Ten Months Of Vacuum

Meet the members of The Consultative Gathering

Meet the members of The Consultative Gathering

Yeah. I know. Ten.

Before I begin, here’s a small recap of the ninth month of presidential vacancy: It started with Hezbollah launching an operation in the Shebaa farms. When Israel did not respond, Hezbollah was supposed to gain momentum on the Lebanese political scene. But Hariri launched an epic maneuver, and Hezbollah did not politically escalate. In the end, it was a tie.

The second half of February and March are more exciting. Way more exciting.

The Two Presidents’ Men

In the last half of February, PM Salam wanted to amend the cabinet’s voting mechanism after several cabinet members began exercising veto power, stalling several of the government’s projects. What happens next? 7 Lebanese ministers meet and decide to form a “consultative gathering”. The ministers are the ones who are loyal to Amine Gemayel and to Michel Sleiman. The rapprochement between the ministers was logical: They all either belong to one of the smallest Lebanese parties in parliament or represent a former president that no longer has any concrete power (not even one MP). The 7 MPs have two more things in common: In a time of presidential vacancy, (1) they all answer to two of the three former presidents that are still alive while (2) not belonging to any of the two main Christian Lebanese parties. Deep down, it’s not about the voting mechanism, as it is about two political groups marking their territory. The two presidents know that they have no power in parliament that would ensure their same important presence in the next Lebanese cabinet. And they also know that they have an enormous amount of prestige (as former presidents) and that the mainstream Muslim parties are annoyed by the LF, the FPM and the two parties’ rivalry preventing them from supporting Aoun, Geagea, or any other alternative than Aoun and Geagea. Again, this is not about the voting mechanism: This is an advertisement. They are showing the Muslim leadership that there is a possible alternative to the FPM/LF choice: A new “prestigious” presidential Christian alliance that is very weak on the ground (and thus that will not ask for too much power – even if it wanted to), and that could still be –  to some extent – representative of Lebanese Christians. The two presidents are asking for political relevance, and in exchange, they will be an asset to weaken the LF, the FPM, or a possible (yet highly unlikely) LF-FPM alliance. For example, if the FPM and the LF reject Kahwaji as consensual candidate, Hezbollah and the FM could count on this new gathering to support the presidential candidacy of Kahwaji. After all, who cares about the other politicians if the biggest party in parliament and the most armed one – along with two former presidents and the army – endorse you?

And the advertisement worked: One of the closest Christian ministers to the FM, Michel Pharaon (Boutros Harb is also a member), joined the new gathering led by Sleiman and Gemayel. Now of course, this rapprochement between the two presidents could eventually have no impact at all, but one should keep in mind right now that the mainstream Muslim parties would have more leverage with their Christian allies (the FPM and the LF).

Hariri also succeeded to undermine the power of PM Tammam Salam (hello there, rivalry) by indirectly encouraging discontent in the cabinet. It’s been a good month of the Future Movement, especially that a new March 14 “national council” likely to reinvigorate the Mustaqbal-led coalition has seen the light.

Approximately one year after the presidential race began, the Maronite Four might be welcoming a new member to their closed group, President Michel Sleiman. The Maronite Four could soon become the Maronite Five.

The Maronite Two

The Aounists and the Lebanese Forces are also about to reach an understanding. The process – whose unannounced intention was probably to slow down the Hezbollah-FM dialogue – has accelerated probably due to the Gemayel-Sleiman rapprochement. The progress in the LF-FPM dialogue could mean two things: (1) That the two main Christian parties are trying to keep the president’s seat to themselves. In other words, the document of understanding could say that only both politicians would be eligible to run for presidency and no one else. Proof? On the 15th of March, Michel Aoun told us once again that he would only agree to a strong president and not to a consensual accordWelcome back to 2014. But it could also mean that (2) no consensual candidate would become president unless the two Christian parties agree on him. This written paper, as useless as it might seem, should put an end to the Muslim parties’ maneuvering and make Aoun and Geagea panic less about the possibility that Hezbollah and Mustaqbal would go through with a consensual candidate of their own. But in the end we (and they) all know that at least one of the Christians leaders will eventually agree to his ally’s terms. But hey, as they say an Arabic, el mhemm el niyye. An FPM-LF document of understanding should hinder for some time any M8-M14 agreement on Kahwaji (or any other consensual candidate for that matter).

Meanwhile, Sleiman Frangieh, who is probably feeling abandoned by everyone (by “everyone” I mean the Gemayel- Sleiman and Aoun-Geagea talks), launched his own political maneuver and preemptively self-proclaimed himself March 8’s number-two presidential candidate after Aoun pulls out.

Quand le chat n’est pas là, les souris dansent

Right now everyone is acting as if there’s a president in office: Berri wants to call for a parliamentary session amid presidential vacuum (It’s arguably unconstitutional, but hey, who cares). Moreover, the Lebanese cabinet is acting as if it’s not a caretaker one anymore: It spent at least two weeks trying to figure out a decision-making mechanism while there’s no president in power, instead of actually pressuring the parliament to elect a president. Our minister of foreign affairs too forgot that he was a caretaker cabinet member, and decided – like Phileas Fogg – to embark on a journey around the world signing treaties in 10 Latin American countries. (Someone should tell him that signing historic treaties with Cuba is not a priority right now)

Because that’s what care-taking apparently means: Doing everything you can do before someone in charge (a president) comes and tells you that you can’t do it.

When Lebanese politicians suddenly become too greedy, it usually means two things: (1) The status quo is going to end really soon (notice the very high number of decrees that Lebanese cabinets pass in the weeks before leaving power), or (2) the status quo is going to stay for a lot of time, and everyone wants to make sure that their slice of the pizza is in the fridge ready to be eaten whenever they get hungry. Meanwhile, on the southern side of Mount Lebanon, Walid Jumblatt is trying to benefit as much as possible from the vacancy and finish his transition of power before a president who is likely to be from the Chouf tries to interfere from the Beiteddine palace.

But one thing is for sure. It’s no longer about a electing a consensual candidate now. It’s about who would look like the winner once the consensual candidate is chosen.

305 days since the 25th of May. 141 days since the 5th of November. 3 Million years till the next parliamentary elections. 

I don’t know if it matters anymore , but here’s the monthly reminder anyway: We still don’t have a president.

Introducing Taymour

Yep, that's Right. The kid next to Kamal Jumblatt in that picture is no other than Walid Jumblatt

Yep, that’s Right. The kid next to Kamal Jumblatt in that picture is no other than Walid Jumblatt

Looking further ahead, “Walid Beyk” believes his elder son Taimur will be prepared to assume the leadership of the Lebanese Druze community whenever Jumblatt decides to “retire and get my green card.” Emitting a low sigh and rubbing his bald head, Jumblatt worried though that his ‘Generation Y’ younger son, Arslan, is less enthralled by the whole Druze feudal ethos (of course, Jumblatt himself was a motorcycle-riding hippy when he was suddenly thrust into the Druze leadership following his father Kamal’s assassination in 1977).

Found on a WikiLeaks cable dating from August 2006.

Taymour. Read this name, and remember it well. Because in the next few months, Lebanon’s parliament is going to gradually see the rise of a new young politician who will one day lead the Lebanese center and eventually be Lebanon’s new Kingmaker. Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt confirmed last Tuesday he will hand over his seat in Parliament to his eldest son, Taymour. In remarks to local daily As-Safir, Jumblatt said Parliament Speaker Berri has promised he would hold by-elections in May after the Druze leader submits a letter of resignation to Parliament.

So Why Now?

If you’ve been following Lebanese politics closely for the past few years, this shouldn’t be too surprising. Like you just read in the cable, Taymour had probably been Jumblatt’s preferred choice to lead the PSP since the last decade. Taymour started participating in a lot of his father’s meetings since the last parliamentary elections (here’s an example of one with Nasrallah 2009). In 2011, Taymour was made the second in command of the PSP. While rumors of Walid Jumblatt giving up his parliamentary seat for his son have been ongoing for quite a time now, Jumblatt chose the perfect moment to end his presence in parliament and formally put his son in charge of the PSP bloc.

