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Syria Regains its position of control over Lebanon in Saudi-Syrian Deal

The March 14 Forces after the Formation of the New Lebanese Government: From Electoral Victory to Political Defeat and Disintegration Within Five Months

Introduction

On June 7, 2009, the March 14 Forces won the Lebanese parliamentary elections. Five months later, on November 9, 2009, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman endorsed a government that represents a victory for the opposition, which is celebrating its achievement of managing to reverse its electoral defeat.

Moreover, the most important outcome of the establishment of the government is that Syria has regained its position of control over Lebanon, and this with Saudi Arabia's consent and as part of a Saudi-Syrian deal.

The situation was aptly captured by Nicolas Nassif, a regular columnist for the oppositionist Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, who wrote: "Now it is clear to everyone in the international community that the key to the stability of Lebanon and its regime... is in the hands of its neighbor [Syria]."(1)

This report will analyze the reasons for this reversal, and review the concessions made by the March 14 Forces.

What Led the March 14 Forces from Electoral Victory to Political Defeat and Disintegration


Hizbullah's violent takeover of Beirut and of other areas of Lebanon on May 7, 2008 had and continues to have a profound impact on the Lebanese public, in particular on the leaders of the March 14 Forces. Hizbullah's turning its weapons on its domestic rivals, and the May 21, 2008 Doha Agreement, mediated by the Arab countries, which resolved the crisis in Hizbullah's favor, caused the March 14 Forces to avoid any further direct confrontation with Hizbullah - even on the political level - out of fear that this organization may once again resort to the use of force. Veiled and explicit threats by Hizbullah leaders to repeat the May 7 events only deepened these fears.(2) Hizbullah's retaining of its weapons, and its willingness to use them against its political rivals, forced the March 14 Forces to make considerable concessions from the get-go.(3)

1. Hizbullah's violent takeover of Beirut in May 2008


2. The Saudi-Syrian understanding, reached before the elections, that Lebanon would have a national unity government, regardless of the election results

After the June 2009 elections, it was reported that Syria and Saudi Arabia had agreed beforehand that a national unity government, rather than a government of the winning party, would be established in Lebanon.(4) Lebanese President Michel Suleiman put his own weight behind this pressure by stating repeatedly that he would not endorse any other kind of government.(5)


3. Walid Jumblatt's withdrawal from the March 14 Forces coalition

Since May 2008, and following Hizbullah's armed takeover of Beirut and other regions in Lebanon - a takeover that involved violent clashes between the Druze and the Shi'ites in Mount Lebanon - Jumblatt made a strategic decision to give in to the prevailing power in Lebanon - the Shi'ites - and to join the opposition. He expressed this about-face in a closed-door meeting with loyal Druze sheikhs, in which he said that because of the growing strength of the Shi'ites, the Druze have no choice but to coexist with them, in order to guarantee their survival.(6) This rapprochement led to meetings of Jumblatt and his men with Hassan Nasrallah and other Hizbullah leaders and is reflected in recent statements made by the Druze leader in favor of the resistance and its right to bear arms.

A change is also evident in Jumblatt's position vis-à-vis Syria. The Druze leader, who hitherto has been known as Lebanon's staunchest opponent to Syria, is now saying repeatedly that "Syria is the natural depth of Lebanon" and that excellent ties should be maintained with it.(7) Over the past year, Jumblatt has exchanged messages with the Syrian leadership, and he is currently planning a trip to Damascus in an effort to renew ties with its leaders.(8)

Jumblatt's about-face bears an immense impact for the political scene in Lebanon, especially in the aftermath of the June 2009 parliamentary elections. Today, Jumblatt says he is not affiliated with the March 14 Forces, but at the same time, he stresses his support of Al-Mustaqbal faction leader Sa'd Al-Hariri and claims that he is part of the parliamentary majority bloc. These statements, however, are meaningless, since Jumblatt, given his new alliance and his concern for the survival of the Druze sect, is likely to adopt the view of Hizbullah and the opposition in any major parliamentary or government vote. Indeed, in recent months, Jumblatt appears to be growing closer to the opposition, and particularly to Hizbullah, and to be supporting the latter movement's positions and demands. Consequently, Jumblatt's political reversal has completely neutralized the March 14 Forces as a parliamentary majority, and has rendered their victory in the elections meaningless.


