Strouse: Lebanon’s Elections and Iranian Influence

Thomas Strouse writes in a guest op-ed for IC:

Two critical elections will take place in early June that could potentially shape the direction that the Middle East region moves in the near future. Parliamentary elections will be held in Lebanon on June 7 and a presidential election will be held in Iran on June 12.

The U.S. is maintaining a close eye on both of these elections, taking small and cautious steps with each of these dates in mind. Some of the Obama administration’s key policy actions toward Iran, Lebanon, and Syria are contingent upon the outcomes of these two elections.

For the purposes of this report, I will focus on the Lebanese parliamentary elections. While the prospect of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad losing the election in Iran has generated much excitement, the Lebanese parliamentary elections will more directly affect Syria, and specifically, its future relations with the U.S.

Lebanon’s Parliamentary Elections

There are no reliable and independent polls in Lebanon and the complexity of the electoral system makes it extremely difficult to predict the outcome of the upcoming election. Experts and politicians can guess all they want about how the results of the elections will play out, but the only reasonable expectation is that the outcome will be close, regardless of which side comes out on top. Many are fascinated by the prospect of a Hizballah victory, trying to predict what this would mean for Lebanon and the rest of the region.

Lebanon’s parliamentary elections are exactly five weeks away. The outcome will not only affect Lebanon’s domestic political situation, but it will also play a significant role in shaping the dynamics currently going on in the region. Will Saad Hariri’s pro-Western and anti-Syrian, March 14 alliance come out on top once again? Or will Hizballah and the rest of the pro-Syrian, March 8 opposition win in an upset? What will each of their reactions be to the outcome? How will Syria and the U.S. react to the results?

The Lebanese parliament is made up of 128 seats. Four years ago, and only a few months after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon held its last parliamentary elections. Following the 2005 elections, Saad Hariri’s March 14 alliance held 72 seats, Hizballah’s March 8 alliance held 35 seats, and the Christian bloc led by General Michel Aoun held 21 seats. Since 2005, four members of the March 14 alliance have been assassinated, bringing their number of seats down to 68. The March 8 alliance and Aoun’s bloc joined arms in February 2006, providing the opposition with 56 seats.

March 8 vs. March 14

The two major alliances currently in Lebanon, “March 8” and “March 14,” are relatively informal blocs which formed along with events which took place in 2005. Allies and sworn enemies have been known to make dramatic shifts in Lebanese politics over the years. If an opportunity presents itself for one part of the alliance to gain politically, the current alliance framework could easily shift, especially following the June elections.

The March 8 alliance dates back to March 8, 2005 when various pro-Syrian factions held a massive demonstration in downtown Beirut, standing in support of Syria and accusing the U.S. and Israel of meddling in Lebanon’s domestic affairs. The March 14 alliance dates back to March 14, 2005, the one-month anniversary of the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, when another major demonstration was held in downtown Beirut, demanding an end to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.

In the 2005 parliamentary elections, which were held on four consecutive Sunday’s beginning on May 29, the March 14 alliance capitalized on the anger over the assassination of Hariri and the momentum that they were provided with after successfully pressuring for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon on April 26 of that year.

The elections in five weeks will demonstrate how much support the March 14 alliance has been able to sustain over the past four years.

Hizballah Victory?

The upcoming elections will also be Hizballah’s first major test of public support following its conflict with Israel in the summer of 2006. Any win by the current opposition will be portrayed in the West as a victory for Hizballah and its Iranian and Syrian supporters. Without getting too far into the complexities of Lebanese politics, it is not this simple.

Despite Hizballah getting tagged as the leader of the March 8 alliance, the party itself only won 14 seats in 2005. Hizballah’s two major allies in the broader alliance, the Amal Movement (Shi’a) and the Free Patriotic Movement (Christian), also each won 14 seats. Saad Hariri’s Future Movement won 36 seats. The second largest faction in the March 14 alliance along with Hariri’s Future Movement, the Progressive Socialist Party led by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, won 16 seats. Other minor parties filled in the rest of the allotted seats.

