Max Fisher at The Atlantic with the round-up. Fisher:
Lebanon’s government is on the verge of collapse as Hezbollah, the paramilitary group and national political party, threatens to withdraw from the shaky government coalition. At the heart of the political dispute is Hezbollah’s objection to an ongoing United Nations investigation that is expected to indict Hezbollah members for the 2005 bombing that killed Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hariri’s son, current Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, met today with President Obama to discuss the political crisis. Obama is getting involved after negotiations, sponsored by Syria and Saudi Arabia, failed to resolve the dispute. As is so often the case with Lebanon, the situation is tenuous and the dangers of escalation are high
Tony Karon at Time:
Even as Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday for urgent talks over the future of his government, Hizballah decided to pull the plug on that government and leave Hariri’s status uncertain. Eleven ministers from the Shi’ite Islamist party and its allies resigned from the Cabinet and demanded the formation of a new government, leaving Hariri unable to govern. The collapse of yet another fragile consensus government once again raises the specter of Lebanon’s descending into a new cycle of sectarian violence — but it could also simply be a hardball negotiating tactic by Hizballah to cement its position and highlight the limited power of its enemies, including the U.S., to manage events in Lebanon.
The Hizballah walkout was prompted by the collapse of a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia and Syria under which the Lebanese government would distance itself from the U.N. tribunal investigating the murder of Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, in February 2005. Although Syria was initially widely blamed for the killing, it has been reported that the U.N. tribunal will in fact indict members of Hizballah, the Iran-backed movement whose militia remains the single most powerful military force in Lebanon, and whose electoral support in the Shi’ite community gives it a central role in government. Hizballah had warned for months that it would not allow the arrest of any of its members, and branded the U.N. tribunal a Western-Israeli plot to undermine the movement. The U.S. has insisted throughout the crisis that the interests of political stability cannot be allowed to impede the pursuit of justice in the Hariri murder.
Richard Spencer at The Telegraph:
Lebanon is becoming the Berlin Wall of the new Cold War: the frightening, potentially nuclear proxy struggle between allies of the West and Iran.
The West came to West Berlin’s short-term rescue with the 1948 airlift, but then could do little but stand and watch as the Soviet Union boxed Germany’s former capital into a corner for four decades.
Now Lebanon’s democratically elected government has had its legs taken away from under it by Hizbollah, Iran’s local front organisation. The country faces its own division, stand-off and stagnation, if not worse.
Like Berlin after the Second World War, Lebanon is a fractured place, with the major world powers – in this case, the US, Saudi Arabia and Iran/Syria – having their own local front men.
Saad Hariri, the prime minister, inherited the country’s largest fortune when his father, Rafiq, was murdered in 2005. His enemies were Syria and Hizbollah: both have been blamed. Hariri, a Sunni, made his fortune in Saudi Arabia which has backed him and then his son ever since. The Saudis, of course, loathe Iran.
Hariri’s not without support. He won the last election – though, rather like Northern Ireland, that only has the effect of rearranging the seats around the power-sharing cabinet table. He has majority support from Middle Eastern governments, including the big Gulf oil players. And, of course, he has America behind him.
Hizbollah made itself extremely popular after taking on Israel in 2006. But that popularity may have peaked – many Lebanese and others can see the danger of having a separate armed militia pursuing its own agenda. No-one wants a civil war, while if starts a conflict with Israel, it won’t exactly be taking a vote from the people who will be on the receiving end of Israeli air force strikes.
Scaremongers say that war would bring in Syria on its side – but does Syria, which has good self-preservatory instincts these days, really think that is a good idea?
Mark Memmott at NPR
The current crisis has its roots in Hizbullah and AMAL’s cabinet walkout of late 2006, which led to over a year and a half of government paralysis, a huge downtown sit-in and protest, escalating street violence, the May 7 clashes, and, eventually, the Doha Agreement. The opposition’s principal demand at that stage was greater representation in cabinet — the so-called “blocking third” — so as to be able to meaningfully block legislation proposed by Hariri’s majority March 14 coalition. More fundamentally, the opposition was seeking a “nuclear option”: the ability to bring down the government in precisely this kind of situation, whereby Saad al-Hariri and his allies would remain committed to supporting the Special Tribunal for Lebanon all the way until the release of indictments.
If the opposition resigns later today, they will have finally exercised the option that they fought to gain between 2006 and 2008.
Many questions come to mind:
- Why now? What prompted the breakdown of the Saudi-Syrian initiative that was supposedly drawing close to some kind of temporary solution in Lebanon? Did the negotiations fall apart as a result of US pressure (as some are suggesting) or was the whole thing a charade from the beginning?
- Where do the local parties go from here? Will the opposition call for protests and strikes in an effort to display popular support for their call to end Lebanon’s cooperation with the STL? How will March 14th respond?
- When will the STL release its indictments? Rumors suggest that this could be imminent, but we are unlikely to learn the content of the indictments for weeks, given that the pre-trial judge will probably review them privately.
- Finally, and more crassly, who will come out on top in this confrontation between March 14 (and its allies in Washington and Riyadh on one hand) and March 8 (and its allies in Damascus and Tehran)? Are we headed for a “Doha 2″ agreement?
Let’s not jump the gun. The opposition still needs to make good on its threat. Until then, the floor is open for discussion.
Roger Runnigen at Bloomberg:
President Barack Obama said the collapse of Lebanon’s unity government today shows Hezbollah’s fear of a united country acting for all Lebanese people.
“The efforts by the Hezbollah-led coalition to collapse the Lebanese government only demonstrate their own fear and determination to block the government’s ability to conduct its business and advance the aspirations of all of the Lebanese people,” Obama said in a statement issued after he held a private meeting at the White House with Prime Minister Saad Hariri.