4. Saudi Arabia's abandonment of the March 14 Forces in favor of Syria

In January 2009, during the Arab Economic Summit held in Kuwait, Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, in an effort to draw Syria away from the Iranian camp, launched an initiative for Saudi-Syrian reconciliation, after years of tension and a rift between the two countries. Saudi Arabia's initiative focused on efforts to reach agreement on various regional issues, including Lebanon. The dialogue between the countries included a succession of meetings between Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and King 'Abdallah, as well as meetings in Damascus between Assad and the Saudi king's emissaries, most notably the king's son, Prince 'Abd Al-'Aziz bin 'Abdallah.

As aforementioned, even before the Lebanese elections, Syria and Saudi Arabia had agreed to establish a national unity government in Lebanon. In the course of the past few months, since the June 2009 elections, there have been reports of direct Syrian and Saudi intervention in the efforts by Sa'd Al-Hariri to establish a new government, and reports of meetings between the parties in an effort to reach an understanding with regard to this government.

In the beginning, it was evident that Saudi Arabia was standing behind its allies in Lebanon, in an effort to preserve their victory in the elections and to promote their demands. Thus, for example, Saudi Arabia's demands, as stated in a Saudi-Syrian dialogue, coincided with the demands of the March 14 Forces. These included the delineation of the Syrian-Lebanese border, the relinquishment of the opposition's demand for an "obstructing third" in the cabinet, and the abolition of the Syrian-Lebanese Supreme Council. Syria, for its part, refused to acquiesce to these demands.(9) It appears, however, that the regional developments in the Middle East - Iran's growing strength; the Shi'ite Yemenite threat to Saudi Arabia from the south, aided by Iran; U.S. President Obama's efforts to reach an understanding with Iran, while marginalizing Saudi Arabia and the Arab Sunni camp; and the consolidation of the Shi'ite regime in Iraq - have all led Saudi Arabia to the conclusion that it should be stepping up its dialogue and rapprochement with Syria. Consequently, it has been exerting pressure on the March 14 Forces to make concessions in a deal that would bring Lebanon under Syrian control once again.

In a November 14, 2009 article, columnist Nicolas Nassif revealed that during the October 7-8, 2009 summit between Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and King 'Abdallah, the latter expressed his desire for Syria to regain its former role in Lebanon. According to Nassif, after this summit, Assad exerted pressure on his allies in the Lebanese opposition and accelerated the establishment of the government in Lebanon.(10)

In addition, Ibrahim Al-Amin, chairman of Al-Akhbar's board of directors, recently published an article in which he claimed that following the October summit, King 'Abdallah had made it clear to Sa'd Al-Hariri that he had to accelerate the establishment of the government and that he had to make concessions, whereas Assad made it clear to his allies that he did not expect any concessions from them.(11) On November 6, 2009, Al-Safir and Al-Akhbar reported that President Assad had asked King Abdallah to persuade Al-Hariri to give Michel Aoun the energy portfolio.(12) On November 7, 2009, Ibrahim Al-Amin wrote that it was the Saudi king's son, Prince 'Abd Al-'Aziz bin 'Abdallah, who pressured Sa'd Al-Hariri to give Michel Aoun the telecommunications and energy portfolios.(13)

Further pressure by Saudi Arabia on Sa'd Al-Hariri, who stuck to his guns and refused to give in to the opposition's demands, was an article published by the editor of the Saudi government daily Al-Riyadh, Turki Al-Sudairi, on October 13, 2009. In it, he suggested that the chronic instability from which Lebanon suffers could be alleviated by restoring Lebanon to Syria, from which it was severed in the Sykes-Picot agreement of the colonialist empires.(14)


