It is the first marathon of its kind in which the finishing line is undefined. Speaker of the Lebanese parliament Nabih Berri is gaining ground and may continue to do so with no end in sight.
Berri still has energy to continue this long marathon – if only just to hinder the election of a Lebanese president so that he may arrive at the Iranian parliament (Majlis-e-Shuray-e Islami). Perhaps Berri is unaware that since the day he suspended the activities of the parliament there have been parliamentary and presidential elections held in Syria and that Iran just held its parliamentary elections last Friday, while the presidential elections are expected to be held in June 2009. The Lebanese parliament is not functioning thanks to its head whose only task may be summed up as calling for a session then cancelling it and then calling for another only to cancel it again – all of which is taking place without obstruction.
The hope of electing a Lebanese president is very small. The Iranians, Syrians and Americans are waiting for 2009 to begin and the former two are enjoying taking Lebanon hostage. However, we must not exaggerate the magnitude of Iran’s power; the Iranian economy is weak and the society is divided on a political and sectarian basis. There is also a lack of confidence since the Iranian people are fed up with the repercussions of the Islamic revolution and today one may witness the prevalence of articles and gatherings that glorify pre-Islamic Persian history. Additionally, unemployment and drug addiction are on the rise, with the latter particularly soaring.
Iran can take advantage of the Arab-Israeli issue to the utmost since it is not going to Annapolis, which is a good thing from its point of view since it allows it to accuse others of hypocrisy. Those who bet on Iranian support should be aware that what will weaken Iran will be the internal challenges and problems that afflict it.
As for the Syrian leadership, its hindrance of the Lebanese elections and the activities of [Lebanese] institutions makes it believe that it is achieving victory. Yet at the same time, Syria addresses the world saying: If we do not accomplish our objectives in Lebanon, we will destroy it. This is the Syrian leadership’s game and it has mastered it. However, despite everything, there is evidence that the Lebanese people do not want Syria back and they do not want to go back to the 1990s. Soon enough, the Syrians will realize that they are trespassing many boundaries.
Emile el-Hokayem, expert and research fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a defense think tank stated, “Hezbollah does not want Syria back. Hezbollah is more comfortable with the strategic alliance with Damascus and it is ready to assist it if it seeks to thwart the international tribunal; however Hezbollah knows that it cannot fight with the aim of facilitating Syria’s return.”
I asked that there is a lot of talk about Iran waiting for the American policy to change with the next American administration, but how will this policy succeed if there is no change in Syrian and Iranian policies?
He said, “People believe that if Washington followed a sound policy that everything will fall into place but the problem lies in the absence of the will to change on both the Syrian and Iranian levels.”
El-Hokayem believes that American foreign policy will witness change if Democratic candidate Barack Obama wins the elections. He added, “There will be no change for the first six months of his term in office. The Americans are waiting for change on the Iranian level. Obama will not support the Iranian conservatives at the expense of the reformists and moderates. He will not meet with Ahmadinejad given that the Iranian Presidential elections will be held in June 2009. Obama said that he will meet the leaders of South Korea, Iran, Cuba and Syria but he will make no concessions.”
As for Lebanon and Syria, American foreign policy will remain as it is in terms of content but the priorities dedicated to them will diminish. And yet, if the incumbent US administration prioritizes Lebanon now, why hasn’t it achieved anything?
“The United States has limited means,” el-Hokayem said, “whereas parties that have an external influence on Lebanon are different. Whilst Iran and Syria provide the groups affiliated to them with weapons and carry out assassination operations; the United States does not adopt such actions. It cannot resort to violence and terrorism or use them to threaten others so that it may support its project – that is the chief difference.”
El-Hokayem explained that the US policy towards Lebanon is the opposite of the policy it adopted towards Iraq and said that the former is multi-dimensional and reconciliatory. It is an international policy that depends on United Nations mechanisms, including the UN international tribunal and coordination with Arab and European allies.
