Tensions in Lebanon are running high as Prime Minister Saad Hariri refuses to capitulate to Hizbollah’s demands to denounce the UN-backed investigation into the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. In a Q&A, Paul Salem describes how all sides are bracing for the findings, how regional powers—Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria—are influencing developments, and how the United States views Lebanon’s internal instability.
While all players are trying to avoid violence, Salem explains that if the indictments come out soon with the climate still as tense as it is today “the findings could enflame passions in the country among Shia and Sunni communities and lead to uncontrolled violence.”
Are tensions on the rise in Lebanon?
Tensions are on the rise in Lebanon and have been since word came out regarding the release of the findings of the special tribunal for Lebanon, which is looking into the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. And the leaks have been that the tribunal will issue its indictments before the end of this year and that the finger will be pointed at members of Hizbollah. This has raised tensions tremendously in Lebanon since July.
Hizbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, came out early and forcefully in saying that the tribunal has been politicized, that its evidence has been tampered with, and that any indictments against Hizbollah are politically motivated. And he has said that anybody who collaborates with the tribunal is effectively collaborating politically with Israel, the United States, and others to undermine the resistance. So he significantly increased raised tensions to a very high level.
Tensions remain high over this issue, although there are intensive negotiations among Lebanese politicians—and involving the leaders of other countries from the region—to try and find compromise on this very tense crisis.
How will the expected findings of the special tribunal for Lebanon impact the country?
Well, there are several scenarios facing Lebanon, many of which will play out before the indictments are released. Hizbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, is expecting the indictments to come out before the end of the year and they are pressuring Saad Hariri, the prime minister, and his government to take a position on the tribunal before the indictments come out. They want that position to include a denunciation of what the investigation and tribunal has done so far, or at least cast doubt on it, and they want it to include a freeze on Lebanon’s financial and judicial cooperation with the tribunal. They want this to happen before the indictments come out and they will probably try to do more try to make that the case.
There are various options Hizbollah could take to this end. Currently there is a lot of political rhetoric and political pressure. They could raise that pressure by boycotting the government or by freezing government decision-making and the parliament, which would paralyze the state fully. They could also encourage civil disobedience which might include closing the roads or airports to add pressure. The other option they have if they want to raise pressure even further would be to use armed action—arresting people, taking over parts or all of the city and the capitol—as they did in May of 2008.
So Hizbollah has a number of options but is reluctant to use them because they don’t want a sectarian clash between Shia and Sunnis in Lebanon. They also don’t want the current prime minster to resign because they want him to give them the concession, not a new prime minister. So it’s a delicate game.
If the indictments come out after the Lebanese government was forced to make these concessions, perhaps the release of the findings will not have a massive set of repercussions. Given Hizbollah’s influence in the government, the government will likely not be able to proceed with any arrests or judicial response in Lebanon in support of the tribunal because the opposition, which has a controlling vote in government, would block that.
If the indictments come out soon, with the climate still as tense as it is today and without any concessions or compromise, passions will likely be enflamed among the Shia and Sunni communities and it could lead to uncontrolled violence. It is very unpredictable although both parties are trying to avoid that.
How are the key regional players involved in Lebanon?
The regional players are playing a very significant role in Lebanon and in this crisis. Syria has repaired its relations with the current prime minister, Saad Hariri, who is the son of the assassinated former prime minister. However, Syria is backing Hizbollah and is opposed to Lebanon’s ties to the special tribunal, so it’s sort of playing both sides of the fence with the prime minister. Syria would probably like Saad Hariri to stay prime minister but to concede on the issue of the tribunal. But the prime minister is holding firm on the issue so far.
Relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia, which is the patron and the main backer of the prime minister, have improved over the past months. They worked together during the Iraqi elections and the government formation process, and they’ve been trying to work together in Lebanon as well. Saudi Arabia figures that by working with Syria, it can help protect and promote the interest of its Sunni communities in Iraq and Lebanon.
There was a falling out in Iraq after Syria fell in line with the Iranian choice for prime minister in Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, and relations deteriorated, and that might cause a deterioration of relations over Lebanon as well. Saudi Arabia does not want the situation in Lebanon to explode into sectarian warfare but they are also do not want to concede on the major issue of the special tribunal in Lebanon because it is part of international legality—it’s linked to the Security Council of the UN—and it would be very problematic for Lebanon and Saudi Arabia for Lebanon to break its ties with the tribunal. So there are a lot of negotiations between the Saudis and the Syrians on this.
The Iranians, of course, are also very involved. They are the main backers of Hizbollah and are very critical of the special tribunal. Iranian President Ahmadinejad visited Lebanon a week ago, and aside from his visit to the south, which was very much focused against Israel, his visit to Beirut to see the president and other officials emphasized conciliation and the need to find negotiated solutions to Lebanese crises. So he in a way lent his voice to a negotiated outcome to the tribunal issue.
But tensions remain high despite regional attempts, both contentious and negotiated.
Is the Lebanese government maintaining good relations with Syria?
Syria has certainly regained a lot of influence in Lebanon, in part because it maintained strong allies in Lebanon, led by Hizbollah. After the rearming of Hizbollah in 2006, a number of other allies in Lebanon that were allied with Hizbollah became allies with Syria.