The Concessions Made By the March 14 Forces

1. Sa'd Al-Hariri never even considered forming a government of the winning party

The three factors mentioned above - the pre-elections Saudi-Syrian understanding that a national unity government would be established in Lebanon, Michel Suleiman's announcement that he would only approve a government of this sort, and the deterrent formed by Hizbullah's May 2008 takeover of Beirut - made it clear to Sa'd Al-Hariri and to his political partners in the March 14 Forces that their only option was to form a national unity government in partnership with the opposition.


2. The March 14 Forces capitulated to the opposition's demand for an "obstructing third" in the cabinet. Al-Akhbar: "What determines the composition of the [Lebanese] government is not the election results... but the balance of power in the Lebanese street."

The most significant concession of the March 14 Forces was their consent to grant the opposition a "covert obstructing third" in the cabinet, despite their repeated statements in the months leading up to the elections that they would never repeat the error of giving the opposition this power of veto.(15)

In late July 2009, the Lebanese media reported that the March 14 Forces had reached an agreement with the opposition that the national unity government would include 30 ministers: 15 from the March 14 Forces, 10 from the opposition and five appointed by the president. This theoretically gives the opposition only a third of the seats in the cabinet, and not an "obstructing third" (i.e. a third plus one, which would enable it to veto important government decisions).

At the same time, this arrangement gives the March 14 Forces only one half of the cabinet seats, which falls short of a majority, meaning that they would always require the support of at least one other minister in order to pass their decisions - whether important decisions (requiring a majority of over two thirds) or ordinary decisions (requiring a majority of over 50%).

However, Al-Hariri's agreement with the opposition also included a deal whereby one of Suleiman's ministers would be a Shi'ite appointed with Hizbullah's approval, while another of Suleiman's ministers would be a Sunni approved by Al-Hariri. Along with Suleiman's Shi'ite minister, the opposition thus has 11 ministers in the cabinet. The oppositionist dailies Al-Akhbar and Al-Safir termed this a "covert obstructing third."(16)

Columnist Nicolas Nassif published two articles stating that the continued validity of the Doha Agreement - which gave the opposition an obstructing third and was forced upon the March 14 Forces - would preserve the existing balance of power in Lebanon despite the election results. He added that both sides knew that the composition of the government "would be determined not by the elections results or by the [political balance of forces] between the majority and the minority, but by the balance of power in the street."(17)

3. The March 14 Forces' capitulation to most of Aoun's demands regarding the distribution of ministerial portfolios

For four months, Al-Hariri sought to reach an agreement with the opposition regarding the distribution of seats and ministerial portfolios in the national unity government, but kept encountering new demands and conditions from the opposition, in particular from Michel Aoun. Eventually, Al-Hariri was forced to accept most of these demands, apparently under the explicit instructions of Saudi King 'Abdallah.

The list of Al-Hariri's concessions is long. Initially, he refused to give the communications and energy portfolios to Michel Aoun's representatives. He also refused to appoint outgoing communications minister Gebran Bassil, Michel Aoun's son-in-law, to a ministerial post in the new government. Later, however, he backed down on all counts, giving the energy portfolio to Bassil and the communications portfolio to another of Aoun's representatives, Charbel Nahas. The only demand with which he did not comply was the demand to retain Bassil as communications minister.(18)


Unresolved Issues

1. Government guidelines regarding the "Resistance" and Hizbullah's weapons

The official guidelines of the new government have not yet been drafted; they will be negotiated and determined in the coming month, according to accepted procedure. One of the unresolved issues is that of Hizbullah's weapons, which has already become a point of contention between the two sides.

