The deal ended the worst fighting the country has seen since the 1975-1990 Civil War, leaving up to 80 dead during two weeks of bitter clashes in Beirut and Tripoli. The eruption followed the Siniora Government’s decision to shut down Hezbollah’s private telephone network and remove the security chief at Beirut International Airport, who is close to Hezbollah.
Calling the Government’s action a "declaration of war", the Hezbollah-led Opposition took to the streets in protest. In the ensuing clashes, Hezbollah fighters swept pro-Government militias aside, quickly overrunning their areas before handing them over to the control of the Army, which had stayed out of the fighting.
For its part, Hezbollah, which is classified as a terrorist group by the United States, insisted its communication network played a vital role in its "victory" during the 2006 war with Israel and accused the Government of endangering the country’s security.
Yet the escalation found its part in a far larger crisis. Lebanon had faced political paralysis since November 2006, when the pro-Syrian Opposition led by Hezbollah withdrew from a national unity coalition cabinet, demanding more power. What ensued was an 18-month sit-in by the Opposition that targeted the headquarters of the Western-backed Government and brought downtown Beirut to a standstill. The political freeze then deepened further when both sides failed to agree on a new presidential candidate upon the expiration of Emile Lahoud’s term in November 2007.
Having underestimated Hezbollah’s response, the Government finally annulled its two decisions citing the "higher national interest" amid fears that the country was sliding irreversibly towards civil war. At the same time, the Arab League – headed by a delegation of eight foreign ministers – held talks with the two sides in a bid to find a solution.
At the behest of the tiny resource-rich State of Qatar in the Persian Gulf, both sides agreed to talks in Doha. Following five days of intense negotiations, an agreement was finally reached granting Hezbollah significant dividends.
Underlining its firm grip on the balance of power in Lebanon, the Western-backed Government agreed to all of Hezbollah’s conditions; most importantly, the formation of a national unity government that grants the group the right to veto any legislation it objects to.
This is a significant victory. Since 2006, the Government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, with Western support, had repeatedly rejected this demand. Having overplayed its hand, the Government’s abrupt climb down raised serious doubts about the efficacy of its strategy – in which it was seen to have pushed Hezbollah into a corner. Moreover, overt US support to the Government to the tune of more than $1 billion has raised questions about its role in the crisis.
Hezbollah, which is backed morally and financially by Syria and Iran, rejects calls to do away with its weapons, arguing that they are essential in the struggle against Israel. And while the Doha accord states that the "use of arms or violence is forbidden to settle political differences," Hezbollah had, until recently, fiercely adhered to its position of only using its weapons for resistance purposes and not internally.
Nevertheless, the former Army chief and President-elect Michel Suleiman is set to host a dialogue on Hezbollah’s weapons in the coming weeks. This is set to define the relationship between the "resistance" and the Lebanese State. For the March 14 Alliance that makes up the bulk of the Government, the issue of weapons tops the political agenda, and it is demanding action now.
For the United States and the international community, the Siniora Government’s back down is a serious setback for their efforts. The United States and France co-sponsored UN Resolution 1559, which called for Hezbollah’s disarmament. Following the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel War, Resolution 1701 reiterated their demand that Hezbollah disarm
But with the group rearming thanks to Syrian and Iranian generosity, Hezbollah appears to be adopting the IRA’s ballot and armalite strategy in combining political participation with armed resistance. And getting Hezbollah to disarm seems even more remote given their veto over Government decisions and the role of outside players.
For now, Lebanon remains a playground for several foreign players – Israel, the United States, France, Iran and Syria – who are each vying for influence and power. Washington has been fighting a protracted proxy war with Iran and Syria for influence in Lebanon (as well as Iraq and the Palestinian Territories). And it comes as no surprise that President Bush authorised the CIA to undertake covert action against Hezbollah last year to help the Siniora Government.
But the US has other interests at stake and while Hezbollah have shown themselves to be adept strategists, the future remains uncertain.
Damascus is trying to neutralise the threat posed by the UN Tribunal, which is investigating the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and other anti-Syrian politicians. Washington and Paris were instrumental in ensuring the Tribunal was set up over Hezbollah’s objections. Yet with Syrian involvement suspected, how will the Hezbollah-led Opposition react if any Syrians are indicted? Could we witness a return to the streets?
Then there’s Israel. Hezbollah insists on the right of resistance, yet its opponents accuse it of acting unilaterally and starting the 2006 war with Israel. Would it coordinate with other members of the Government in any future operations, or will its guns fall silent?
There’s also the prospect of radicalisation among the country’s Sunni Muslims. The deepening sectarian division could encourage steps toward militarisation and jihadism especially following the spectacular failure of the pro-Government militias to "defend" Sunni areas. Already, there are indications in North Lebanon that militant Sunnis are stirring. The fighting at Nahr al Bared between the al Qaeda-inspired Fatah al Islam group and the Lebanese Army last year that killed hundreds is a chilling reminder.
The peace deal got off to an inauspicious beginning after limited clashes broke out between Government and Opposition supporters following the inauguration of President Suleiman – but both sides have since vowed to turn their backs on the violence of the past.
However, the reappointment of Fouad Siniora as Prime Minister has angered the Opposition. They say the move is a "recipe for conflict rather reconciliation".
For now the peace has been restored but the political manoeuvring looks set to continue as the United States, and Iran and Syria on the other side seek to boost their influence. Moreover events on the ground have managed to blunt America’s ambitions, at least temporarily, while serving to further dent the Bush Administration’s Middle East aspirations.
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