1) The Perfect Parliamentary Timing

As I said on this blog a couple of months earlier, Jumblatt’s presence in parliament has seen a steady decline since 2000. It shrunk from 16 in 2000 to 7 in 2011, after 4 of his MPs abandoned him following the Mikati nomination to the premiership. Anyway, it’s very unlikely that Jumblatt would control more than 12 MPs in the next parliamentary elections, let alone keep the 11 MPs he currently has. This why Jumblatt doesn’t want to wait till the next parliamentary elections to get Taymour into Nejmeh Square, because he probably wants him to be elected while there’s still the biggest number of MPs next to him in parliament, which would help his son a lot by giving him some sort of guidance. Also, it would give the impression that Taymour doesn’t have any rivals in the Chouf: While it is very likely that M8 and M14 would field contenders in regular elections, I find it hard to believe that any of the two coalitions would be ready, by their own, to challenge Jumblatt on a Druze seat, in his home district, especially if it’s a by-election: Because if you piss off the PSP while they’re in the middle – and especially while there’s no president, Jumblatt won’t be in the the middle anymore, there will be a president (that you won’t like), and most importantly, Taymour Jumblatt will still win the seat in the Chouf => Not a smart move to challenge the PSP right now. (This opportunity doesn’t come every day for the PSP)

2) The Perfect Governmental Timing

Walid Jumblatt’s minister in the cabinet, Wael Abou Faour, is now Lebanon’s sole raison d’être. Since November 2011, the minister of health has been launching heavily mediatized campaigns to force different Lebanese hospitals, restaurants, factories, pharmaceutical companies, and shops to abide by the guidelines of the health ministry. It might not look like a big deal, but for Lebanon, it was a revolutionary move. Two months ago, I said that it was probably because Jumblatt wanted to (1) maximize his chances at the Rashaya-West Bekaa district in the upcoming elections and (2) at the same time start a transition of power while having the upper hand. Today, I believe we can confirm it. Jumblatt wants to be the man who decides the outcome of the 2017 elections in the southern Bekaa while preparing his transition of power.

3) The Perfect Presidential Timing

There’s something very important about the timing here. Jumblatt didn’t only decide to give up his seat before the parliamentary elections, he decided to give it up before we even had an elected president. And it’s not only because Jumblatt wants to finish the transition before M8 and M14 agree on a deal that is likely to isolate him in the center. We all know by now that – one way or another – the PSP always finds itself in the ruling coalition. What scares Jumblatt here is the identity of the new president. While Sleiman was an ally, the new president might not be one. The last time we had a president from the Chouf (Camille Chamoun), a civil war erupted in the mountains, and Kamal Jumblatt wasn’t reelected in 1957 (And the best part? Kamal Jumblatt was actually an ally of Chamoun when he became president). Jumblatt is aware that a president from the Chouf would gather a certain amount of influence, especially among the Christians of the district. He is also probably more than capable of handling that problem. 2015 is not 1955. He just doesn’t want the transition of power to happen in Mukhtara while a president from the Chouf is interfering from the Beiteddin palace.

And Guess who is from the Chouf? Presidential candidate no. 1, Commander of the Army Jean Kahwaji.

And yes, I am clearly hinting here that the upcoming transition of power in parliament might mean that Kahwaji is the most likely candidate to win right now.

With a new Kingmaker in parliament, hopefully a new King.

300 days since the 25th of May, 136 days since the 5th of November. 3 Million years till the next parliamentary elections.

Reminder: We still don’t have a President.

The WikiLebanon Files (Part II): March 2005 – Berri, Larsen, And Syrian Withdrawal

Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, meets U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, Saturday, March 12, 2005.  AP

Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, meets U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, Saturday, March 12, 2005. AP

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the March 8 and 14 demonstrations. These two events eventually led to the creation of Lebanon’s two mainstream coalitions, and set the rules of the political game for the next 10 years. This is why this month I will focus on two cables.

The first one is about Speaker Berri telling the U.S. ambassador, on March 9, 5 days before the 14 March rally and only one day after the March 8 rally, that “Syria will redeploy its forces to the Biqa’ Valley, starting possibly as soon as March 9″, and that Hezbollah would eventually fill the vacuum.

The second cable is a conversation between French officials and the U.N. envoy Terje Rod-Larsen (Remember him?). I am publishing it because Larsen mentions that “Syria may seek to sow inter-communal violence by targetting Lebanon’s pro-Syria camp, including a possible Nasrallah assassination.


