June 16, has instead postponed those elections indefinitely, because negotiations among Lebanon’s various religious confessional groups to draft a new election law have taken a backseat to the more pressing task of keeping the country together.

The U.S. came to its decision in light of a determination that Assad had used chemical weapons against at least a small segment of the rebels, thereby crossing a ‘red line’ that Obama established in August 2012 in the heat of the U.S. presidential campaign last year.  But as The Washington Post‘s Ernesto Londoño reported last week, U.S. advisers had already been working quietly with Jordanian officials for months in order to reduce the chances that Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons will fall into misuse by either the Assad regime or by the opposition.

It still remains unclear just what the Obama administration believes is the overwhelming U.S. national interest in regard of Syria — though the Assad regime is brutal, repressive and now likely guilty of war crimes, there’s not necessarily any guarantee that a Sunni-dominated Syria would be any better.  Last Friday, U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon indicated that he opposes the U.S. intervention in Syria because it risks doing more harm than good.

As Andrew Sullivan wrote in a scathing commentary last week, the forces that oppose Assad are a mixed bunch, and there’s no way to know who exactly the United States is proposing to arm:

More staggeringly, [Obama] is planning to put arms into the hands of forces that are increasingly indistinguishable from hardcore Jihadists and al Qaeda – another brutal betrayal of this country’s interests, and his core campaign promise not to start dumb wars. Yep: he is intending to provide arms to elements close to al Qaeda. This isn’t just unwise; it’s close to insane….

Do we really want to hand over Syria’s chemical arsenal to al Qaeda? Do we really want to pour fuel on the brushfire in the sectarian bloodbath in the larger Middle East? And can you imagine the anger and bitterness against the US that this will entail regardless? We are not just in danger of arming al Qaeda, we are painting a bulls-eye on every city in this country, for some party in that religious struggle to target.

I understand why the Saudis and Jordanians, Sunni bigots and theocrats, want to leverage us into their own sectarian warfare against the Shiites and Alawites. But why should America take sides in such an ancient sectarian conflict? What interest do we possibly have in who wins a Sunni-Shiite war in Arabia?

The ‘rebels’ are, of course, a far from monolithic unit — the anti-Assad forces include all stripes of characters, including the Free Syria Army, a front of former Syrian army commanders dismayed at Assad’s willingness to commit such widespread violence against the Syrian people, but also including more radical Islamist groups such as the Syria Islamic Front, the Syria Liberation Front and even groups with non-Syrian leaders with global links to al-Qaeda, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which is comprised of radical Salafists who want to transform Syria into an Islamist state.

Liberal interventionism strikes again

When Obama announced earlier this month that he was promoting Susan Rice as his new national security adviser and Samantha Power as his nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, I argued that it was a victory for liberal interventionists within Obama’s administration and that it could mean that the United States takes a stronger humanitarian interest in Syria.  Many other commentators, such as Wonkblog‘s Max Fisher, downplayed that possibility, arguing that their promotions meant ‘not much’ for U.S. policy on Syria, and that ‘there is good reason to believe that Power and Rice are not about to change U.S. policy in Syria.’

That, of course, turned out to be a miscalculation.  Less than 10 days after the Rice/Power announcement, the Obama administration is now ratcheting up its involvement in the Levant on a largely humanitarian, liberal interventionist basis, with the plausible possibility that a U.S.-supported no-fly-zone could soon follow.

The key fear is that the Obama administration’s ‘humanitarian’ response may result in an even more destabilizing effect on Lebanon. Continue reading U.S. move to support anti-Assad allies jeopardizes Lebanon’s stability

Mikati’s resignation need not set off immediate alarms about Lebanon’s future


In Lebanon, elections are both much less and much more than what we typically think of as elections. Lebanon

Given that the country’s constitution mandates that the prime minister is always a Sunni Muslim, the president a Maronite Christian and the speaker of the national assembly a Shi’a Muslim, it’s not a surprise that parliamentary elections are a carefully stage-managed process of allocating seats to Lebanon’s national assembly (مجلس النواب) to ensure half of the seats (64) go to Muslims and another half (64) go to Christians — specific allocations guarantee a set number of seats for each of Lebanon’s 22 confessionals.

