June 10, 2009 | Forbes.com

A Looming Crisis In Lebanon?

On Sunday, June 7, the Lebanese held parliamentary elections and handed the incumbent coalition a decisive victory over the opposition, which is led by the Iranian-sponsored militant group Hezbollah. The win is significant in the region, and for the Obama administration's policymaking, affirming continuous solid popular support for pro-Western, pro-independence voices. However, a potential political crisis may be looming ahead in Lebanon, as Hezbollah (along with Syria) is threatening violence if it is not given veto power in the new cabinet.

The victory is impressive in that, despite being written off by most journalists and many analysts, the incumbent “March 14 coalition,” renewed its majority after four years on the receiving end of a brutal campaign of intimidation and violence at the hands of Hezbollah and its allies, and systematic assassinations believed to be the work of their regional backers.

The result is not only a defeat for Hezbollah's coalition, but also a failure for Syria, which in the last four years had done everything in its power to topple the March 14 majority, and Iran, whose president had declared that a Hezbollah victory would “open new fronts that strengthen the resistance.”

The win for the March 14 coalition spares the Obama administration the perception of a rollback at the hands of these two rogue regimes, which is important at a time when the administration is cautiously trying to engage both of them. However, the central issues dividing the Lebanese remain–namely, Hezbollah's arsenal and its destabilizing military autonomy, as well as its regional agenda in alliance with Syria and Iran.

As the Obama administration continues to proceed carefully with Iran and Syria, these regimes could revert to their chronic use of terrorist blackmail in Lebanon in order to gain leverage against the U.S. Already, the Syrians are voicing their opposition to majority leader Saad Hariri becoming prime minister, unless he sanctions the “resistance,” and thereby hands Syria and Hezbollah unilateral domination of the country's security and foreign policy.

Right after the results were announced, Hezbollah Member of Parliament Muhammad Raad declared that, regardless of the electoral outcome, Hezbollah's weapons were “not to be touched” and that the “resistance was not up for discussion.” This was later echoed by Hezbollah's Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah.

Moreover, Raad added, the majority had two options: either to give “guarantees” legitimizing Hezbollah's weapons, or to give Hezbollah veto power in the cabinet, which would allow it to torpedo any decision it doesn't like and ensure that the government legitimizes its military autonomy. Otherwise, he continued, the “crisis” would continue. Pro-Hezbollah media and Syrian apparatchiks have made the same implicit threat of a return to violence unless their demands were met.

For their part, the March 14 group's leaders have maintained that while they are open to a national unity government, they are against giving the opposition veto power. And while the March 14 faction's victory will not lead to Hezbollah's disarmament, it will boost commitment to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which has secured the border with Israel for the last three years since Hezbollah's disastrous 2006 war with Israel. Both Hezbollah and its backers in Damascus and Tehran have an interest in undermining, and eventually terminating, UNSCR 1701's security architecture. It is in the U.S. interest to encourage the March 14th-ers to hold their ground on this point, and not hand Hezbollah the explicit legitimization it seeks for its military independence.

Therefore, as we enter talks on the formation of a new cabinet and the formulation of its political program, a political crisis looms. It is centered on Hezbollah's anomalous status and its destabilizing effect, and Syria and Iran's desire to safeguard it in the service of their own ends. The support of the U.S., European allies, and moderate Arab states will be critical during this period and beyond.

The electoral result establishes that the U.S.-friendly majority is a popular reality in Lebanon. Therefore, high-level U.S. financial and military aid and training and diplomatic ties will now continue. The election also reflects a popular preference for the March 14th platform: building state institutions, respect for the rule of law, maintaining sovereignty and demarcating borders with Syria (a demand the U.S. can now continue to push strongly with the Syrians), commitment to U.N. Security Council resolutions and the International Tribunal on the assassinations in Lebanon since 2005, economic reforms, strong relations with the West, a state monopoly over weapons, and rejection of using Lebanon as a proxy theater of operations for Syria and Iran in their war against the U.S., Israel and other Arab states.

The Lebanese people have voted against violence and extremism, but as their elected representatives move to consolidate the popular mandate, they are likely to be met with a renewed campaign of violence by Hezbollah and its regional backers. They will be counting on the U.S. to continue its crucial support for Lebanon's sovereignty and independence, and for strengthening national institutions. Offering such support serves the interests of the U.S. and its vision for the region.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of DemocraciesCenter for Terrorism Research.

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Hezbollah Iran Lebanon Syria