2005 March 9, 16:43 (Wednesday)
– Not Assigned –
1. (C) Nabih Berri, Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and leader of the Shia Amal Movement, assured the Ambassador that Syrian forces would redeploy to the Biqa’ Valley in short order and complete their withdrawal to Syria within months. Looking on the bright side, Berri claimed that Syria’s departure will give its Lebanese allies more freedom of maneuver. On the other hand, he gloomily conceded that his Amal Movement’s rival for leadership of Lebanon’s Shia community, Hizballah, may well steal the show (as Hizballah did later that same day, March 8, in a huge downtown rally). Berri is emphatically for a strong “national unity government,” and frustrated by the opposition’s lack of interest in joining. Any further delay in forming a government makes a delay of parliamentary elections almost certain, Berri said. End summary.
Syrian withdrawal — they mean it, Berri says
2. (C) Berri was laconic at first when called on by the Ambassador and poloff on March 8 at Berri’s Beirut residence. The Ambassador asked about the March 7 meeting in Damascus between Syrian President Asad and Lebanese President Lahoud, whom Berri accompanied. “Good, no problem,” Berri replied, turning away to stare at a point in space, lips pursed, hands clasped over his knee. Was he confident the Syrians would commit to full withdrawal? “No problem,” Berri repeated, pronouncing the two words slowly and exactly.
3. (C) “I’m sure of one thing,” Berri told the Ambassador. That is that Syria will redeploy its forces to the Biqa’ Valley, starting possibly as soon as March 9. Following that, UN Special Envoy Terje-Roed Larsen would return to the region and arrive at a “more than positive solution” for full Syrian withdrawal.
4. (C) Berri expressed frustration with criticism made by Lebanese oppositionists, among others, of the results of the March 7 Damascus meeting, particularly the fact that it did not announce a timetable for full withdrawal. The plan agreed on by Asad and Lahoud would apply the Ta’if Agreement “exactly,” and “in the way of (UNSCR) 1559″ (which Berri admitted he opposed, but “in a democratic way”). All Roed-Larsen had to do was arrange a “marriage” between the Ta’if Agreement and UNSCR 1559, and then he could extract a timetable from the Syrians.
5. (C) Berri expressed certainty not only that Syrian forces would redeploy to the Biqa’ quickly, but also that they would start to withdraw across the Syrian border before April. Full withdrawal would be completed not within a year, but within months. Queried by the Ambassador, Berri said that all Syrian intelligence personnel would be withdrawn as well.
6. (C) Berri insisted that this was not a matter of all talk and no action. President Asad had made clear his intent about complying with UNSCR 1559. The SARG would obey any demands made on it by Roed-Larsen’s forthcoming report. The reason the SARG was so intent on full withdrawal was that it did not want to be responsible for implementation of the other provisions of UNSCR 1559, such as disarmament and disbandment of militias.
7. (C) Berri said that, faced with the disarmament of Hizballah, Asad could say it was “not my business.” Also, the SARG wanted to be able to claim credit for implementing UNSCR 1559. That way, it could make a stronger case for implementation of other Security Council resolutions dealing with the Middle East.
With Syria leaving, it’s Nasrallah’s show
8. (C) Asked by the Ambassador about the massive rally in central Beirut being organized at that moment by Hizballah, Berri gloomily said of his rival for leadership of the Shia community, Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, that “it is his case now.” With the Syrians withdrawing from Lebanon, Nasrallah had “come to the front.” No one could claim that the rally was a “Syrian project,” claimed Berri.
9. (C) Berri said he was trying hard to keep people “off the streets” and minimize the possibility of violence in the current tense atmosphere. He noted reports of violent incidents following Asad’s March 5 speech, provoked by individuals in vehicles flying flags of Berri’s Amal Movement and driving through pro-opposition neighborhoods. None of the perpetrators were Amal members, he said — in one case, they had been Palestinians. “Many people want to make trouble,” he said. Lebanon was not united, it had too many sects, it was — in a negative metaphor increasingly favored by loyalists — “not Ukraine.”
10. (C) The Ambassador suggested that it was a positive sign that Lebanese, whether opposition or loyalist, were all marching under the same flag, the Lebanese national flag. Their confessional identify was not determining their stance on the question of the Syrian presence. Berri, still gloomy, answered that it was “apparently” good for the Lebanese to be under one flag. The problem was that “everyone sees their own color in the flag.” The Lebanese remained “a divided people.”
11. (C) Perhaps indicative of his bad mood, Berri proceeded to instruct the Ambassador on points that, while arguably true, were irrelevant. If Hariri had not been assassinated, Berri asserted, the Sunni community would not have joined the opposition. If the Syrians are proven innocent of Hariri’s assassination, the Sunnis will “change in one day.” Druze leader Walid Jumblatt subscribes to the Ta’if Agreement but not UNSCR 1559; he is therefore in favor of the Syrians remaining in the Biqa’ Valley (comment: while the first point is true, the second is clearly not).
Politics without Syria
12. (C) With the Syrians gone, Berri claimed, Syria’s Lebanese allies would be more free to do what they want. For example, Berri expected more elements on the loyalist side (Hizballah, President Lahoud) to move closer to his original position on the electoral law. That is, they would support large electoral districts drawn along the lines of the “mohafazah” administrative unit, rather than the smaller “qada.” Berri himself had supported the “qada” plan only because of Syrian pressure to go along with a supposed deal between Damascus and the Maronite Patriarch.
13. (C) Another example: Berri and his Amal Movement could now take full credit from their constituents in return for largesse. Previously, they had often faced constituents suspicious that the real donor of state-funded projects and services was “the ally,” i.e., Damascus, not Berri and Amal. “We (the Amal Movement) paid the price sometimes!”
Forming a new government…
14. (C) Berri told the Ambassador that a strong government, a “national unity government,” was needed in the aftermath of the Karami government’s February 28 resignation. Only a strong government could handle the several “big issues” that any successor to Karami’s government would face: the investigation of Hariri’s assassination, Syrian withdrawal, and the new electoral law. He joked that, in response to opposition demands, he had tried to look up the term “neutral government” in “my dictionary of Lebanese politics.” It didn’t exist.
15. (C) Berri expected ‘Umar Karami to come back as Prime Minister in the next government. The list of viable candidates to fill the post was short: Karami, Salim al-Hoss, Fouad Siniora, and Adnan Kassar. Berri opposed naming an anti-Hariri figure, so that ruled out Hoss. On the other hand, Hariri supporters did not want Siniora or Kassar elevated to the position. That left Karami. Berri believed Karami would be a good choice; if brought back, Karami would “try to make it work.”
16. (C) Berri said he wanted the opposition to join the new cabinet. They were making a serious mistake if they held back. There was a precedent for effective national unity governments in Lebanon, such as the one that brought civil-war-era leaders on both sides of the East Beirut-West Beirut divide into the same cabinet in 1984 (comment: a grim precedent).
17. (C) Berri claimed to be puzzled by the opposition’s demand that seven security service heads be dismissed before the opposition would consider joining a new government. The Ambassador said that the opposition was arguing that there was no sense in joining a cabinet when the real power remained in the hands of unaccountable security chiefs. Based on our conversations with the opposition, however, it seems that the opposition might be willing to bargain to an extent, perhaps agreeing to let the other chiefs remain in place for the time being in return for the immediate dismissal of Internal Security Force Director General Ali al-Hajj. “Why the innocent one and not the guilty one?” Berri asked, without clarification (but presumably in reference to fellow Shia Jamil al-Sayyed, whom Berri detests — and the feeling is mutual).
18. (C) Berri fretted about the confessional complications that would come into play with the dismissal of any or all of the security service chiefs. Anyway, the cabinet would have to name a replacement for any dismissed security service chief — why did the opposition not want to be in the cabinet and influence the decision?
… and holding elections on time
19. (C) Berri told the Ambassador that the consultations for designating a new Prime Minister and forming a cabinet could easily take a week. A genuine “national unity government” could take even longer to form. Then there was the matter of the election law, and parliamentary elections cannot begin less than one month after the law enters into effect. 20. (C) Berri said that, until now, plans to hold elections on schedule in May have remained in the realm of feasibility. Any further delay would put these plans in jeopardy, however. The Ambassador told Berri that a genuinely strong government cannot be formed until after elections, so they need to remain on schedule.
21. (C) The massive demonstration in central Beirut on the afternoon of March 8 appeared to vindicate Berri’s fears about being left behind, coughing in Hizballah’s dust on a post-Syrian Lebanese political landscape. Some of the concerns he tried to raise and link with Syrian withdrawal — Hizballah ascendancy, civil disorder, pro-Syrian elements having an even freer hand — sounded a little disingenuous, given that the Syrians still have yet to leave.
2005 March 16, 18:41 (Wednesday)
– Not Assigned –
– N/A or Blank –
Classified By: Political Minister-Counselor Josiah Rosenblatt, reasons 1.5 (b) and (d).
1. (S) Summary: MFA and Elysee officials are stressing the need for continued insistence on a full Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon before elections, in the wake of UN Special Envoy Larsen’s meetings in Beirut and Aleppo. The GoF views a four to six-month Syrian withdrawal as too long. According to Chirac’s Middle East advisor, Larsen expressed worry to the GoF that Syria may seek to sow inter-communal violence by targetting Lebanon’s pro-Syria camp, including a possible Nasrallah assassination. Larsen also expressed a preference for delaying release of the Fitzgerald report, and criticized the Lebanese opposition for not being more pragmatic on the need for a new government. French officials agree with Larsen that continued delays in forming a new Lebanese government could delay elections and full Syrian withdrawal, and view the “dump Lahoud” demands of the opposition as counter-productive. French officials continue to commend U.S.-GoF cooperation on Lebanon, but suggest that we may eventually part ways on the Hizballah issue or regime change in Syria. MFA officials also report that the GoF has no enthusiasm for an international force in Lebanon, that the EU may soon send election observer trainers to Lebanon, and that FM Barnier may attend the March 22-23 Arab League summit, where he will avoid contact with Lebanese or Syrian officials. End summary.
2. (S) UN Special Envoy for UNSCR 1559 implementation Terje Roed-Larsen visited Paris March 14 and had a working lunch with Presidential Diplomatic Advisor (NSA-equivalent) Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, MFA A/S-equivalent for Near East Jean-Francois Thibault, and MFA IO A/S-equivalent Jean-Maurice Ripert. We received readouts on Larsen’s visit from Presidential Middle East Advisor Dominique Boche March 16 and from MFA DAS-equivalent for the Levant Christian Jouret March 15. Jouret stressed that the GoF opted to receive Larsen with maximum discretion and not at the presidential or ministerial level to avoid feeding perceptions that Larsen is controlled by the GoF and USG. Jouret said the GoF was encouraged by Larsen’s meeting with Bashar and cautiously optimistic that Bashar would follow through on his commitments, but concluded that the lack of a timetable for full withdrawal was insufficient. Jouret described Larsen as optimistic (more so that the GoF) and determined, and convinced that Bashar understood the gravity of the current situation and the accusations against him on Hariri’s assassination. Both Jouret and Boche concurred that the four to six month full withdrawal suggested by Bashar to Larsen (ref b) was “too long.”
3. (S) According to Elysee Advisor Boche, Larsen stressed four additional points to the GoF: 1) the need for the international community to continue to insist upon a full (troops and security services) Syrian withdrawal before elections, to avoid giving the impression of being satisfied by Syrian steps so far; 2) worry that Syria may seek to sow inter-communal violence by assassinating a major figure in the loyalist camp, possibly Hizballah leader Nasrallah; 3) the need to delay release of the Fitzgerald report, to avoid the impression that it is linked to Larsen’s visit; and 4) the need for the Lebanese opposition to be more realistic on the urgency of forming a new Lebanese government, without which full Syrian withdrawal and timely parliamentary elections would not be possible. Boche stressed that the GoF shared the view that a forming a new GOL was imperative, and opined that a neutral, technical government might be a more feasible option than a national unity government, given GOL unwillingness to meet opposition demands to fire GOL security officials. Boche added that the calls by some oppositionists for a Lahoud resignation were counterproductive, as Lahoud’s dismissal would result in a further impasse that would serve Syrian interests.
4. (C) Jouret told us separately that FM Barnier, during a March 11 meeting with a visiting Lebanese opposition delegation led by Marwan Hamade, urged the group, to no avail, to show more flexibility in forming a national unity government with PM Karami. Jouret described the delegation as unrealistic on its prospects for winning elections; the group expressed confidence that it could win at least 50 percent of the vote if elections were free and fair. Jouret also commented that the group did not appear to have a political plan beyond getting Syria out of Lebanon and clearing the GOL of pro-Syrian elements after their presumed electoral victory. Jouret conceded that the massive March 14 demonstration changed the dynamic in the opposition’s favor since Barnier’s March 11 meeting, and that the degree to which both camps could mobilize numbers in the street would affect the political jockeying now underway.
5. (C) Both Jouret and Boche commended GoF-U.S. cooperation on Lebanon and U.S. willingness to “listen to” French views; at the same time, they both speculated that our common approaches may diverge eventually over Hizballah, once full Syrian withdrawal is achieved. Jouret described Hizballah dismantling as the real problem in UNSCR 1559 implementation, now that Bashar had already caved, in principle, to Larsen on full withdrawal. Jouret asked rhetorically how we could achieve the dismantling of Hizballah, expressing doubt on the Lebanese army’s capacity to do so. He added that the Lebanese opposition, during their meeting with Barnier, stressed the view that Hizballah was a longterm internal question, not an international issue. In the opposition view, dismantling of Hizballah could only come after Hizballah’s full integration as a political player, and not the other way around, as previewed in UNSCR 1559. The GoF, meanwhile, was trying to approach the Hizballah issue on a pragmatic basis, rather than an ideological one, which meant we should not expect a shift on EU Hizballah designation. Boche reiterated the latter point with us, and reiterated that the GoF wanted to avoid alienating Lebanon’s majority Shi’a community, for which Hizballah remained the most credible political force. Boche added that the GoF hoped that a Syrian withdrawal would make Hizballah realize there was no alternative to political integration, however he was not confident this was the case. Syrian withdrawal would make Hizballah more dependent on Iran, whose intentions were unclear, though it had claimed to the GoF that it was playing a moderating influence on Hizballah in the current crisis. Boche opined that the Iranians had the tendency to see themselves as respected internationally only when they are perceived as dangerous.
6. (S) Jouret and Boche also expressed concern on prospects for the fall of Bashar’s regime, an outcome which the GoF was not deliberately seeking. Jouret stressed the need for the U.S. and France to think about the implications of a full Syrian withdrawal and whether it might result in Bashar’s overthrow and replacement by a more hardline leader, a prospect which Boche viewed as entirely possible. Boche described Bashar al-Asad as weak, lacking the experience and intelligence of his father, and losing control over the circle which surrounds him. He cited Larsen’s description of the Syrian leader’s nervousness during the recent Aleppo meeting, and added that the fact that recent pro-SARG demonstrations in Damascus had rallied such low numbers — in the 30,000 range — showed that Bashar was being sabotaged by others within his security services, possibly his powerful brother-in-law, SMI Chief Asif Shawkat. Jouret opined that he still viewed Bashar, despite all his weaknesses, as redeemable, but said the question remained whether the Syrian leader would rid himself of the circle around him, including the negative influence of FM Shara.
7. (C) On next steps, Jouret stressed that the GoF would continue to advise Larsen to issue a tough report in April, and would continue to seek maximum pressure from Arab governments on Syria for full withdrawal. On the latter point, Jouret noted that next week’s Arab League summit did not have Lebanon on the agenda, though the issue might be discussed in a smaller “group of seven” (NFI) within the gathering. Jouret reported that FM Barnier was likely to attend the Arab League summit, at the invitation of Algeria, but that the French FM would studiously avoid any contact with Lebanese or Syrian officials. On further UN action, Jouret said the MFA originally had been favorable to the idea of a PRST to follow the Larsen visit to Syria and Lebanon, but was overruled by the Elysee. Jouret stressed that the GoF was entirely negative on the idea of an international force or expanded UNIFIL filling the void left by a Syrian withdrawal, and cited the French experience of losing troops in Lebanon in the 1980’s as weighing heavily on GoF thinking. On observers for the May elections, Jouret reported that the EU planned to send a small-sized team, to include two French nationals, to Lebanon to train Lebanese election observers in advance of the ballot and would not seek GoL permission to do so; the GoF was also intent on participating in an international observer mission, once the GoL relents on the issue. Boche, meanwhile, stressed to us that the real determinant to whether elections would be free and fair was whether or not Syrian troops and security services fully withdrew prior to the ballot.