So the resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister Najib Mikati (pictured above) on Friday should be seen as a prologue to the electoral choreography, given that new elections are due in June when the current parliamentary terms ends.  Lebanon’s president Michel Suleiman has accepted Mikati’s resignation, but asked Mikati to stay on as a caretaker prime minister until a new prime minister can be announced.

It should not necessarily be seen as a warning sign that Lebanon is invariably descending into chaos or that it is doomed to be drawn into Syria’s civil war, notwithstanding the latest clashes in Tripoli, which seem to have quieted since the weekend.

Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city on its northern coast near the Syrian border, is especially geared toward tension, with its own Sunni majority and Alawite minority mirroring the demographic dynamic in Syria.  But despite some high-profile kidnappings in the Bekaa Valley last August, and flare-ups from time to time in Tripoli, Lebanon has done a reasonable job in avoiding the same fate as Syria.

That’s in no small part due to the resolve of many (though not all) of Lebanon’s political elite to keep Lebanon from returning to the era of civil war that devastated the country in the late 1970s and 1980s, though as the Syrian civil war approaches its two-year anniversary, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Lebanese leaders to remain neutral in the conflict.  That became especially true after a car bomb blast in Beirut last October killed Lebanon’s top intelligence official, Wissam al-Hassan, a longtime Hariri ally — his assassination is widely believed to have been engineered by Syrian — or even Hezbollah (حزب الله‎) — forces.  Hezbollah is also widely believed of actively supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime with military force inside Syria, because Assad (together with Iran’s regime) are the two major lines of political and monetary support for Hezbollah.  If Assad falls in Syria, Hezbollah will no longer be able to look to Damascus for patronage.

So while Mikati’s resignation need not mean an irreparable retreat for Lebanon, it nonetheless portends a difficult few months ahead — the key stumbling block is agreeing to an election law in advance of elections or, at minimum, the agreement for an electoral supervision body to oversee the planned June 9 poll.  Another solution might include the extension of a national unity government with a minor delay of the elections.

The next step lies with Suleiman, who could call a ‘national dialogue’ among all of Lebanon’s political leaders in hopes of achieving at least a caretaker government to see through the implementation of a law that will clear the path for new elections.   Continue reading Mikati’s resignation need not set off immediate alarms about Lebanon’s future

Syrian turmoil spills over into Lebanon with Beirut car blast

Needless to say, the car bomb blast in the Christian neighborhood of Ashrafieh in the Lebanese capital of Beirut marks the deadliest spillover from the Syrian civil war into Lebanon.

You can tell that political tension has been on the rise for some time — just yesterday former Sunni prime minister Saad Hariri accused the largely Shi’a Hezbollah of openly supporting Syrian president Bashar Assad and actively participating in the civil war there.

Hariri belongs to the anti-Syrian ‘March 14’ coalition, while Hezbollah has supported the more pro-Syrian ‘March 8’ coalition, which currently governs Lebanon under prime minister Najib Mikati.  The two coalitions stem from 2005, when Syrian troops left Lebanon after nearly three decades of occupation in the wake of the assassination of Saad Hariri’s father, prime minister Rafik Hariri.

If you’re not following him already on Twitter, you should be following Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center — he wonders whether the prevailing ‘mutually assured destruction’ sentiment that has becalmed Lebanese politics since the end of the civil war in the 1980s may be transforming back into a more existential fight for survival.  Furthermore, he points to today’s statements by longtime Druze leader Walid Jumblatt (who’s moved from pro-‘March 14’ to pro-‘March 8’ and now seems to be moving back to a more pro-‘March 14’ posture) and Maronite leader Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces that directly blame Assad for the blast, which killed eight people, including a top security official, Major General Wissam Hasan, a Hariri ally.  So the tone today is (perhaps understandably) incredibly inflamed and accusatory.