The Hizbullah-led opposition wants the guidelines to validate the continued existence and activity of the resistance.(19) Hizbullah leaders have stated that they will not agree to a phrasing less definite than that which appeared in the guidelines of the Al-Siniora government, which were imposed on the March 14 Forces.(20)

A clause in these guidelines stated: "It is the right of Lebanon - the Lebanese people, army and resistance [i.e., Hizbullah] - to liberate and restore the Shab'a Farms, the Kafr Shuba hills, and the Lebanese part of the occupied village of Ghajar; to defend Lebanon against any aggression; and to uphold [Lebanon's] right to its territorial waters, by all legitimate and possible means."(21)

On the other hand, Christian MPs from the March 14 Forces have expressed their objection to the government legitimizing and supporting the existence of Hizbullah's weapons.(22) Sa'd Al-Hariri, for his part, has so far kept silent on this issue.

On November 17, 2009, the Al-Safir daily reported that the Government Guidelines Committee had already decided to adopt the clause pertaining to the resistance and its weapons which appeared in the previous government's guidelines, and which legitimizes Hizbullah's resistance activities.(23)

Al-Akhbar columnist Nicolas Nassif wrote that this decision confirms yet again that the sides in Lebanon "have agreed to extend the Doha Agreement. It is [also] further evidence that the Doha Agreement is still the main, or even the only, document that is valid and can preserve the internal power-balance that was created by the May 7, 2008 events - [a balance of power] which the Doha Agreement aims to regulate and [to perpetuate by] forcing all the elements [in Lebanon] to honor it and abide by it..."(24)


2. The status of the March 14 Forces after their disintegration

Sa'd Al-Hariri's numerous concessions to the opposition are at the expense of his allies in the March 14 Forces. Amin Al-Gemayel's Kataeb party (the Phalange party), with only one cabinet minister, firmly demanded the education portfolio, but Al-Hariri rejected this demand, giving it the social affairs portfolio instead. This caused a serious crisis between Al-Hariri and this party, with the latter threatening to leave the March 14 Forces or to refrain from joining the government.(25)

Eventually, the Kataeb political bureau issued an announcement stating that the manner in which the government had been formed constituted discrimination against the Kataeb, and disregarded their (relative) weight among the public and in parliament. The announcement also complained that the March 14 Forces was losing its united front, and called for a reform within the movement, stating that until this happens, the Kataeb minister would act as an independent minister, and not as a member of the majority bloc.(26) Kataeb political bureau member and advisor to Amin al-Gemayel, Saj'an Qazi, said that his party has taken an "annual vacation" from the March 14 Forces, which would continue until this movement had performed an organizational reform and reassessed its operation methods and positions on many issues. He added that if the March 14 movement continues to operate as it is doing today, it will not last long.(27)

It seems that the March 14 Forces movement, which was formed in March 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri and was at the peak of its power following the May 2005 elections, is now in a state of disintegration and collapse. Carried on the waves of protest following Rafiq Al-Hariri's assassination, it was this movement - also called the Independence Movement - that launched the Cedar Revolution, coined the slogan of "freedom, sovereignty and independence" for Lebanon and ended 30 years of Syrian presence in this country, accused Syria of Al-Hariri's assassination and waged a two-year campaign for the establishment of the international tribunal for the investigation of this assassination, and called to disarm Hizbullah, daring to enter into direct confrontation with it. But now, abandoned by its Druze allies and abandoning its Christian allies, it has no chance of pursuing any of these goals.

The Syrian Al-Watan, Iranian Kayhan, and Lebanese Al-Akhbar dailies celebrated the establishment of the new Lebanese government as reflecting the disintegration and total collapse of the March 14 Forces.(28)


3. Restored Syrian hegemony in Lebanon

Within the next few days, Sa'd Al-Hariri is expected to visit Syria and to meet with Syrian President Al-Assad. According to reports in the Lebanese press, the visit will take place as soon as the Lebanese parliament approves the new government.(29) The visit is of vital importance, since it symbolizes the end of a four-year period in which Al-Hariri's March 14 Forces represented the anti-Syrian camp in Lebanon. It will almost completely eradicate the Syrian opposition in Lebanon, with the possible exception of some of the Christian parties in the March 14 Forces, such as Samir Geagea's Lebanese Forces. Thus, Lebanon would return to the era in which Syria had decisive influence in all Lebanese affairs.