Nine Months Of Vacuum

Guess What I Found In a 1926 Newspaper?

Guess What I Found In a 1926 Newspaper?

Technically speaking, the ninth month of vacuum doesn’t end before next week, but the number of events that happened in these last twenty days is too damn high, so I decided to link them to one another  as soon as possible.

Behold, the glorious ninth month of presidential vacancy.

The Context

On the 28th of January, Hezbollah finally found the opportunity they have been searching for. Israel had launched a week earlier an airstrike in the Syrian Golan, killing an Iranian General and several commanders from the party, including the son of Imad Mughniyah, who was also killed by Israel in 2008 and was never avenged by the party. Whether the Israelis intended it or not, the strike was actually a very nice propaganda boost for Hezbollah. As I said in a post at the time, it would eventually help Hezbollah in their struggle to put the Syrian opposition and Israel in the same box. And I was right (Yay): A couple days after things calmed down on the southern border, Nasrallah made sure to point out how the Israelis and Jabhat Al-Nusra are both working together to “sabotage the resistance”. Hezbollah could have used the Israeli strike alone to strengthen this discourse, but not responding at the Israeli attack would have been a blow to the morale of the party. On the 28th of January, Hezbollah retaliated to the Israeli strike in the most calculated way possible: The attack happened from the Syrian Golan (where Israel had attacked the earlier), on a contested Lebanese-Israeli-Syrian territory (so not even Israeli), and the casualties were also relatively limited: 2 Israeli soldiers were killed while the Israeli strike killed an Iranian General and several Hezbollah commanders. For Hezbollah, the number was high enough to prove that they weren’t afraid of the consequences and that they wouldn’t let Israel target their men without retaliating anymore. But the number was also kind of low for Israel to respond: They were heading to elections in 40 days: The Israeli ruling coalition would have risked ending a failed military operation (like in 2006) right before the elections, and besides, the number was relatively low when it was compared to Hezbollah’s casualties a week earlier. By choosing the worst context for the Israelis to start a war (by launching the attack on disputed territory, by not kidnapping any IDF soldier, and by choosing the worst timing ever for Israel) Hezbollah wanted to send a message, not start a war. They gambled, and they won. Israel did not attack, and Hezbollah subsequently gained the upper hand – militarily in Syria, and politically in Beirut. (If you’re asking yourself how they won politically in Lebanon, look at how Jumblatt lauded Hezbollah’s ambush)

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them (Part I)

If you follow Lebanese politics for several years, you’ll find that the Lebanese political parties are very predictable. In the aftermath of Hezbollah’s retaliation – and once it was sure that Israel wouldn’t strike back – the logical response from M14 would have been to constantly, frequently, relentlessly criticize Hezbollah’s “attempt at destabilizing the south, risking the destruction of Beirut’s infrastructure yet again, and dragging Lebanon into a proxy war between Iran and Israel while drowning the country deeper into the Syrian conflict”. Of course, if the Israelis had launched an offensive, M14 would have waited for the offensive to end to start criticizing Hezbollah, since it would make them look as if they’re standing with Israel if they’re too harsh on Hezbollah while the battles are raging. Anyway, what I want to say here is that the Future Movement and Hezbollah had the opportunity to start a political war because of Hezbollah’s military move in Israel, but neither of them took it, although Geagea tried to tun them against one another: He was giving a press conference the day the attack happened, and criticized the party’s move. Future Movement’s response was a clear indicator that they wanted peace with Hezbollah: Of course, Siniora criticized the party for his actions (you have to please your electorate after all), but that’s not what matters: Hariri was relatively indifferent about the issue (He didn’t even tweet about the events that week) and Future Movement’s minister in the cabinet said that Hezbollah did not break the ministerial declaration (yeah, it’s in bold because it’s important). That’s actually huge: Not only does it give Hezbollah an approval from the other side of the political spectrum, it also gives the impression that Hezbollah was acting within the legal limits established by the government. The cabinet’s ministerial declaration is very vague about the resistance (remember when the cabinet spent a whole month trying to write it?) and says that “Lebanese citizens have the right to resist the occupation”. This weird sentence was a compromise between M14 and M8 that was supposed to be midway between M8’s “The people, army, resistance equation” and M14’s desire to remove the previous sentence.

