After Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in 2005, Lebanese rose up against the occupying Syrians who were widely perceived as responsible for the murder. Lebanese politics became sharply divided; you were pro-Syrian or anti-Syrian. It did not take long before the Syrians were driven from the country in the so-called Cedar Revolution. Unfortunately, sectarianism turns Lebanese politics into a hamster on a wheel. There is always something happening, but nothing is ever done. Once again, partly due to sectarianism but also due to the odd evolution of Middle Eastern politics, Beirut has found itself back to square one.
The three main external influences in Lebanon have long been the US, Saudi Arabia and Syria. The 2005 expulsion of Syria came during a low-point in both the Syrian-Saudi relationship and the Syrian-US relationship; Washington and Riyadh were both quick to support the March 14 coalition and its stance against a Iran-allied Damascus.
[tweetmeme] Yet, recently, Riyadh has been courting Bashar Assad in an attempt to lure Syria away from Tehran while Washington has been flirting with the Syrian president as well. Like Saudi Arabia, the US is looking to pull Damascus away from Tehran while simultaneously trying to resurrect peace talks between Syria and Israel in light of the seemingly stalled Palestinian route. After strengthening ties with Turkey as well, Syria is a powerful strategic player in the ever evolving Middle East.
Typically, internal Lebanese politics have been used as a pawn in the greater, regional political game. The support that current PM Saad Hariri’s coalition enjoyed in 2005 has slowly melted away. Saudi Arabia traded in its used policy of supporting Lebanese sovereignty for a shiny new policy of reconciliation. Similarly, the staunch anti-Syrian sentiments of the Bush Administration has dissipated with the maturation of the Obama Administration.
Predictably, Lebanese politicians have been quick to perceive the shifting political winds and have set sail to Damascus. In December, Saad Hariri made his trek to Damascus to meet with President Assad – who most consider responsible for the death of the older Hariri. Talal Arslan, the head of the Lebanese Democratic Party, recently met with Assad and reportedly emphasized the importance of continued Syrian support in Lebanon. Socialist and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt – who once called Assad a butcher – has made the humbling trek back to Damascus as well (his second such trip). Furthermore, this month Hariri will return to Damascus with between 8 and 11 ministers. It certainly seems like the same game as 5 years ago.
Not only has the rapprochement between Syria and both the US and Saudi Arabia weakened the March 14 leaders (Hariri and Jumblatt in particular) it has strengthened the hand of Hezbollah. Although the US has been courting Syria, Assad has given no indication that he is willing to drop his relationship with the Shi’ite group. Consequently, as Lebanese leaders crawl back into Syria’s bed, Hezbollah’s power grows.
Interestingly, the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon’s zero-sum political game comes at an inopportune time for Lebanon. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is close to concluding its five-year investigation of the Hariri murder and recently questioned around 12 Hezbollah members, leading to rumors that the STL is targeting Hezbollah. Although Hezbollah chief Nasrallah contends that the questioned members are witnesses and not suspects, Lebanon is preparing itself for the consequences if Hezbollah was involved.
It has been widely speculated that the official implication of Hezbollah in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri would cause substantial destabilization of Lebanese politics. It is unlikely that even an indictment of Hezbollah would lead to the groups demise, but such an event will certainly keep the wheel spinning in Beirut.
Should the STL officially accuse Hezbollah, politicians in Lebanon will certainly react with yet another about face. The inclusion of Hezbollah in the current government and the reconciliation between Lebanon and Syria has forced many Lebanese politicians to soften their stance of the Shi’ite group. A indictment of Hezbollah could force Lebanese politics into an awkward position of holding Syria close while denouncing Hezbollah.
The results could be, at worst, a return to violence. Even if peace is maintained in Lebanon, the results of the STL are certain to keep Lebanese politicians running in their wheels.