In the upcoming election, Hizballah has decided to only run 11 candidates, three less than the number of seats that it holds in the current parliament. These candidates are likely to easily win their respective races, given the movement’s overwhelming support in these particular Shi’a districts. However, this demonstrates that much of Hizballah’s success depends on the success or failure of the other parties in its alliance. Specifically, Hizballah is relying on the success of its Christian allies in Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which finds itself in some highly competitive races.

While it would be interesting as an observer to see what Hizballah would do with a “victory” in the parliamentary elections, and how the rest of the world would react, it still has much ground to make up against the March 14 alliance.

The Day After

Lebanon is currently in the middle of a vibrant election campaign, with money pouring into the small country of only four million people. At least to date, it has faced no violence or assassinations, which are fairly typical in Lebanese politics.

Regardless of the current calm, the political situation in Lebanon will remain fragile leading up to, and following, the elections. It will be important to watch what the victorious bloc does with its power and how the opposition bloc reacts to its loss. Furthermore, the true test for Lebanon will lie in the post-election politics. Following the election, the new Lebanese parliament will be tasked with choosing a new prime minister, forming a new cabinet, and it will have to decide if the opposition bloc will have a veto power in the cabinet. These issues have led to instability and violence in the past and there is no guarantee that it will not happen again.

Despite being part of the current opposition, Hizballah has high expectations for this election. Many analysts have also set high expectations for the group. This may either be a realistic assessment of the political landscape in Lebanon, or it may simply be the intrigue of Hizballah as an organization and as the potential leading bloc in Lebanon.

Much of the current discussion is about Hizballah and the possibility that it could reverse the majority won by the March 14 alliance in 2005. However, what will happen the day after? If the March 14 alliance is once again victorious, will Fouad Siniora remain on as prime minister or might Hariri be willing to make the jump himself? If the current opposition is victorious on June 7, it will have to find one of its Sunni allies to put forward as the next prime minister. According to Lebanese law, the prime minister is required to be a Sunni, the president a Christian, and the speaker of parliament a Shi’a.

During the campaign, Hizballah has emphasized its willingness to form a national unity government if it is part of the new leading bloc in the parliament. It is still unclear whether Hariri would agree to this. If the March 8 alliance does win, it will likely be forced to reach across into the March 14 alliance to find a viable Sunni prime minister.

Secretary Clinton Visits Beirut

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her first visit to Beirut last Sunday. In a swift two-hour visit, Clinton met with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, but did not meet with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. However, she did visit the grave of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in downtown Beirut, where she spoke briefly with his son and the leader of the March 14 alliance, Saad Hariri.

As Lebanon’s English-language Daily Star reported, Clinton “generated the expected sound bites.”

Despite refusing to speculate about what the U.S. would do if Hizballah wins the election, she emphasized that the U.S. desires to support “voices of moderation” and that she hopes that the results reflect a “moderate, positive direction.” These are all code-words for opposing Hizballah, but she made sure not to publicly take a stand against the organization, in a wise attempt to stay out of the politics of the intense campaign.

The U.S. is concerned that if Hizballah is victorious on June 7, that this would not only increase Hizballah’s power domestically in Lebanon, but that this victory would also increase the influence of Iran and Syria in Lebanon and around the region.

The short visit and lack of meetings indicates the cautiousness that the Obama administration is pursuing toward Lebanon leading up to the election. In the case that the opposition is victorious, the U.S. may be preparing itself to use President Suleiman as its primary contact in the Lebanese government. However, if Hariri’s March 14 movement can remain in the majority, then it will be easy for Washington to hold onto this well-established relationship.

Many in the region and in the U.S. are quick to count out Hariri and company. This may partly have to do with the lack of a charismatic figure prone to making headlines like Hizballah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, who finds it fairly easy to do so. Hizballah is organized, disciplined and it is very good at playing the media to its advantage, especially in the region. Additionally, it may also have to do with Hariri’s U.S. and Saudi supporters, who many find it fun and easy to root against.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon

Many pro-Western politicians in Beirut are concerned that any future U.S. deal with Syria could come at the expense of Lebanon. Clinton used her visit to Beirut to publicly guarantee that the U.S. “will never make any deal with Syria that sells out Lebanon.”