Anyway, the Future Movement made a wise decision here: By stating that Hezbollah’s move was actually within the boundaries established by the weird sentence in the ministerial declaration (Yes, I won’t stop calling weird, because it’s an absolute bullshit sentence that means nothing and could mean anything at all. Even “اكل الولد التفاحة ” would have been a better choice than ” الحق للمواطنين اللبنانيين في مقاومة الاحتلال الإسرائيلي ورد اعتداءاته واسترجاع الأراضي المحتلة”), Future Movement plays it smart and shows that the cabinet – that could be seen as an M14 one – is actually in control of Hezbollah’s actions with Israel (Actually it’s everything but that: The proof? The cabinet didn’t even meet the day the attacks happened). Anyway, Future Movement chose not to clash politically with Hezbollah – despite the LF and the Kataeb’s obvious desire to do so – and played it smooth: After all, they were having a dialogue, and there’s a vacant president seat out there that can’t be apparently filled unless both parties give the green light.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them (Part II)

A couple of days after the attack, there was yet another opportunity to start an all-out between M8 and M14. After Geagea’s failed attempt the day of the ambush, came a leaked video about Strida Geagea that was circulated by the M8 media (specifically the Christian M8 media). It shows the LF MP saying “Nchallah ya Rab” when Journalist Denise Rahme informed her about what happened in the South between Hezbollah and Israel. As it turns out, the video was genuine but cut off and MP Geagea was saying “Nchallah ya Rab ma yisseer shi”. Anyway, this was an attempt – this time by the FPM – to start an all-out war between M8 and M14. Just like the LF and the Kataeb, the FPM were desperately trying to break the Hezbollah-FM dialogue. I said it once, I said twice, and I’ll say it every time: The Christians parties fear an FM-Hezbollah agreement more than they fear one another. Because in the end, every time both parties jointly approved something, it passed, regardless of what the Christian parties thought of it. Hezbollah ignored the Aounists twice during the parliamentary extension sessions, and the Future Movement did the same with the LF when they decided in 2014 to go ahead and share the cabinet with Hezbollah while throwing their closest Christian ally alone in the opposition. If Hezbollah and the FM agree on the presidential matter, it would be the ultimate downfall for the Christian parties. It scares them so much that they actually tried to wreak the HA-FM dialogue, first by starting their own dialogue (and then trying to end it in order to end the M8-M14 dialogue as whole), and now by trying to start a political war between M8 and M14 that would eventually end the dialogue and any chance of finding a Hezbollah-FM consensual candidate.

And how did the members of the dialogue react to that attempt? Instead of arguing about Strida Geagea’s video, both parties simply ignored the Christian brouhaha and made their allies panic even more by removing all their political posters from the city of Beirut in order to “defuse tensions“.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them (Part III)

So let’s sum things up:

1) Hezbollah – Future Movement dialogue starts => Dialogue “making progress” => Christian parties panic. (That was last month)

2) Hezbollah retaliates against Israel => LF wants the FM to criticize Hezbollah => Instead the FM indirectly endorses Hezbollah => Christian parties panic more => FPM tries to start an all-out war => the FM and Hezbollah respond by signing a “poster removal peace treaty” => Christian parties panic even more.

How much more exactly? The Christian parties would panic so much, that when FM MP Khaled Daher made his faux pas last week and said the anti-Christian comments, the Christian parties were so much paranoid that even the Kataeb – who practically never publicly criticize their allies – asked the FM to throw Daher out. In a way, they were also indirectly asking the FM to up the tone against Hezbollah – after all the only way for Mustaqbal to repair the damage done by Daher would have been by criticizing Hezbollah’s sectarian foundations.

Surprise: The FM threw Daher out, and did not accuse Hezbollah of anything. And to make things worse? According to reports, Hezbollah was advancing in the Syrian south and launching one of the most violent campaigns since their intervention in Syria started. And the FM didn’t say a word about it => Panique Chrétienne Généralisée (Excuse my french)

That was it for the M8/M14 Christian parties. Hezbollah and the FM were serious about the dialogue, and for a while, it seemed that the consensual president would be “forced” on them. It was the apocalypse.

Except it wasn’t.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them, Then Beat Them (Part IV)

“Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria is insanity and Hezbollah has brought this insanity to Lebanon.”

“Tying the Golan Heights to south Lebanon is insanity as well

After approximately three weeks of bonding with Hezbollah, Hariri threw this bomb on the 14th of February commemoration of the assassination of his father. In 3 weeks, Hariri (1) gave the impression that he had no problem with Hezbollah’s retaliation and made it look as if Hezbollah was following the cabinet’s guidelines that were jointly set by M8 and M14. Then, (2) Hariri managed, whether he meant it or not, to cause confrontations between the members of M8, and between the LF and the FPM. He also managed to (3) undermine Siniora, (4) to throw Daher out and eventually attract a friendly Christian electorate towards M14 while (5) setting boundaries for his MPs, (6) to give the impression that Hezbollah lost him as an ally after they thought they were winning him over, while (7) showing that he is a moderate at the same time because he wants to have a serious dialogue, and (8) highlighting the fact that he is actually making a big sacrifice by negotiating with  Hezbollah, which would mean that he is (9) a patriot that values Lebanon above everything else.

These three weeks were supposed to be about Hezbollah’s achievement. Instead, they became all about Hariri, who didn’t even have an achievement.

Lebanese politicians, take notes. Because that’s one hell of a political maneuver.

Hezbollah were so embarrassed by Hariri that they needed to respond quickly in order to prevent him from taking advantage of what just happened: Not even 24 hours had passed after the Hariri speech when a Hezbollah drone flew over Israel (That’s the second one in three years). The drone wasn’t about Israel or Syria, It was a message destined to the FM: Hezbollah wanted to show that Hariri’s speeches, no matter how violent in their criticism, will have no impact whatsoever on Hezbollah’s military decisions. The proof? When Nasrallah gave his speech monday, he barely mentioned Hariri’s criticism. He only lauded Hariri’s anti-terror stance, using it to empower Hezbollah’s position, without even mentioning Hariri’s harsh criticism, as if the “insanity” part hadn’t happened in Hariri’s speech. That means two things: (1) Hezbollah wanted to undermine Hariri by ignoring him, and (2) they wanted to send a message to the Future Movement (by not escalating) that they were still ready to calm things down in order to ensure the success of the dialogue. After all, the road to Baabda goes through Beit Al Wasat and Hareit Hreik.

ِِAs the relation between the FM and Hezbollah is expected to quickly deteriorate now, don’t be too hopeful about breaking the deadlock soon. It seems that 9 months later, we’re back to square one.

Reminder: We still don’t have a president.

269 days since the 25th of May. 105 days since the 5th of November. Three million years till the next parliamentary elections.

The WikiLebanon Files (Part I): The Day Berri Called Lahoud a “Bastard”

U.S. official Jeffrey Feltman, left, meets with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011. (The Daily Star Photo/Mohammad Azakir).

U.S. official Jeffrey Feltman, left, meets with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011. (The Daily Star Photo/Mohammad Azakir).

Over the past two years, I spent a lot of time on WikiLeaks, finding cables that were unheard of and that gave an interesting insight about Lebanon’s presidential politics (see here, here, here, and here for examples). The Lebanese mainstream media rarely publishes the cables, and even when they do, they use them as part of their media wars. This is why I have decided that every month, I will keep searching for relevant cables until I find something worth sharing that the media didn’t focus on.

Since we currently don’t have a president in office, I thought that it would be nice to take a look at some of the (behind the scenes) maneuvers that were happening during Lahoud’s days in office. Enjoy.