What has added to Syria’s influence was a policy shift by Saudi Arabia, who had in previous years backed the March 14 movement, which was antagonistic to Syria. They did so to weaken and oppose Syria. But in 2008, Saudi Arabia realized that Hizbollah and its allies were more powerful than the March 14 groups. When Hizbollah overpowered the March 14 movement in Beirut in May, Saudi Arabia realized that the threat from Hizbollah was real and overwhelming. The same was true of their conclusions in Iraq, where their early support for Sunni groups in Iraq to counter Syrian and Iranian influence backfired as well.
After Syria withdrew from Lebanon in 2005, Iran, not Saudi Arabia and the United States, gained influence in the vacuum. So Saudi Arabia calculated that to protect their Sunni allies and manage or reduce Iran and Hizbollah’ s direct influence, they would prefer to deal with Syria and try to coax Syria closer to their position—not necessarily to break with Iran, but to build the relationship. And hence they are working with Syria in Iraq and in Lebanon, and that has led initially to Walid Junblatt, the leader of the Druze community, to reorient fully to rebuilding relations with Syria.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri is also trying to rebuild relations with Syria, but Syria, however, is demanding more of him. Syria is demanding that he get rid of most of the advisors who surrounded him when he was pursuing an anti-Syrian policy, and they’re pressuring him to step away from the tribunal. So, while Syria is rebuild relations with him, they are also trying to denude him of what he has stood for so long. So far he is holding firm, but he’s in a very difficult position.
How much influence does Iran have in Lebanon?
Iran certainly has a lot of influence through Hizbollah—which is the strongest military force in Lebanon and a very wealthy group—and through Hizbollah’s allies in Lebanon. As Iran is an emerging regional power, a lot of players in Lebanon are looking to build alliances with Iran as they recognize that Iran is going to be a big player for years to come in the region, and therefore it makes sense to build some kind of relationship.
There is a bit of competition between Iran and Syria over who really calls the shots in Lebanon. It’s not a hostile competition—they are strategic allies and they generally cooperate on most issues, but Syria wants Lebanon to be in Syria’s sphere of influence and they are letting Iran play in this sphere. Whereas Iran, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit, is trying to show that Lebanon is a direct part of the Iranian sphere of influence. Saudi Arabia is trying to play on that competition.
While I don’t think is terribly significant, the competition does exist. Iran generally respects Syria’s role in its immediate neighborhood, consults closely with Syria, and would not want to antagonize it. So while Iran certainly has a lot of influence, Syria, by agreement, is playing a more hands-on role. Also, with Lebanon being an Arab country, the relations and the language barriers are quite significant.
What are the links between Iran and Hizbollah?
The links between Iran and Hizbollah are essential, fundamental, and far-reaching. Most of the financing, arming, training, and leadership liaising comes from Iran. But at the same time, Hizbollah is a Lebanese political party. It participates in the Lebanese government and parliament, has a large sphere of independence from Iran on many issues, including on other security and strategic issues.
Hizbollah plays more than one role. In its bigger strategic role as a proxy deterrent force for Iran against Israel—and behind Israel, the United States—Hizbollah certainly coordinates very closely with Iran. It’s my reading that if Iran were attacked, Iran would have enough influence to make sure that Hizbollah engages if Iran wants it to. That deterrent is there to be used if Iran chooses to use it, although a war between Hizbollah and Israel would be very devastating.
What is the status of relations between Lebanon and the United States?
Through Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman (assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs), who visited Lebanon and has been visiting other capitals in the region, as well as statements from the U.S. administration, the United States continues to emphasize the need to fully support the tribunal while at the same time emphasizing the need to avoid escalation or instability in Lebanon.
The United States is not currently deeply involved in the closed door negotiations between Lebanese politicians, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and maybe Iran. But it is playing a very important role in a number of ways.
First, by continuing to lead the international community in its support for the tribunal—regardless of what happens in Lebanon—the tribunal will and must move forward quickly. The tribunal needs to issue its indictments and move forward as an international court to release the truth after 5 years of investigation.
The United States also remains supportive of the Lebanese government and state. This is necessary and needs to continue. The administration is also trying to maintain its support for the Lebanese Armed Forces, which is about 100 million dollars a year of military support—most of it nonlethal, but the support is essential for the operations of the Lebanese Armed Forces.
How stable is Lebanon's border with Israel?
The border between Lebanon and Israel is generally quite stable. There was the incident in early August between the Israeli Defense Forces and the Lebanese Armed Forces which threatened to get out of hand. I think all parties learned a lot from that incident and want to avoid any future repetition.
The UNIFIL forces that mediate between the Israeli army and the Lebanese army also learned a lot of procedural lessons and are much more attentive. And so the incident was kind of an inoculation against further episodes in general. The border, therefore, I expect will remain quite stable in the immediate period. Neither the Israelis, nor the Lebanese, nor Hizbollah has an interest in escalating now.
But there are fears that sometime next year, if the Iranian nuclear issue is not resolved, Israel might begin considering, more seriously, military options, which would necessarily affect Hizbollah, and might include attacks on Hizbollah or Hizbollah might retaliate. So the concerns are high for the future, but not as high at present.