Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Friday, December 22, 2006

More on Lebanon...

I have a new column out today, titled Standoff in Beirut. Here's the opening paragraph:

What happens when you couple a Mexican standoff with a game of Russian roulette? You get Lebanese politics over the last several weeks: The revolvers are out, the politicians keep pulling at the trigger, and luckily, so far, no bullets have been chambered.

I think one should take a look at my column from last April, Deadlock in Beirut, for some more context. Back then, I concluded:

As the politicians quibble, the badly woven fabric of the Lebanese state comes under further strain. If one side pulls hard enough to force a breakthrough in the political deadlock, then the fabric will tear. This eventuality will drive one side or another to arms and violence, further expanding the margins of chaos. It is exactly in these margins that Al Qaeda seeks to operate. The talks being held in Beirut will lead to nowhere, which is a far better destination than an Islamic sultanate ruled by Zarqawi.

More minutiae:

So it turns out that I had got it mostly right a couple of days ago: the fight among the Opposition and March 14 is over how the organizational charter of the international tribunal will synthesize Brammertz’s circumstantial evidence into legal action; will it implicate the higher-ups by extrapolating bureaucratic and political responsibility to cover the doings of the lower-downs?

The choice is between a charter with teeth that goes after the chain of command, or one that is watered down to deal with the individual perpetrators directly responsible for the assassinations.

The Opposition wants a three-tiered system to ensure trimming down the charter of the tribunal; they want the text to jump through three flaming hoops—an experts committee, an expanded cabinet and the President’s office. The Opposition wants the Siniora cabinet (‘March 14’) to withdraw the charter already prepared by Ralph Rayashi and Shukri Sadir and voted on by the cabinet (the vote taken after the five Shi'a ministers answering to Hezbollah and Amal had left along with the sixth Greek Orthodox minister who answers to the pro-Opposition President), which has been sent to the UN where its is being stalled by the Russians until the Lebanese sort out their differences. Then they want a new charter authored by a council of six experts (2 from the Opposition, 2 from March 14, and 2 ‘independents’ who cannot be either Rayashi or Sadir). This new charter then gets voted on by an expanded cabinet where the Opposition gets veto power (after expanding the number of ministries they hold to one third of the cabinet plus one). Then they want the amended charter to go to the President’s office who may or may not return it for further amendments should he chooses (this is actually the constitutional way of doing it). After these three steps, the charter can be submitted to an ‘extraordinary’ session of parliament to be convened by the Speaker—another Opposition figure.

The March 14 hard-line bargaining position: The current charter will be withdrawn. The six member council will involve Rayashi and Sadir as the two independent members. Then, the new charter will be voted on by the current cabinet after the return of the 6 ministers (the constitutionality of the cabinet is held in question if it fails to represent one of Lebanon’s main sectarian components, in this case the Shi'a). An expanded cabinet is formed only after the current cabinet votes on the charter. Then, the dialogue sessions should be resumed to discuss picking a new president and a new electoral law.

A political settlement would mean an overall gain for the Opposition. March 14 knows this, and they are clutching to an American and Saudi cover to maintain their hold-out. Bush congratulated Siniora on his tenacity yesterday. And today, it was revealed that the US is putting together a package, along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, of $500 million in military aid to prop-up Siniora’s government so that, down the road, it can confront and disarm Hezbollah. But how does one make sure that this does not end-up arming Sunnis against Shi'as? The leadership of both communities may opt to raise the stakes and threaten a sectarian duel should a political compromise get rejected by either of the two parties.

One would have thought that the leaders of that country would know better than to gamble in such a way and to dare each other by raising macabre wagers; Beirut is still heavily pockmarked and bruised from the civil war days. Yet Lebanon, for all its cosmopolitanism, is still very much a clannish and parochial society and its leaders are essentially “a loya jirga in Brioni suits,” as one commentator once put it, referring to the traditional Afghan tribal council and a swanky Italian label. Hence, one cannot count on these leaders’ better angels to dissuade them from reaching for unrealistic victories with all violent means possible.

I don’t see how March 14 can hold-out much longer given the Russian position, the Opposition’s discipline, the diplomatic muddle of the Saudis (consider what is happening with Prince Turki), and the hollowness, not to mention tardiness (it will take forever to deliver military aid), of American support.

The only way out, without giving the Opposition a favorable political settlement, was to have delayed the decision over the charter of the tribunal until after Brammertz makes his indictments in six months time. But it’s too late for that now that the Opposition has pushed matters into the streets and into a showdown.


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