1. (S) Describing President Emile Lahoud as a “bastard,” Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri used a 5/9 meeting with the Ambassador to seek USG help in derailing what Berri suspects is a diabolical Syrian-inspired plot Lahoud plans to implement to destroy Lebanon’s parliament. (Yes, gentle reader, the previous sentence is correct as written.) As if forgetting that he is the one holding the power to open Parliament’s doors, Berri outlined a scenario by which Lahoud, drawing on his insistence that the Siniora cabinet does not legally exist, will use a creative interpretation of the constitution to dissolve parliament unilaterally when it fails to meet in its ordinary session that expires May 31. At that point, Lahoud will argue that he is free to appoint a new prime minister and cabinet, without the need for parliamentary approval. And this sets up a scenario by which Lebanon is plunged into new legislative elections. The emerging pro-Syrian majority would then elect Lebanon’s new president, or the Lahoud-appointed cabinet would inherit the powers of the presidency. Describing the “plot” to destroy the constitutional institution he controls, Berri gave a very believable performance of vein-popping rage.
2. (S) As the new cabinet begins work, the March 14 majority would continue to recognize the Siniora cabinet and the existing parliament and proceed with its own presidential elections. Lahoud’s scheme as described by Berri would, at a minimum, set up two entirely parallel structures: two PMs, cabinets, parliaments, and presidents. But it would be more likely that Lebanon would be plunged into chaos, with institutions splitting and the army sitting on the sidelines as the two parallel structures battled for supremacy. To avoid this, Berri advocates a first step that we have long urged he grab: open the parliament, thus preventing Lahoud from dissolving it. He is now on board, but under limited conditions he seeks our help to impose with our March 14 contacts. We are inclined to do so, in order to avoid his worst-case scenario, but we have to consider carefully what tricks Berri himself has up his sleeve. When asked about the impact of potential Chapter VII approval of the tribunal, Berri threw up his hands: “approve it Under Chapter VII, Chapter 67, or whatever — I don’t care!” While Berri seemed to speak with far more candor than usual, we, of course, remain skeptical that the alliance he advocates to thwart a Syrian-inspired plot is a lasting one. End summary and comment.
3. (S) Shooing the aides and Embassy notetaker from the room immediately after the television cameras had panned the ordinary-looking meeting, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri opened his 5/9 meeting with the Ambassador with what struck us as a self-evident observation: “Lahoud is a bastard!” Berri pronounced, jumping from his chair. Berri, who insisted that the Ambassador not share this information with anyone, said that he had belatedly put two and two together to discover a diabolical plot by Lahoud to destroy Lebanon’s parliament. At the last moment, Berri relized that he was being used by Lahoud in a scheme that would throw him out of his own position asspeaker and possibly thrust him into permanent irelevance. “Lahoud hates me, and he knows I hate him. He thinks he’s found a way to beat me.”
4. (S) oing into detail while thumbing through the Lebaese constitution, Berri explained that the scheme tarts with Lahoud’s repeated insistence, submittd frequently in writing and orally, that the Siniora cabinet does not exist legally at all — not ven in caretaker status. This establishes a recrd that there is a constitutional vacuum where te office of the Prime Minister and the cabinet as whole should be. Thus, the powers of those offices can be argued to revert to the President himslf.
BEIRUT 00000655 002 OF 004
5. (S) The next step for Lahoud is to wait until May 31, when the ordinary session of the parliament expires, without the parliament having met in a single session. At this point, Lahoud invokes Article 65, which allows for the dissolution of the parliament if, “for no compelling reason, (the Chamber of Deputies) fails to meet during one of its regular sessions. . . . While Article 65 empowers the Council of Ministers at the request of the President to dissolve the parliament, if there is no Council of Ministers, then Lahoud will argue that he is solely responsible.
6. (S) Once the parliament is dissolved (and, more importantly for the purpose of this discussion, Berri is without a job or role), then Lahoud will appoint a new prime minister. While Lebanon’s parliament calls for mandatory consultations by which the president is bound to ask the candidate who receives the most support from MPs to try to form a cabinet, if there is no parliament, then there are no MPs to bestow their choices for PM in the president’s hand. Moreover, the new PM can choose whatever ministers he and Lahoud agree upon, as well as whatever government program they want, because there is no parliament to give a vote of confidence. “A coup d’etat!” Berri roared.
7. (S) At this point, two scenarios emerge. Article 25 of the constitution calls for new parliamentary elections within three months, in the case of the dissolution of the parliament. While elections would by necessity be conducted under the discredited 2000 election law (as there is no cabinet and no parliament to approve a new law), a pro-Syrian majority would certainly emerge this time, given the near certainty that March 14 supporters would boycott both running and voting. That pro-Syrian majority in the new faux parliament would then be in place in time to elect Lebanon’s next president to succeed the stooge extraordinaire when Lahoud’s term expires November 24. The second scenario would be that no elections take place, and the cabinet appointed by Lahoud assumes the role of the presidency until such time as new parliamentary elections can be held.
8. (S) Berri said that this “plot” explains two recent developments that previously he found curious. First, he wondered why Lahoud had not “taken the pressure off me” for a month, by invoking Article 59 of the constitution. That article gives the president the right to ask parliament to adjourn for a month. Berri said that he wanted Lahoud to use that, so that he was not the only person blamed for keeping parliament closed. But now he realizes that Lahoud, had he used Article 59, would not be able to invoke the constitution in dissolving parliament — there would suddenly be a “compelling reason” why parliament didn’t meet. The second strange thing is that, according to information Berri has, Prime Minister Siniora offered to Lahoud in a recent phone call to resign, once the tribunal was established, if Lahoud would recognize his cabinet as a caretaker cabinet according to the constitution. Lahoud reportedly refused. That struck Berri initially as strange, since Siniora’s resignation offer would normally be something Lahoud should seize. But, if Lahoud recognized Siniora’s cabinet as a caretaker cabinet, then the normal consultative process would begin, derailing the coup plot.
9. (S) The Ambassador noted that there was one easy way to avoid the entire scenario: open parliament at once, as so many people have been urging. “I’m coming to that,” Berri said, stating that he needed our help. He said that he wanted to open parliament in such a way so as to avoid implying legitimacy on the Siniora cabinet and to prevent parliamentary action that could “split the country.” He said that the Speaker of the European Parliament was coming to Lebanon soon, and thus Berri was thinking about calling a session for MPs to hear the European visitor. He would have done the same for Speaker Pelosi, had he realized in April what Lahoud intended. This session to hear the visitor would count as an ordinary session, thus depriving Lahoud of the constitutional ability to dissolve parliament. But, to do this, Berri urged the Ambassador to help him convince the March 14 majority to send only MPs, not government ministers and not Siniora, and to agree to listen to the visitor and leave, without trying to force further parliamentary action.
10. (S) Help me convince them, Berri begged, to see that, even if they don’t like such a limited session, it is better than having no sessions. Berri clarified that he did not want the Ambassador to share with March 14 leaders the entire plot he described, just the fear that Lahoud could try to dissolve parliament if it doesn’t meet. “If I read about this in the papers, I’ll have to keep parliament closed completely.” (Comment: Berri was not explicit, but we think he was suggesting that he is under Syrian orders to deny any legitimacy to the Siniora cabinet. Having the ministers sit as usual on the dais behind the Speaker would do that, so he wants our help in avoiding such a scene. He is also under orders, presumably, not to allow controversial discussions such as Hizballah’s arms or the tribunal to reach the Chamber floor. But he does not seem to be under — at least not yet — an absolute Syrian order to keep the chamber completely shuttered. So, under the proposed session, Berri could tell the Syrians that he scrupulously followed their orders and had no idea that they intended the parliament to be closed entirely. We don’t doubt that Berri plays games even with the Syrians. End Comment.)
11. (S) The Ambassador asked Berri whether he really thought Lahoud was so clever as to come up with such a complicated scheme on his own. “Of course not!” Berri shouted. The Syrians gave him the basic outlines, and Lahoud’s legal advisor Selim Jeressaiti came up with the implementation plan. The Ambassador asked whether Michel Aoun would bring his bloc along. Yes, because the stereotype about Aoun being obsessed with the presidency is true. All the pro-Syrians have shown him how the status quo will never result in an Aoun presidency, whereas this situation might. “I am really worried,” Berri said.
12. (S) The Ambassador asked Berri how Chapter VII consideration of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon affected his thinking: if the UNSC established the tribunal now, would it be easier for him to call for a more normal parliamentary session? Berri said that the tribunal and the Lahoud scenario he described aren’t related at all. Throwing up his hands, he said of the tribunal that the UNSC should “approve it under Chapter VII, Chapter 67, or whatever — I don’t care!”
13. (S) Talk of two cabinets has been buzzing through Lebanon’s political circles for weeks. But Berri’s scenario — which did not strike us as that far-fetched, now that we have been musing on it all afternoon — sets up two entirely parallel structures. The March 14 majority would continue to recognize Siniora’s cabinet and the existing parliament, as would most of the international community. But what would the Lebanese Armed Forces do, if Hizballah-filled mobs start to try to take over ministries or even the Grand Serail in order to install “their” ministers? And what happens when it comes time to elect a new president? We have only until May 31 to prevent such a scenario from unfolding, if what Berri suspects is what the Syrians and Lahoud actually have in mind.
14. (S) Taking it all personally, Berri struck us as truly infuriated that someone would tinker with “his” institution. He postured as if he had been left out of the Syrian scheming (or, more correctly, let in on only part of the Syrian scheming). If he now realizes that he was being used by the Syrians to destroy the institution he heads, maybe he can be a useful ally in denying Lahoud the pleasure of picking his own PM and cabinet. But it is not plausible that Berri told us everything he knows or thinks, about this or anything else. Maybe he was part of the planning but only belatedly realized that there is no guarantee he will be back as Speaker in what would be a far more Hizballah-dominated second parliament. Maybe he doesn’t want to be torn between leaving his current position upon Lahoud’s dissolution orders, when he knows that the March 14 rump parliament will continue to meet and enjoy international legitimacy. We tend to agree that it is better to have a parliament session even under Berri’s restricted scenario than to have no parliament session at all, but we must think about how Berri might be trying to enlist us in foisting his own ideas onto the March 14 majority. We cannot recall a more significant or interesting meeting with the Speaker. Stay tuned.
Link to the original cable on WikiLeaks.

