Lebanon approaches the Christian and Muslim holiday seasons bruised and battered by international standoffs, regional wars and internal divisions and disputes. The "14th March" and "8th March" coalitions intimidate each other across barbed wire in downtown Beirut, Israel and Hizbullah recover from each other's "victories" and adjust their strategies and tactics, while the US, Syria and Iran dare each other to make their next move on the international chessboard.
Lebanon's political institutions are paralysed. The presidency has been discredited by the Syrian-imposed extension of President Lahoud's term in 2005, the government has been shaken by the withdrawal of all its Shia members and the parliament has been under a cloud since the elections of 2005. In this year, a gerrymandered election law of the Syrian mandate period brought an unfair advantage to the 14th March coalition.
The coalition wants to establish an international tribunal for the Hariri investigation, elect a new president from the parliament while they have a majority, and maintain their alliance with the US, France, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The 8th March coalition has at least two agendas; Michel Aoun wants to break the Hariri-Jumblat hegemony in the executive branch and increase independent Christian representation by gaining a wider share in the government and gaining the presidency. At the same time, Hizbullah is reeling from the terrible destruction wrought by Israel in Shia areas of the south and in Beirut's suburbs and is worried about its future in a 14th March-dominated, US-backed Lebanon, governed by the strict articles of UN Security Council Resolution 1701. This is combined with 10,000 UNIFIL troops in the South and an agreement to seal off Lebanon's borders with Syria to stop arms movements. Hizbullah accuses members of the 14th March coalition of having encouraged Israel to launch its massive campaign against the militant organisation and demands the immediate establishment of a national unity government in which the 8th March alliance can have a one-third-plus-one-member share of government, and thus, veto power.
Hizbullah and Amal both formally support the establishment of the international tribunal which Syria has come out flatly against, but, strangely, every time the matter came up in the government their ministers either withdrew or resigned. Parliament speaker and Amal leader, Nabih Berri, is refusing to call parliament into session, ostensibly to avoid dragging the parliament into the current standoff, but also perhaps to avoid a vote on the tribunal in which the 14th March majority would carry the day.
Many of the tensions and issues in the dispute are domestic and are not unusual or unmanageable within the complex jockeying for power in Lebanon's political system. This is not the first or last time that the Lebanese have argued over setting up a national unity government, wrangled over parliamentary election results, and wrestled over the election of a new president.
But there are a number of issues that go beyond Lebanon's regular politics. The international tribunal is one of those issues; Syria has come out flatly against it, Iran has also indicated its displeasure with it, and even Putin's Russia has shown a distinct lack of enthusiasm. It is hard to imagine what common ground could be found on this issue given that one either establishes or does not establish an international tribunal. The 14th March coalition considers the tribunal a life or death issue; problematically, so probably does Syria. One option might be to put off the issue until more is known about the findings of UN investigator Serge Brammertz's report, due in June 2007 at the latest (unless he asks for another extension). If the report does not come up with significant evidence, there would not be much for an international tribunal to adjudicate; if the report unearths a large body of evidence, there probably would be strong international pressure to set up an international tribunal under Chapter VII of the UN charter, with or without Lebanese institutional approval.
More strategically, Lebanon finds itself once again suffering from the ebb and flow of international and regional power balances. The flow of American power after September 11, the invasion of Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq changed the status quo in the region, led to a rapid Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and brought fears of regime change to Damascus and Tehran. The failure of the US project in Iraq and Afghanistan, the failure of the US-backed Israeli campaign to defeat Hizbullah in the summer, the Republican loss in the mid-term elections and a growing sense in the region that US power is now ebbing, has emboldened Syria and Iran, while bringing a wry smile to the face of Russia.
The international fault line currently runs right through Lebanon. Each international coalition wants to claim Lebanon as a pawn in its own chess set; the US and its friends regard post- Syrian Lebanon as one of their few potential success stories in the region and still have fond memories of the Cedar Revolution of last March, while the Iranian-Syrian alliance smells weakness and is eager to push American influence out of Lebanon and bring Lebanon back into its regional alliance. The international tensions have been made all the worse as the US and Syria are still not on speaking terms and the US and Iran seem to be on a collision course over the latter's nuclear program.
Once again, Lebanon's internal divisions and lack of immunity from regional and international entanglements has created a tight and complex knot of issues in which internal, regional and international conflicts are all tied up together. Pulling furiously at this, the Lebanese have only made the knot tighter. Arab League efforts to mediate have still not borne fruit, partly because the issues are so complex and intractable, and partly because tensions between Iran and the majority of the Arab states are part of the problem. The wider international community has also not been able to help Lebanon out of the current stalemate, largely because Iran-Syria and the US are in an active Cold War against each other and also because Russia, and even China, are more than happy to allow Syria and Iran to weaken America's hegemony in the region.
Lebanon cannot afford a significant elongation of the current crisis; civil peace, the political institutions, and the economy might not survive it. It is unlikely that the larger international and regional conflicts will be resolved soon, so Lebanon must find, with the help of its friends in the region and around the world, a compromise that would defuse the current standoff and allow the Lebanese a return to security, normalcy and productivity. The elements of a package deal are known to most observers; approval of the international tribunal, a national unity government in which neither 14th March nor 8th March has full dominance, approval of a new parliamentary election law, agreement on a new president agreeable to both sides, and early parliamentary elections.
Despite all the complexity, compromise is possible. The opposition has indicated that it will not escalate its protests through the upcoming Christian and Muslim holiday seasons. All parties must make use of this respite to pull the country back from the brink of chaos and civil strife, recognise the necessity of dialogue and compromise, and engineer a new coalition government in Lebanon that respects the necessity of truth and international justice, while also accommodating the concerns of all groups in this precious but precarious Arab republic.