Though a UN resolution may have put a stop to last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah, it did not mark an end to the struggle for security and influence in Lebanon. Seemingly out of the blue, the White House last week issued a stern warning to Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, whom it accused of “preparing plans to topple Lebanon's democratically elected government.” Hezbollah and Syria promptly responded that Washington itself was trying to interfere with “the Lebanese people’s choices over their government and policies” (BBC).
At the root of the rhetorical exchange are demands by Hezbollah for representation in Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s cabinet and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s threat of street demonstrations (MEMRI) if this demand is not met by November 13. Speaking with CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman, Syria expert Jonathan Landis notes that Siniora’s government came into power after massive street protests and Hezbollah believes that by doing the same it would be leveraging its current popularity for legitimate democratic gain.
If Hezbollah gains the cabinet seats it wants, it will have secured veto power on legislative matters. Experts see this as a bid to block the creation of an international court to try those responsible for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria is widely suspected of having played a role in Hariri’s death, and Hezbollah, which gets many of its munitions from Syria, has an interest in protecting Damascus from any formal charges. Lebanon’s top political leaders meet in Beirut this week to discuss the possibility of forming a unity government (Reuters). Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat has said the governing coalition is open to a power shuffle so long as it does not interfere with the formation of a Hariri court (Daily Star).
Despite the U.S. warnings, some experts have pointed to waning U.S. influence in the region, and the increasing role of actors like Iran. CFR President Richard N. Haass says such changes will require Washington to rely increasingly on diplomacy (Foreign Affairs). At the moment, experts say, U.S. officials appear to hold out hope that the successful prosecution of Syrian officials in a Hariri tribunal will force either a regime change or a behavioral change in Damascus. Imad Mustafa, Syria’s U.S. ambassador, suggests Washington reengage with Syria to work toward solving the region’s problems (NPR). Writing in Foreign Affairs, Syria expert Volker Perthes says “Syria is ready to be part of a regional solution—as long as its own interests are recognized.”
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said this week that his country is also “ready to resume peace negotiations” (AP) with Israel. Israel appears skeptical: Last week it accused UN peacekeepers of allowing arms shipments to reach Hezbollah (Der Spiegel), and this week the military announced it is preparing for another war (Haaretz), which it expects Syria and Hezbollah to instigate next summer.