Middle East

International Tug of War Complicating Lebanon's Election Outcome

Lebanese political divisions deepened in the aftermath of last summer's war between Hezbollah and Israel. (Photo: Lucy Fielder/IRIN)

Lebanon's tussling factions are headed for a stalemate, settlement, or war, and international actors as much as local ones will decide which, analysts say.

The presidential vote that was to be held on Sept. 25 was deferred until Oct. 23 after lawmakers failed to find a consensus candidate. Opposition members of parliament (M.P.'s) boycotted the vote, arguing that Lebanon's fragile sectarian political system requires a president agreeable to both camps.

A two-month period of horse-trading is permitted by the constitution and analysts say that in Lebanon the immediate election of a president is historically rare. However, by Nov. 23, M.P.'s must choose a successor to President Emile Lahoud, whose extension by a Syrian-influenced constitutional amendment three years ago plunged Lebanon into chaos.

The United Nations Security Council urged Lebanon on Sept. 27 to elect the president freely, fairly, and on time.

Tiny Country, Big Influence

Lebanon is a sliver of Mediterranean coast with a population of just four million, but international interest in the election is intense. The United States and Saudi Arabia lead most of the international community in backing Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

"The USA is interested in Lebanon for several reasons, including keeping Lebanon as a democratic success story and putting pressure on Syria," said Oussama Safa, head of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. "And the U.S. does not want the opposition to get any mileage out of this election, especially Hezbollah."

Washington's arch-foes Iran and Syria back Hezbollah. "If the Iranians decide to fight it out with the Americans, things will probably escalate in Lebanon," Safa said.

Finger on the Triggers

Since last summer's war between Israel and the armed wing of Hezbollah—widely accepted as a strategic defeat for Israel—the international spotlight has shone on Hezbollah's weapons.

After the 1975-1990 civil war, Hezbollah was the only militia to retain its arms by Lebanese consensus, forming what was called the "national resistance" to Israel's continued occupation of south Lebanon. Israeli troops withdrew from the south in 2000 after a 22-year occupation and a war of attrition with Hezbollah fighters.

The conflict that has cleaved Lebanon in two since Lahoud's extension and the assassination in February 2005 of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which Washington and its Lebanese allies blamed on Syria, boiled over after last summer's war.

Though the government had confirmed Hezbollah's "right" to "liberate" an Israeli-occupied border pocket, the Shebaa Farms, in July 2005's National Dialogue sessions, on Aug. 13, 2006, cabinet members called for a session to discuss disarming Hezbollah.

That drew a furious response from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who accused Siniora of being a "traitor" and of working to an American and Israeli agenda. The dispute escalated and last November all Shia ministers and one allied Christian resigned from the government.

"What does the United States want with Lebanon's elections? A candidate who would serve their agenda, which is neutralizing the resistance," said Amal Saad Ghorayeb, an expert on Hezbollah at the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut.

Getting at Iran?

The United States is interested in depriving Syria and Iran of the critical card they have in Hezbollah, another analyst said.

"In the larger scheme of things, the conflict with Syria and Iran is more important. Syria needs Hezbollah more than Hezbollah needs Syria, so they [the United States] would like to take that away," said Karim Makdisi, of the American University of Beirut.

United States ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman said on Sept. 29 that Washington "has never been involved in naming presidential candidates [for Lebanon], and will never be," reiterating the American position that the election follows the constitution.

In a direct effort to boost the Lebanese Armed Forces, the United States has increased its 2007 military aid package to Lebanon up to $280 million from $45 million last year, according to sources at the American embassy in Beirut.

United Nations Involvement

The United Nations is also watching Lebanon closely.

The U.N. Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) have around 13,000 peacekeepers stationed in south Lebanon and along the border with Israel, an area formerly tightly controlled by Hezbollah.

UNIFIL have received a number of threats from what many analysts believe are Sunni militants working to an Al Qaeda ideology. In June, six U.N. peacekeepers were killed by a roadside bomb while on a routine patrol in the Khiam area.

The United Nations is also involved in establishing an international tribunal to try suspects in Hariri's assassination.

The assassination earlier this month of the fourth anti-Syrian politician since the Hariri bombing, which also killed Economy Minister Bassel Fleihan, has been added to the U.N. probe's caseload.

The government accuses Syria of masterminding those assassinations and says Damascus wants to regain the dominance of its smaller neighbor by levering an ally into the presidential seat.

"Lebanon is very much a priority for the U.N.," Safa said. "It is definitely afraid of the deteriorating security situation."

Regional Peace?

Makdisi said agreeing a consensus presidential candidate to avert disaster was still possible. Saudi Arabia appeared to be working behind the scenes to find a compromise with Iran, Safa said. "They can agree to keep a lid on things and stop them heading to a constitutional void."

Whatever the motives for backing either faction, many Lebanese fear the foreign tug of war is preventing resolution of the problems that plague them.

"I think if it had been left to the Lebanese, a consensus would already have been found, along with a certain stability," Makdisi said. "But so many powers are pushing and pulling." © IRIN

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]

From Integrated Regional Information Networks.