On November 12, 2009, only days after the establishment of the Lebanese government, President Suleiman visited Syria and met with Assad "in order to thank him for Syria's positive role and help in overcoming the obstacles to the establishment of the government."(30) In other words, Suleiman's visit, which took place only hours before Assad traveled to Paris to meet with French President Sarkozy, was to present France and the West with the new reality in which Syria is calling the shots in Lebanon.

Nicolas Nassif expressed this in his November 14, 2009 article: "The sole purpose of Suleiman's visit to Syria was to highlight [the fact] that Syria has regained its role in Lebanon. It is [now] clear to the international arena that Syria alone facilitated [the establishment of the government], whereas all the Lebanese [parties] acted stubbornly, stipulated conditions, and wasted time. Once again, it becomes clear to the international arena that the secret of the stability of Lebanon, the Lebanese regime, and the Lebanese politicians lies in the hands of a neighboring country [i.e. Syria]."(31)

Now that the government has been established, it is expected that many senior Lebanese officials will visit Syria and meet with President Assad, realizing that Syria has regained its decisive role in Lebanon.(32)

According to an article in the Syrian daily Al-Watan, Sa'd Al-Hariri's visit to Syria would be considered a turning point, and would have direct implications, palpable on all levels. The daily states that, after this visit, "Al-Hariri's rule will be strong and stable thanks to the embrace and protection it will receive from Damascus."

The daily also notes that the current government reflects an extremely delicate balance of power between coalition and opposition, and consequently, there is a danger that Al-Hariri's government will be a hostage of the political divisiveness. Al-Hariri's visit to Damascus, however, "might bring a change to the rules of the game and improve the status of the government and its leader.

Following [Al-Hariri's] visit, the political situation [in Lebanon] will not remain the same, nor will the strong division... within the government remain... Moreover, [Al-Hariri's] government will be much more stable and productive..." The article goes on to say that Al-Hariri's visit to Damascus will herald a new phase in Syrian-Lebanese relations, which will be deeper, and that the visit also bears importance for Lebanon's regional status, "since Syria has already demonstrated its regional presence, and this is very important for Lebanon, since Syria is the greatest supporter of its affairs."(33)


The Lebanese Opposition Celebrates Its Victory

"Goodbye June 7, 2009 [the date of the parliamentary elections]"; the government's composition renders the results of the parliamentary elections meaningless

The Lebanese opposition is presenting the outcome of the negotiations over the government composition as its victory, and as a defeat for the March 14 Forces. According to Al-Akhbar, the final composition constitutes a victory of Michel Aoun over the March 14 Forces, and renders meaningless the latter's victory in the June 2009 parliamentary elections.

Nicolas Nassif wrote: "After months of negotiations to establish the government, the opposition emerges pleased with two things. The first is [its success] in imposing [upon the March 14 Forces] a de facto partnership in the government, as it sees it, by dividing the government into 15:10:5 - which, in fact, gives the opposition the obstructing third...- and by completely wiping out the parliamentary elections outcome, and generating a state of equilibrium between the losers and the winners in the elections and bringing them into one government.

The second thing [that pleases the opposition] is the ministerial portfolios it has managed to get... [for] it has managed to gain a group of important portfolios, such as the foreign affairs, health, communications, energy, and industry [portfolios]. This by no means reflects the results of the parliamentary elections, which were won by the March 14 Forces.(34)

Along similar lines, Ibrahim Al-Amin wrote that the way the government was established and Walid Jumblatt's about-face can be summed up in a single sentence: "Goodbye June 7, 2009 [the day of the Lebanese parliamentary elections]."(35)

*H. Varulkar is a research fellow at MEMRI

References and Footnotes

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