Clinton’s visit was coincidentally the four-year anniversary of Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, after having a military presence in the country for nearly three decades (from 1976 until 2005).

The March 14 alliance was not reassured when, three days after Clinton’s visit, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon announced the release of four Lebanese generals arrested four years ago in connection with the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri. The release of the generals was based on a report that the prosecutor in the case recently submitted which stated that there was insufficient evidence to hold the men any longer. The report mentioned that some witnesses have since modified their statements which incriminated the four that were being detained.

It will remain unclear until the final report is issued, but this may be the beginning of the end of the Tribunal. Some have suggested that the end of the Tribunal may be the cost of improved relations between the U.S. and Syria. Damascus wants the U.S. to help it get rid of this giant black cloud that has been hanging over its head for the past four years, if it hopes to improve relations.

The March 8 alliance was provided with a surge of confidence after the Tribunal’s announcement. Hizballah has tried to capitalize on the announcement with only five weeks before the election. As is fairly standard when any big issue occurs in Lebanon or in the region, Nasrallah took to the airwaves on Friday evening. When he has something to say, most Arab news stations cover the entire speech. No figure in the current majority in Lebanon’s parliament can get this kind of airtime and attention to frame their message like Nasrallah can. Whether they agree or disagree, much of the region pays attention.

Hariri’s Softening Rhetoric

Saad Hariri held a press conference on the day of the announcement where he said that he welcomes any decision issued by the Tribunal and that this is one step toward achieving justice, despite pointing out that “some Lebanese are not relieved by this decision.” Hariri was put into a very difficult position five and a half weeks before the election, being forced to publicly, and likely reluctantly, accept the Tribunal’s decision of releasing the only four detained individuals for the assassination of his father four years ago. He could have lashed out at the Tribunal, at Hizballah, or at Damascus, yet he refrained from doing so.

Hariri holds a strong and personal animosity toward Damascus for what he sees as its role in the assassination of his father in February 2005. Nevertheless, there has been a clear and noticeable change in his rhetoric regarding Syria over the past two months.

Hariri held a few separate interviews in March where he commented on Syria. In an interview on March 24, Hariri praised President Obama’s willingness to engage with allies and adversaries in the Middle East, particularly with Syria. “The president has inspired a lot of people and the way his administration has been doing business in the region, by calling and engaging allies, by sending Senator (George) Mitchell, by engaging to understand the region better, even their engagement with Syria, all of this is positive,” Hariri said. Over the past four years, Hariri has been one of the strongest public proponents of Syria’s continued isolation.

In a separate interview the previous week, he said that Lebanon would be the first to benefit from an Israeli-Syrian peace deal and that the West warming up to Syria would not occur at the expense of Lebanon. “We would be the first to benefit from the peace, because when Syria signs, a lot of things would change,” he said.

However, when asked about his plans if Hizballah wins the vote in June, Hariri smiled and replied: “I will go on a long vacation.” Hariri has promised not to join any government led by the current opposition. It is unclear whether he will stand by this promise or not.

Hariri has a very close relationship with both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The softening in Hariri’s rhetoric toward Syria is an important development that can be seen within the context of Washington and Riyadh’s recent rapprochement with Syria. Hariri’s comments were around the time of the Arab “mini-summit” in Riyadh on March 11 and the Arab Summit in Doha on March 30.

Regional Stakes in Lebanon’s Election

The hands of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the U.S. are not too far away from the action right now in Lebanon. How Syria and Saudi Arabia both handle themselves before and after the elections will significantly influence their future bilateral relationship. The Lebanese elections may be the first major test of the sincerity of the recent “rapprochement” between Syria and Saudi Arabia. The same can be said for the U.S. and Syria. The Obama administration is currently watching to see if Damascus can “pass the test” in Lebanon, where Syria has held a heavy hand for more than 30 years.

Syria will likely be on its best behavior in Lebanon over the next several months so that it can maintain the solid position it currently sits in with the West. However, Syria also does not want to totally lose its influence in Lebanon, so it will try to tread carefully. Damascus may still be calculating how to best use the influence that it does have, to its fit its own interests. But if it overplays its hand like it has in the past, there may be more to lose this time around.

Thomas Strouse

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