He said: “The Americans exert pressure from time to time but they go back to working with their allies. Washington confiscated Rami Makhlouf’s (Syrian President Bashar Assad’s cousin) money and this is a serious warning – but can the US make its Arab allies commit to this message? The French tried to mediate with the Syrians but failed and now they have turned their back on the Syrians, but how can you convince Germany to turn its back on it too? All it would take is a visit by a European foreign minister to Damascus for the Syrian officials to say that they are not [internationally] isolated.”
El-Hokayem said that it was unlikely that US President George W. Bush would launch a war on Iran because the Americans do not want another war and added that, “the situation is somewhat stable in Iraq and Bush does not want to disrupt that.”
In all cases, stability in Iraq deprives Syria from one of its bargaining cards with the United States. Moreover, Syria is the weakest of all Iraq’s neighbors: Iran has a political, economic and religious influence in Iraq; Saudi Arabia has money, tribal presence and it also occupies both Arab and Islamic stature. Kuwait has money in Iraq, Jordan has old and established relations with Sunni groups and Turkey has the Kurdish card. As for Syria, its role does not exceed facilitating means for the arrival of extremist combatants into Iraq and is thus the weakest.
According to el-Hokayem, “If it weren’t for Israel, the whole situation would have changed since the last thing that Israel wants is for the Syrian regime to collapse. Israel knows quite well that the Syrian regime will not launch a conventional war against it and that even if it did, Israel can easily crush it – however, it cannot do the same with Hezbollah. The Syrian regime relies on weak support; if the Muhajireen Palace is bombarded it [the operation] would be nearly finished.
But where does Syria derive its strength? El-Hokayem says, “Syria enjoys a good geographic location. Besides, the Syrians are very good at waiting. Since 2005 they have been waiting for the advent of 2009; furthermore, there are divisions on the Arab and international levels. Syria is a disruptive power that is capable of stirring up trouble everywhere. It mobilizes its groups to launch missile attacks on Israel or start up the fires of war in Lebanon. It also facilitates the arrival of combatants to Iraq. It is a negative power but still a power.”
All the countries that enjoy the might of the “Islamic revolution” and the power of “Arabism” and seek rapprochement with the leaders of the Islamic revolution/republic and mediation with the “[pseudo] Arab patriotism” have deliberately kidnapped Lebanon. Nabih Berri’s call for Arabs to reconcile so that it could “facilitate a solution for Lebanon” is much the same as Syria and Iran’s demand that there be reconciliation between all the Lebanese parties. There has never been a case of full conciliation between all Arabs, and the Lebanese agree to disagree.
Iran has its own agenda; Syria has its own objectives and the US is holding its breath. Lebanon is losing Gulf investment opportunities and its youth are departing. Expatriates living in Lebanon are aware that the state is paralyzed. The only positive thing in the Lebanese conflict is that it is not taking place between Christians and Muslims. This is why all sects are compelled to not become embroiled in war.
According to sources, a secret pact has been established between Al-Mustaqbal movement (led by Saad Hariri), Hezbollah and Amal movements so as to avoid skirmishes on the street. Notwithstanding, the spirit of civil war lingers although no war has erupted. Additionally, despite all parties upholding that that they are against the American project, they still need the US.
It is common knowledge that Hezbollah cannot be disarmed by force, however the Lebanese must demand firm commitment from the party and furthermore demand that it should not resort to arms except for self-defense. The July 2006 war was not in defense of Lebanon, rather it was for the sake of attacking Israel at a time when no one really wanted this attack. This is why, the Lebanese’s confidence in Hezbollah was shaken to the extent that General Michel Aoun’s group felt embarrassed. It may not be Hezbollah’s goal to govern Lebanon in its entirety; rather it could pursue its resistance at the expense of the future of Lebanon and the Lebanese people. This is why the issue remains delicate and in need of American-Iranian rapprochement.
In the end, there is no war in hijacked Lebanon and no war in the region; only the fear that any accident could lead to either of these options. The abduction and slaying of two Zaidi sect followers last year was executed with the intention of starting a war. Druze Leader Walid Jumblatt knew how to diffuse this spark well. Besides, an unanticipated problem between Iran and the US could spark a regional war.