Hezbollah’s Retaliation: Is It The Perfect Time And Place?

A map of the Shebaa Farms (Shukran Wikipedia)

A map of the Shebaa Farms (Shukran Wikipedia)

In a very unexpected move, Hezbollah fighters attacked an Israeli military convoy in the occupied Shebaa Farms, in south Lebanon, killing two soldiers and wounding seven, in retaliation for Israel’s recent airstrike in the Golan Heights that killed Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian General.

A (Politically) Smart Move

Hezbollah needed to retaliate. For the past 3 years, the party has been constantly criticized for participating in the Syrian civil war and mainly for directing its weapons away from Israel and towards Syria. Even before Syria, Hezbollah faced a similar criticism in the wake of the May 7 events. “Hezbollah’s weapons are being used for political ends and are no longer directed at Israel”. M14 based its electoral campaign in 2009 on this discourse, and it eventually led to its victory in the 2009 parliamentary elections. M14 accused Hezbollah again of using its weapons in internal conflicts after the collapse of the Hariri government in 2011, and after Wissam Al-Hassan’s assassination in 2012. In 2011, it almost led to a fitna, and in 2012, it almost led to the downfall of the ruling M8 coalition.

Hezbollah tried to respond to this discourse by proving that it was still engaging in indirect combat with Israel, but it just wasn’t too convincing for the Lebanese public. The proof? almost no one remembers the drone that Hezbollah sent into Israel in October 2013. What everyone remembered however was Imad Mughaniyye’s assassination. Hezbollah didn’t respond to the attack properly back then, and it made them look weak. A lack of response over last week’s attacks would have made Hezbollah look even weaker (An Iranian General and Mughaniyye’s son were targeted), and it would have given the impression that Hezbollah cares more about its fight in Syria than its fight with Israel, even when Israel targets them inside Syria. Such loss of prestige would have been devastating for the party’s morale.

It was the time for payback. In fact, it was the perfect time for payback.

The Perfect Timing…

There’s a weird alliance going on between Middle Eastern rivals, with the United States and Hezbollah fighting together a common enemy called the Islamic State: Not long ago, the US provided actionable intelligence that probably saved lives in Dahiyeh. This indirect rapprochement was also followed by tense relations between Israel and the United States. Obama said that he will not meet with Netanyahu when the Israeli PM will come to the U.S. in March. One should not forget that for the United States, a possible deal with Iran is on the line here, and that the Israeli elections are in 45 days.  Should the Israeli army escalate, Hezbollah could drag Israel into two months of skirmishes, which wouldn’t be a perfect situation for Israel’s electoral process. No one wants to vote while Katyusha rockets are flying around the Israeli north. Even if Israel wants war, it would be a tough call in this particular timing: Hezbollah and Iran always said that “they would choose the perfect time and place” to strike back after every Israeli aggression (while M14 laughed at this sentence and accused them of cowardice). So if Hezbollah wanted to prove a point without suffering major Israeli consequences, now was the time. Such an opportunity doesn’t come twice.

… And A Perfect Location

Hezbollah chose the perfect place to strike. The attack happened in the Shebaa farms:

  • From the Lebanese point of view, Shebaa is an occupied Lebanese territory. By attacking Shebaa – and Shebaa only – Hezbollah is preemptively turning down an M14 political maneuver accusing Hezbollah of avenging the death of an Iranian General: Hezbollah could counter this maneuver by simply saying that they were not only avenging the death of their commanders, but also trying to pressure Israel into retreating from occupied Lebanese territory: A proxy battle suddenly becomes a liberation war.
  • From the Israeli point of view – Technically speaking – Israel considers the Shebaa farms to be part of the (annexed) occupied Syrian Golan, not Lebanon. So in a way, Hezbollah retaliated very accurately, in the Golan (from the Israeli point of view), where they were attacked in the first place. Hezbollah did not escalate, and only treated Israel like Israel treated the party. Hezbollah also did not make any abduction (like 2006) which means that it does not want to engage with Israel and start an all-out war. If there was a desire for war, you would have seen an abduction and probably an attack on the Israeli-Lebanese border, not on the Golan-Lebanese border or on disputed territory. Today was about deterrence. About red lines (assassinating Hezbollah’s leaders is apparently no longer acceptable). About changing the rules of the game. It was not a declaration of war (yet). Hezbollah wanted to send a message and at the same time strengthen its political presence in Lebanon while giving Israel the choice of not escalating (since the attack happened in disputed territory)
  • From an “international” point of view, the attack happened inside disputed Syrian-Lebanese-Israeli territory. So good luck trying to speak of a violation of U.N resolutions, or even accusing one side of hostilities clearly enough to justify an all-out war such as the July 2006 one.

M18/M14’s Discourse: What To Expect

For the next few weeks, M14’s propaganda would be mainly directed at demonstrating how Hezbollah dragged (or tried to drag, depending on the Israeli reaction) Lebanon into another proxy war, while at the same time criticizing Hezbollah for involving Lebanon in the Syrian civil war. But that, Hezbollah should be able to handle. It is the loss of prestige and the impression that Hezbollah was abandoning the Israeli conflict for good while slowly “moving into Syria” that was killing the party politically. Now the party would gain momentum (especially if Israel’s response isn’t strong enough) and most importantly would be able to put the Syrian opposition, the Islamic State, and the Israeli Defense Forces in the same box. It would force Lebanon to rally behind Hezbollah – at least momentarily while/if Israel responds – and it will eventually make Hezbollah look like a victor which should help M8 gain the upper hand  in Lebanese politics after eight months of political vacancy and deadlock. The Lebanese cabinet’s slow response to today’s crisis (seriously, why hasn’t the cabinet met yet?) is the perfect proof that there is indeed a political void in Lebanon. A political void that M8 could easily fill should Hezbollah’s Shebaa ambush turn into a military/political victory. Of course, everything depends of Israel’s reaction, and the aftermath of today’s skirmishes, so we’ll have to wait and see.

In the meantime, the only thing we can do is to be grateful we have a wise president guiding us in these times of trouble.

Eight Months Of Vacuum

Wael Abou Faour

December was by far – politically speaking – the most boring month of 2014. So Let’s take a look at the very first maneuvers of 2015, and see how they are linked to the events of the last months of 2014.

Abou Faour’s Health Campaign

Now as you can all remember, PSP minister of health Wael Abou Faour started a food health campaign in November, revealing to the Lebanese endless lists of restaurants and supermarkets which sell commodities that do not meet food criteria. While there are technical reasons for being skeptical about the campaign (the minister stakes this entire crusade on a very shaky foundation: Trust in government), this is not the subject of this post. Nothing isn’t political in Lebanon, and after all, Abou Faour is a minister representing a political party in the cabinet. Although there might be few exceptions of politicians who actually purely work for benefit of their citizens, I will not give Abou Faour the benefit of the doubt – almost everyone else has already given him that. In this post, Abou Faour’s food health campaign will be analysed as a political maneuver, and as a political maneuver only.

