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Lebanon's Fateful Showdown By: Amir Taheri
New York Post | Monday, February 11, 2008

AS the Lebanese parliament prepares to make yet another attempt at electing a new president for the crisis-stricken nation, few people are prepared to sound an optimistic note. The next parliamentary session, scheduled for Feb. 11, may not even be held. Even if it is, there's no sign of an agreement on who should be the next head of state.

The new session comes against a background of heightened violence. On Jan. 25, a car bomb killed a senior Lebanese security official - described as the key man in the UN investigation into the murder of former Premier Rafiq Hariri.

Two days later, the army - still angry at the murder of several of its officers over the last few months - killed seven Shiite anti-government demonstrators.

On the surface, the tension could be ascribed to the failure of the two blocs that dominate the Lebanese politics to agree on who should succeed Emile Lahoud, the pro-Syrian president whose term ended last November.

The majority bloc, the March 14 Front, wants a president who'll help consolidate the achievements of the Cedar Revolution - the Lebanese independence movement that forced Syria's occupation army out of Lebanon in 2005. Yet the Hezbollah-led opposition front regards the Cedar Revolution as an American plot to split the Muslim world, and insists that the next president should have the prior approval of both Tehran and Damascus.

Initially, the March 14 bloc had decided to elect the new president in strict accordance with the Constitution. That would've enabled it to choose its man with a simple majority of the 128 seats in the parliament after three rounds of inconclusive voting.

In November, however, America invited Syria to a conference on the Middle East held at Annapolis, Md. The March 14 leaders interpreted this as a signal that Washington and Damascus had cut a deal on Lebanon. That encouraged the idea of finding a compromise candidate - army chief Michel Suleiman, who maintains a dialogue with both camps.

But now the stakes may have risen beyond the election of a new president.

The Washington-Damascus deal ignored a third player in this game - the Islamic Republic in Iran, which controls the Lebanese opposition bloc through Hezbollah.

From the start, Tehran wanted ex-Gen. Michel Aoun as Lebanon's new president. It publicly denounced Syria's decision to attend the Annapolis conference and reminded Damascus that it couldn't cut a separate deal with Washington without Iranian approval. Aoun, put in charge of the negotiations with the majority bloc, was instructed to demand what amounted to a veto power for the opposition over any future government of Lebanon.

Tehran has always seen Lebanon as another battleground in its war against the US presence in the Middle East. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has promised to "teach the Americans a lesson," was not prepared to let Washington win a major diplomatic and political victory in Lebanon while also attaching Syria to its overall strategy.

Rather than resisting the Iranian scheme, Washington decided to subcontract its Lebanon policy to its Arab allies, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Acting through the Arab League, those two powers proposed a compromise that would paralyze any future government in Beirut.

Under the Lebanese Constitution, the Cabinet needs a two-thirds majority to approve any "critical" policy of national importance. The compromise would've given the majority 13 seats in the Cabinet and the opposition 10, with the president naming the remaining seven.

It now seems that Syria, pressed by Iran, has decided to withdraw its support for Suleiman. But it's still reluctant to throw its weight behind Aoun.

One reason is that Aoun, in the 1980s, fought the Syrians in Lebanon. Damascus sees him as a loose cannon - an egomaniac whose personal ambitions might clash with its strategic goals in Lebanon.

In the past week or so, Syria's allies in Lebanon have started circulating a new name: ex-Foreign Minister Fares Bou'ez , a son-in-law of former President Elias Hrawi. But he is involved in a number of scandals and a major court case over his alleged dispossession of his sister of ownership of a large piece of land. Nor is it at all certain that Tehran would accept Bou'ez, whom it deems a Syrian puppet.

The post-Annapolis experience has showed that Syria won't or can't deliver what it promises. Since Annapolis, "targeted killings" of anti-Syrian figures have continued, while gunmen have attacked a US diplomatic convoy and an Irish contingent of the UN's Lebanon force.

The idea that Washington could cut a deal with Damascus while excluding Tehran is too naive to merit rebuttal. The so-called "Syrian option," espoused by the likes of Nancy Pelosi and James Baker III, is a childish fantasy.

The Bush administration needs an urgent review of its policy on Lebanon:

* It should remove ambiguities regarding its support for the democratically elected Lebanese government.

* It should ask the March 14 bloc to do its duty as the majority, which includes electing a new president.

The consensus candidate could still be Suleiman - provided he's prepared to abide by the Constitution. Except for Syria and Libya, which oppose his nomination, all 22 Arab League members would support him, provided the 14 March bloc so wishes.

The March 14 bloc is the fruit of the Cedar Revolution and must act in a revolutionary manner. It should fix a date for the next session of the parliament - which, under the Constitution, can be convened anywhere. The pro-Iran opposition would have the option of attending or staying away.

The game of postponing the session can't go on forever. The majority should elect the new president and prepare for fresh general elections, transcending the opposition's tactic of paralyzing the institutions.

With a new president elected, the opposition would be staring down the barrel of a gun - facing the prospect of provoking a civil war as proxies for the Islamic Republic in its duel with the United States. My guess is that, with the exception of a few Hezbollah chiefs who've sold out to Iran, no opposition group would want to shoulder such a responsibility.

The opposition bloc plays Iran's game because it thinks Tehran can win. It's up to the children of the Cedar Revolution and their supporters in the West and the Arab world to disabuse the opposition of that illusion.

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