Hezbollah, Lebanon, March 14, Syria

Lebanon: Fair-Weather Model or the Eye of the Storm?

TammamSalam_FP_06042013Theodor Hanf famously described Lebanon’s consociational system as a “fair-weather model,” meaning that it sails smoothly under sunny skies but is not built for stormy conditions. I found myself thinking back to this statement as I observed the remarkably smooth accession of Tammam Salam last week to the post of Lebanon’s Prime Minister. Compared with the squalls that have accompanied power shifts over the past few years, Mr. Salam’s peaceable appointment felt like a foregone conclusion.

In light of this, I wonder if it might be possible to turn Hanf’s dictum around and use it as a diagnostic instrument: a barometer of political ‘weather’. In other words, given the ease with which Lebanon’s factions came together behind Salam’s nomination, might we conclude that conditions are actually… fair?

Obviously, the hard part (forming the cabinet) is still ahead, and we’re starting to get a sense that an old-fashioned Lebanese standoff may indeed be in the works. In the meantime, though, I think it’s worth asking how it was that one prime minister resigned and another one was appointed in relatively short order, with a minimum of fuss. What does this suggest about the balance of power in the country and the calculations of the parties?

I have no answer to this question, but my feeling is that the leadership of the Future Movement and Hizbullah are so deeply involved in the Syrian crisis that they’ve ironically agreed to agree about Lebanon for the time being. Lebanon’s government has become a sideshow to the major preoccupation of its leaders: the struggle to control Syria’s future. Along these lines, I highly recommend reading the excellent reporting by my friends Nour Malas and Farnaz Fassihi in the Wall Street Journal last week, along with the incredible PBS Frontline documentary (Syria Behind the Lines) that came out a couple of days ago.  I’ve quoted some of the salient bits from the WSJ piece below.

Lebanon, divided along sectarian lines that support and oppose Syria’s regime, has become a logistical support base for the civil war next door. Fighters and weapons for both warring sides in Syria pass through the country…

Lebanon’s steep descent, in many ways, goes back to October, when an explosion ripped through the car of Brigadier Gen. Wissam al Hassan, killing him. Gen. Hassan was the country’s intelligence chief and a key figure in the Sunni March 14th group.

His assassination helped unleash a spiral of sectarian violence amid speculation that he may have been targeted because of his secret role in Syria’s conflict.

Gen. Hassan had used his post as head of intelligence to organize weapons shipments to Syrian rebels from Lebanese territory in the two years before he was killed, according to several key associates familiar with the network.

Several times he funneled weapons from Lebanon’s own government stocks, replacing them soon afterward, according to rebel groups his network helped arm. Lebanese government officials declined to comment on his activities…

Meanwhile, in the Shiite-dominated south of Lebanon, Hezbollah has been flexing its muscles to aid the Syrian government.

IranAir added an extra flight each week between Tehran and Beirut after security threats inside Syria made using the Damascus airport difficult. Hezbollah wants to preserve a supply route from Iran into Lebanon that can be used regardless of whether the Syrian government survives its civil war, according to people in Iran and Lebanon familiar with Iran’s connections with Hezbollah…

“Hezbollah and Hariri’s group are playing with fire. They will eventually bring the war to Lebanon,” said Farid Khazen, a Christian member of parliament and a political-science professor at the American University of Beirut…

The Syrian conflict has changed Lebanon in profound ways. Nearly one million Syrians have come into Lebanon as refugees or new residents. Fighting has broken out between Lebanese Alawites and Sunnis in the northern city of Tripoli, killing at least half a dozen civilians. Alawites are the Shiite-linked Muslim sect that controls the Syrian government…

Soon after Mr. Hassan’s death, Sunni networks supporting the Syrian rebels turned large industrial warehouses in Tripoli into arms depots. Clerics say they try to restrain waves of frustrated, jobless youth from entering the battle in Syria. But many go anyway…

“From the birth of the Lebanese state, Tripoli has resisted being a part of Lebanon,” said Ahmad al QasQas, a media representative for the Lebanese chapter of Hizb al-Tahrir, a pan-Arab Islamist party with aspirations for one nation spanning the region under the rule of an emir. “We have a true, Islamic link to Syria.”

Discussion

7 thoughts on “Lebanon: Fair-Weather Model or the Eye of the Storm?

  1. I think the explanation for what happened is rather simple. Berri is planning for the day after the fall of Assad and has started kissing Saudi ass. The last thing Hezbollah needs at this stage is internal Shia strife in Lebanon. They are playing along telling themselves that the government will only be till the elections. They are also counting on Aoun to obstruct government formation.

    Posted by AIG | April 12, 2013, 5:18 pm
  2. “From the birth of the Lebanese state, Tripoli has resisted being a part of Lebanon,” That’s really too bad because I have never ever heard of that sentiment but then again I am not from Tripoli. I wonder if there are some readers from there who could confirm or deny that this statement is representative of how tripolitians feel about their Lebanese citizenship.

    Posted by rpver | April 12, 2013, 5:46 pm
  3. AIG,
    I don’t think HA build their strategies around NB. What has happened is clearly a shrinking of the goal posts, HA cannot be stretched on too many fronts and have opted for a more passive approach to the internal politics, especially after the former cabinet’s dismal performance. Faced with widespread disapproval from the Lebanese, The ongoing Syrian conflict and its direct involvement, and the rise of the antagonising Sunni extremists, the last thing they needed is internal bickering and paralysis. Enter the stage a neutral? maybe not so confrontational candidate that most can agree on. That will keep the Pols busy, the antagonists a little off their back, and the population can at least have a sigh of relief.

    Posted by Maverick | April 12, 2013, 9:39 pm
  4. Amazing how far journalists will go and what they get away with to make a good story: Quoting a member of Hizb al-Tahrir on this subject is as representative as quoting the Ku-Klux-Klan on the soon to be coming 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement. Somebody has the aspiration of becoming the next Robert Fisk.

    Posted by Nadim Shehadi | April 13, 2013, 2:57 am
  5. Maverik,

    You may be right, but if the March 8 front was really united and on the same page, things would have been different. Also, why would Hezbollah grant KSA a victory in Lebanon while fighting them tooth and nail in Syria? Now the rebels will have it easier using Lebanon as a base against Syria.

    Posted by AIG | April 13, 2013, 10:20 am
  6. Grant KSA a victory? I don’t think they had a choice, imagine if they forced their Sunni candidate to the premiership…again….It doesn’t take a soothsayer to know what would happen. Plus, his ally in the orange corner keeps burning bridges with people and his ministers failed to live up to the hyped expectations of saviours. HA’s co-religionist Nabih Berri does not rely on Syria for his existence and has redrawn his options. In other words, F*#k they’re in a tight spot!

    Posted by Maverick | April 15, 2013, 12:08 am

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  1. Pingback: On Syria, What Separates Assir From Hizbullah & Hariri? | Qifa Nabki - April 24, 2013

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