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Lebanon Update: August 2018

The cabinet formation stalemate, now in its fourth month, is pushing Lebanon towards an open-ended crisis, which will have negative consequences for the country’s stability and struggling economy. Prime Minister designate Hariri has thus far been unable to speed up the process, due to the problematic distribution of seats. One of the problems is the distribution of Christian seats between the Lebanese Forces Party (LFP) and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and other components with the FPM requesting 11 out of 15 seats, while refusing to give the LFP a key ministry or the position of deputy prime minister. Further restricting matters is the fact that the FPM leader Mr. Bassil insists on giving Druze leader Talal Arslan one of the three Druze ministerial seats while restricting the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) seats to only 2, knowing that Mr. Irslan barely made it to the parliament and has no Druze deputies allied to him. A lesser problem as it seems is Mr. Bassil’s insistence on representing the Sunni MPs that are not part of the Future movement. President Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) have expressed their frustration with the delay in the government formation, and have threatened to form of a majority government if a national unity government representing all the political parties cannot be formed soon[1], then backed down, upon the strong refusal of prime minister designate of the idea. In brief, Mr. Bassil with the power of the President’s signature has been single handedly refraining the government formation, and does not seem to barge.

However matters appear to be getting worse, as external factors (position from Syrian Regime, relations with the Gulf, Disassociation policy of Lebanon and other matters…) have surfaced to further complicate relations between the various parties and made the task of government formation seem more difficult than ever.

Normalization of Relations with the Syrian Regime

The push by Hezbollah and its allies to normalize Lebanon’s relationship with the Syrian regime is currently a main source of tension. Hezbollah, FPM and other pro-regime factions in Lebanon are using the Russian refugee return initiative to push for a full restoration of relations between Damascus and Beirut, insisting that restoring ties is necessary in order to hasten the return process. The Syrian regime is playing along as well, by leveraging the refugee return issue to push for a revival of diplomatic relations. Officials in Damascus have criticised their counterparts in Beirut for being hesitant to liaise with them directly about the issue. Furthermore, Damascus and its allies in Lebanon are threatening to exclude Lebanese companies from post-war reconstruction opportunities and to hinder the passage of Lebanese exports through Syria on their way to the Gulf in order to put even more pressure on Hariri to accept the normalization of relations between the two countries.

The caretaker government before, along with many political parties (such as the Lebanese Forces, Future Movement and PSP), staunchly oppose any revival of formal relations with the regime before a political settlement is reached to formally end the war. The Prime minster designate Hariri was unequivocal in his rejection of normalizing relations with the regime, saying last week that “no government would be formed” if some parties insisted on linking the Cabinet formation to ties with Syria.[2]

There are several reasons to be hesitant when approaching this issue, given that the Syrian regime is still under heavy international sanctions, that former Minister Michel Samaha along with Syrian official Ali Mamlouk have been indicted with planning to carry out terrorist attacks in Lebanon[3], and that two Syrian intelligence officers have been indicted in the case of bombing two mosques in Tripoli[4]. There is also the unresolved issue of the Lebanese detainees in Syrian prisons. Hariri announced after a meeting with the Future Movement that he refuses to visit Syria or meet with Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, under any circumstances – even if it would cost him his position.[5]

Ending the Policy of Disassociation?

The relative political consensus in Lebanon, especially after the end of the Hariri crisis in November, seems to be coming to an end. Two recent events demonstrate the changing dynamics of the post November 2017 situation and the possible end of the ‘policy of disassociation’.

Firstly, Hezbollah Secretary-General Nasrallah met with a Houthi delegation in Beirut and discussed the situation in Yemen, as announced by a statement from the party’s media office. The party has never announced its participation in the Yemeni war alongside the Iran-backed Houthi militia, in spite of several reports, the parties maintain informal relations.[6]

Secondly, Nasrallah attacked Saudi Arabia in his latest speech[7], while Hezbollah’s rhetoric against Saudi Arabia had drastically decreased, especially after Hariri’s November resignation announcement from Riyadh. Hariri rescinded his resignation in December 2017, after the Lebanese government committed to a policy of disassociation from regional affairs.[8]

Hezbollah’s growing influence and their recent push to restore Lebanon-Syria relations perhaps heralds the end of the short-lived disassociation policy era. Furthermore, Iran is under mounting international and regional pressure, and it might use the Lebanese scene to send messages towards Saudi Arabia and the USA. At the same time, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash quick response to Nasrallha’s speech clearly indicates the extent of the Gulf anger from the political settlement and Hezbollah’s actions.[9]

All of these factors make the formation of a Lebanese government seem all the more unlikely. The big question now is: Will the stability that Lebanon has enjoyed since the election of President Aoun end, as Lebanon gets sucked into the American-Iranian confrontation?

In conclusion, Lebanese authorities should be wary of restoring normal relations with a regime that is still at civil-war, heavily sanctioned and out of favor with the international community. Moreover, normalizing the relations with the Syrian regime would provide Assad with more legitimacy while not solving other important issues mentioned before. Besides, the recent attack by Hezbollah on Saudi Arabia and its involvement in Yemeni affairs will inevitably complicate Lebanon’s relations with the Gulf States. If a Lebanese style compromise and procrastination of conflict will be able to save the situation yet another time and help form a government, remains to be seen, in the coming days, weeks and maybe months.

[1] Darkoub, H. (2018).Aoun: My political pact with Hariri remains intact. The Daily Star, retrieved from: https://www.pressreader.com/lebanon/the-daily-star-lebanon/20180807/281522226907813

[2] Darkoub, H. (2018). Fears of open-ended crisis as talks stall for Eid, The Daily Star, retrieved from: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2018/Aug-20/460724-fears-of-open-ended-crisis-as-talks-stall-for-eid.ashx

[3] Nahar Desk. (2013). Military Court Demands Death Penalty for Samaha, Mamlouk on Terrorism Charges, Annahar retrieved from:  http://www.naharnet.com/stories/en/72672

[4] Nahar Desk. (2018). Hariri Says Won’t Forget Damascus Role in Tripoli Blasts, Annahar, retrieved from:http://www.naharnet.com/stories/en/249850

[5] Middle East Monitor. (2018). Lebanese PM: I will never go to Syria or meet Assad even if it costs me my job, retrieved from: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180802-lebanese-pm-i-will-never-go-to-syria-or-meet-assad-even-if-it-costs-me-my-job/

[6] Lebanon News. (2018). Nasrallah talks Yemen situation with Houthi delegation, Daily Star, retrieved from: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2018/Aug-20/460708-nasrallah-talks-yemen-situation-with-houthi-delegation.ashx

[7]كلمة الأمين العام لحزب الله السيد حسن نصرالله في ذكرى انتصار حرب تموز
http://www.lebanonfiles.com/news/1218563

[8] Ibid 5

[9] Daily Star. (2018) UAE official asks Lebanon for response to Houthi visit, Daily Star, retrieved from: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2018/Aug-20/460733-uae-official-asks-lebanon-for-response-to-houthi-visit.ashx?utm_source=Magnet%26utm_medium=Related%20Articles%20widget%26utm_campaign=Magnet%20tools