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Cook: U.S. Nervously Eyes Lebanese Political Standoff

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Douglas Dillon Fellow, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 22, 2008

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Steven A. Cook, CFR’s Douglas Dillon fellow and an expert on the Middle East, says a sense of normalcy pervades Beirut despite the continuing political standoff in Lebanon over a new president and government. Cook adds, however, that the stakes in the leadership stalemate remain high for the United States, which is trying to check Iran’s influence through Hezbollah and bolster Lebanese sovereignty. “Should Hezbollah, which is an ally of Iran and Syria and a leader of the government opposition, get their way in their demands, then clearly it would be seen as a victory for Hezbollah and Iran and Syria and a defeat for the United States,” he says.

On Sunday, Nabih Berri, the head of the parliament in Lebanon, announced that for the thirteenth time they were putting off the vote for a new Lebanese president—a post that has been vacant since November. The new date is now set for February 11. This political stalemate has attracted considerable international attention, but why should we care?

Well, if you look at it from one perspective, there’s really not much for us to care about. The fact that the Lebanese don’t have a president and don’t really have a functioning government has not necessarily affected the United States and its interests in the region. And interestingly, in this so called political crisis that’s going on in Lebanon, a certain amount of stability has nonetheless developed. The Lebanese are going about their life. Nightlife in Beirut is just like nightlife has always been. People are conducting business. So there’s really not too much that we should really be worried about.

However, when you go up a level of abstraction and look at it in a regional context, clearly the Untied States has a concern in its seemingly zero-sum relationship with the Iranians. Should Hezbollah, which is an ally of Iran and Syria and a leader of the government opposition, get their way in their demands—essentially to have a veto on government actions—then clearly it would be seen as a victory for Hezbollah and Iran and a defeat for the United States.

Mr. Berri had an interview with the Beirut Daily Star in which he said the only way there will be a solution is if Syria and Saudi Arabia reconcile their differences and Syria accepts an Arab League three-part compromise plan for Lebanon.

The Arab League plan is essentially for the election of the president. The name’s already been agreed upon. It would be Michel Suleiman, the head of the Lebanese armed forces. The plan calls for the establishment of a national unity government and a new electoral law. And the sticking point is this question of a national unity government. What the opposition wants is an even division of the seats in a cabinet—ten for the government, ten for the opposition, and ten for the president—so that the president will have the veto power in the cabinet. And of course the opposition believes that Michel Suleiman would be more closely allied with the Syrian or Hezbollah position on things, and thus would hamstring the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

And the government doesn’t like that. The government wants to have the majority of seats in its hands.

Right, because of its electoral strength.

Do you think Syria still has heavy influence on Hezbollah?

Well, I think it is simplistic to believe that Hezbollah is just an arm of either the Syrian or the Iranian government. It is clearly interwoven within Lebanese society and has proven itself to be an autonomous actor. But clearly the Syrians have interests in Lebanon that are common with those of Hezbollah and Hezbollah’s allies. And Syria has used its considerable influence, even with the withdrawal of 35,000 Syrian troops in 2005 [after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri]. It has its agents throughout Lebanon, and wants to influence events in Lebanon. So I would say Syria is not synonymous with Hezbollah, but they certainly have a confluence of interest.

What’s the U.S. position on all this?

Well, as I said, in this broad strategic game that we’re playing in the region right now, which pits the United States against the Iranians, we clearly have an interest in preventing Hezbollah and thus Iran and Syria from getting their way in Lebanon. The president has often referred to Lebanon as a success story for the United States in the Middle East. Should Hezbollah prevail in its demands, or should this crisis continue for a long period of time, it will be hard to point to Lebanon as a “success.”

And the prime minister of Lebanon is supported strongly by the United States right now. But I guess his seat is safe for the moment.

That’s true. The United States and France are heavily supporting the government of Fouad Siniora. His government is seen as the legitimate government within Lebanon. Siniora leads this broad coalition that coalesced after that assassination of Rafik Hariri. And obviously, the United States sees Syrian hands in trying to assassinate various political figures, and members of parliament who are aligned with Fouad Siniora, in order to influence the direction of the Presidential elections and the actual organization of the cabinet.

What does Syria actually want right now?

Syria wants more than anything else to restore its position of influence within Lebanon. The withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 was a searing experience for [President Bashar] Assad and his regime. And of course, they don’t want Lebanon to become some sort of bridgehead to destabilize the Assad regime. So as long as they can exercise their own influence by engaging in the re-stabilization of Lebanon, they believe they can ensure the survival of the Assad regime.

Syria is on some pretty rough terms with all its major Arab allies, right?

It is indeed on difficult terms with all of the major Arab states, and thus it has a fairly tight strategic relationship with the Iranians.

Are the Iranians really helping the Syrians out?

Well, first of all, let me just point out that this is not a recent development. The Iranians and the Syrians have had relations since the early 1980s. It was the logic of both the Syrians’ and the Iranians’ deep and abiding antipathy for Saddam Hussein [the former president of Iraq] that drove that relationship. In fact, Syria was the only Arab country that supported the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988. It’s clear that the Iranians support the Syrians in a variety of different ways—military, financially, with cheap oil—all kinds of favors as a result of that relationship.

And U.S. relations with Syria are still nonexistent?

Well, we do have an embassy there, but we don’t have an ambassador. The Syrians have an ambassador here. Relations are frosty at best.

At the time of Annapolis last November when Syria showed up with a deputy foreign minister, there was talk that perhaps Syria and Israel could get back to peace talks. Where does that stand?

Well, it’s interesting because many of the Israelis, particularly the security elite, believe that the time is right for a deal with the Syrians and believe that the Syrians can do the deal. What the Israelis are hoping is that through a deal with the Syrians, they break this alliance between Damascus and Tehran that subsequently would isolate Hezbollah. I think that we’ve been down this road before where people think they can get a deal with the Syrians. But I would be very cautious. The Syrians are adept at playing both ends of the fence and doing just enough to keep the wolves at bay and retaining enough leverage to cause enough trouble around the region. So I’m not necessarily sure that the Syrian-Israeli situation is really ripe for a deal just yet. Of course, as part of this, the Israelis are willing to make a deal with the Syrians such that the Syrians retain their influence in Lebanon. That’s not something that the United States wants.

Why would the Israelis do that?

Because it’s more important for them to get a deal with the Syrians and break the alliance between the Syrians and the Iranians. That’s much more important to them than Lebanese sovereignty. They don’t care a lick about Lebanese sovereignty.

Are you surprised there has been no violence so far between the factions in Lebanon?

Well there has been a little bit of violence. What is interesting are the reports that everybody is arming themselves in Lebanon. People there say, though, that they think that the years of civil war in the 1970s and 1980s have made a strong impression on the Lebanese and thus they’ll step back from violence. But if everybody’s arming themselves, should something happen that triggers an explosion, these things take on a life of their own. But to this point, it has been a positive development that each Lebanese faction has felt restrained.

What’s your feeling: Do you think this Arab League compromise will finally take effect or not?

Not until someone is willing to blink. Either Siniora or Hezbollah is going to have to blink, but both have really staked out their position over what their red lines are here. And Hezbollah wants an arrangement in the cabinet where they can exercise a veto that they believe they need. And Siniora does not want to do that.

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