Tense though things may be, it’s important to remember this is just the first such car blast in Beirut since 2008.  Though there have been short bursts of violence earlier this year in Sunni-dominated Tripoli on the north coast of Lebanon and a high-profile kidnapping in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon has actually proven incredibly resistant to the spillover from the increasingly brutal civil war.  There’s no reason to think this time will be any different — Lebanon’s military remains highly professionalized and not politicized, and can be expected to be on high alarm in the weeks ahead to prevent any further unrest.  And many of Lebanon’s top politicians, who emerged out of the horrific Lebanese civil war from the late 1970s and 1980s, certainly know how far their country has come in the ensuing two decades and will hope that political resolve can calm passions, especially in the short term.

But with Turkey and Syria now skirmishing on their border over Syrian shelling that killed five Turkish citizens in the Hatay province earlier this month, and with Israel warning Hezbollah about sending unmanned vehicles into Israeli airspace (perhaps to gather intelligence on behalf of Hezbollah ally Iran), there are signs that the Syrian war is spilling over throughout the region, not just Lebanon.

Photo credit to Hasan Shaaban of the Daily Star.


Lebanon remains tense after kidnappings, hopes to avoid Syrian chaos spillover

Lebanon’s prime minister Najib Mikati yesterday appeared to call for something like a unity government, with further signs that the Syrian civil war next door could cause chaos in neighboring Lebanon.

The situation in Beruit remains tense— the latest episode involved the kidnapping Wednesday of over two dozen Syrians (and a Turkish and Saudi national) by the Meqdad clan (a Shi’a group from the Bekaa Valley, a Shi’a region in eastern Lebanon near Syria) in retaliation for the abduction of one of its kinsman in Damascus.  Although the isolated kidnappings involve just a handful of Syrians, the incident has left Lebanon very much on guard.

The clan claimed that the kidnapped victims were members of the Free Syrian Army, the main opposition group to Syrian president Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in the ongoing civil war in Syria, a country that’s had an outsized influence on Lebanon for the past three decades.

The clan has released several hostages and has announced that it will not abduct any further victims, but the move was nonetheless troubling for a country that stands more to lose from the escalation of the Syrian civil war than any other country in the Middle East.  It caused Air France and other airlines to divert flights from Beirut to other cities after reports of a blockage of the road from the airport to Beirut, and it’s been calamitous enough for Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait to urge their nationals to leave Lebanon.

Another group, the al-Mukhtar al-Thufki brigade, announced that it abducted 10 Free Syrian Army members in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley, and it will furthermore target anyone that is a Free Syrian Army supporter.

Lebanon, which endured a grueling sectarian civil war from the late 1970s through the entire 1980s, has done an admirable job of avoiding spillover from the Syrian chaos for the past year and a half — aside from some unrest in the largely Sunni city of Tripoli on Lebanon’s north coast earlier this year in May, Lebanon has avoided much of the bloodshed and chaos that has enveloped Syria in the past 18 months and Lebanon, despite current tensions, remains far from the hell of its civil war.

It remains to be seen if Mikati can form a new unity government to stand in the face of growing shockwaves from the Syrian war, given that Lebanon’s two main political blocs are defined on the basis of their pro-Syria and anti-Syria stances.  A new general election in Lebanon is due in 2013.

Multi-volume books could be written that barely begin to reveal the intricacies of Lebanese politics — it’s safe to say that the confessional system, whereby each of Lebanon’s 18 religious groups are allocated power, is complex.  Furthermore, the Syria axis defines Lebanese politics even more than the traditional left-right axis.  Continue reading Lebanon remains tense after kidnappings, hopes to avoid Syrian chaos spillover