It’s All About Elections 

Two questions come to mind here:

  • Why now? (Jumblatt had ministers in almost every cabinet for the past decade, so why would the reforms start now?)
  • Why Abou Faour, and not Akram Chehayyeb? (the PSP-affiliated minister of agriculture)

Every Lebanese probably asked himself the two questions and subsequently made up a weird conspiracy theory including Shawarma, Taymour, and a nuclear war with Salmonella infected Falafels.

Now the first thing to know about Abou Faour is that he is not only a minister, but a member of the parliament too. And not only is he a member of the parliament, he is an MP representing the districts of Rashaya – West Bekaa. For those of you who don’t know that yet, Rashaya – West Bekaa might be the turning point in the next parliamentary elections.

Traditionally, when the PSP heads to elections, it has always 6 districts in mind: Only one of those districts, Aley (5 seats), has a Druze majority (53%). Jumblatt would always have to compete with Talal Arslan over there, but it should be an easy win even if the PSP decides to run without its allies. The next key district for Jumblatt is the Chouf, the third largest constituency in Lebanon with 8 MPs. In the Chouf, the Druze are around 31%, the Sunnis are approximately 28%, while around 40% of the electorate is Christian. The Chouf would become a fierce electoral battle if Jumblatt decides to run against Hariri in the elections. In the end, the outcome would depend on the Christian votes, but it is more likely for Jumblatt to win once he allies himself with 3 or 4 powerful local Christian politicians (most probably the mayors of the biggest towns). However, Jumblatt has a lot to risk here, especially if he’s not allied with the M8 Christians, and an LF-FM alliance could eventually outnumber him in votes in case he’s all by himself.

The four other districts are minor ones for the PSP, where the Druze have only one MP representing it. In the Beirut III district, the Future Movement is in charge and Jumblatt would for sure lose Ghazi Aridi’s seat if he’s all by himself over there. In Baabda, the only way Jumblatt might dream of getting back the Druze seat is by allying himself with M8 (Christians≈52%, Shias≈24%, Druze≈17%, Sunnis≈6%). I know that it might look at first that the Sunnis and the Druze might together outweigh the Shias, but they don’t: If there was any chance for an LF-FM-PSP alliance to emerge victorious in Baabda, it would have done it in 2009. In Hasbaya-Marjeyoun, the Shias are 57% of the electorate. You all know what that means for the southern Druze seat (currently in the hands of Berri’s Amal Movement).

The only minor district that the PSP can effectively manipulate is the West Bekaa – Rashaya one. With 6 MPs representing it (two of them are members of Jumblatt’s bloc), this is the district that is likely to change the identity of the winning coalition in the next parliamentary elections: Walid Jumblatt’s political power is not only defined by his 7 or 11 MPs that are in the middle: It is also defined by the 14 MPs of the Chouf and West Bekaa-Rashaya that he is able to provide for the coalition that allies with him.

So Why Abou Faour, And Not Akram Chehayeb?

It’s because Aley is in Jumblatt’s hands no matter what happens. The West Bekaa – Rashaya constituency isn’t. Abou Faour represents the district of West Bekaa – Rashaya, one of the most mixed districts of Lebanon. The Sunnis are 48% of the electorate, the Shias and the Druze are each 14.5%, while the rest are Christians (around 22%). Now, although it might seem at first that a Sunni-leading party such as the Future Movement would always control this constituency (because of the large Sunni electorate), it’s not the case at all. In fact, in 2009, M14 – That included Jumblatt back then – only managed to win by a relatively small margin of (more or less) 5000 votes. Which means that M8 only needs 2500 ballots to switch allegiance in the next elections for them to win those 6 seats – provided (of course) that people would still vote for the same parties they voted for in 2009. This is where Jumblatt and the PSP votes come in. The 14.5% Druze votes are more than enough to provide a victory for M8. And the more popular Abou Faour is, the more the Christian electorate over there would be friendly towards him, the more it would be an easy win for M8. In the worst case scenario (Like a Hezbollah – Future Movement alliance), Jumblatt could always make use of a popular Abou Faour in order to strengthen his position among the Christians or the Sunnis of the Chouf and try to control his home district all by himself.

Abou Faour also represents the Bekaa which means that no matter how much Jumblatt “strengthens” him, it would be impossible for the minister of health to challenge Jumblatt’s  influence in the Druze heartland of southern Mount-Lebanon. The next few years are a transition period for the PSP as Taymour, Jumblatt’s son, is expected to become the first in command in the PSP. Strengthening any member of the old guard in this particular timing, such as the traditional MPs of Aley or the Chouf, would be a risky strategy for Jumblatt. Hence the choice of Abou Faour.

And Why Now? (The Hezbollah –  Future Movement Dialogue, You Fools!)

Abu Faour clearly loves the conflict. He describes his work as “battles” and the food scandal as an “invasion,” although he constantly reiterates that he could not have achieved this without the support of his party leader Walid Jumblatt. According to him, it was during their recent trip to Moscow, when he began to receive the results of their investigation that Jumblatt gave him the green light to go ahead.

It was his idea that we have to open this fight. He told me OK, go on. I’ll be with you, I’ll protect you.

(Taken from Abou Faour’s interview with the Daily Star)

Rumors of a Hezbollah – FM dialogue started in November, approximately at the same time when Abou Faour’s campaign had started. The meeting eventually happened in December, and was apparently successful. More sessions were scheduled, and the Christian parties of both camps also decided they wanted to have a dialogue of their own (I’ll come back to that later). Like I said earlier, the power of the PSP comes from their 11 MPs in the middle but also from the ability of the party to provide any of the two coalitions with a victory in two key districts: The Chouf, and WB – Rashaya. Jumblatt is only strong as long as the M8 – M14 conflict is strong. Once both rival coalitions strike a deal, they can easily dictate their own terms and throw Jumblatt out of the political equation. A Sunni – Christian (LF/FPM) alliance could easily control the Chouf by reaching out to the two-thirds of its electorate that aren’t Druze, and a Sunni-Shia-Christian alliance could also throw Jumblatt’s two Bekaa MPs outside the parliament. The only district that Jumblatt would control is Aley, and that’s only if the electoral law stays the same. Joining the districts of Baabda and Aley (like in the 2000 electoral law) would mean the end of the PSP’s presence in the parliament. Now of course, it is highly unlikely that any of the two coalitions – even if allied together – would take such drastic measures, but Jumblatt knows that his role will be marginalized after any kind of M8-M14 rapprochement. The size of his bloc has also shrunk from 16 MPs in 2000 to 7 in 2011 (although 4 MPs rejoined his bloc in 2014). Here are some images that illustrate the downfall of Jumblatt’s political power over the past few years. (Source)

Evolution of Jumblatt's bloc by district - WL Evolution of Jumblatt's bloc by sect - WL

Bottom line: Jumblatt knows that he is getting weaker. It is no longer 2000 for him, and he has to change his tactics. The stronger and more popular Abou Faour is, the more Jumblatt can manipulate both alliances with the battle of West Bekaa Rachaya (in case M8 is running against M14) and the more can Jumblatt hope to electorally defend his home district of Chouf (in case M8 and M14 make peace and eventually decide to curb his influence by throwing him outside of the parliament).

And I know what you’re thinking: It’s still too early for elections. But it won’t be too early once M8 and M14 strike a deal that might include an electoral law, a president, and early elections. No one likes the man in the middle. Especially when there is no middle anymore.

Lebanese Forces – Free Patriotic Movement

While Lebanon was busy these past two weeks tweeting #jesuischarlie or #jenesuispascharlie and discussing Mia Khalifa and Miss Lebanon’s selfie, it missed the event of the decade: Aoun was tasting Geagea’s chocolate truffles. The moment Hezbollah and the Future Movement wanted to start their dialogue, their Christian allies decided to do the same. Now the tricky part here is to know whether the inter-Christian meeting is to support the HA-FM dialogue or to hinder it. The Christian parties aren’t concerned with HA-FM agreements, as long as their Muslim allies don’t abandon them as candidates in the presidential elections. Which is why the Christian leaders are rushing to meet each other after it was said that the first HA-FM dialogue session was successful. Deep down, Aoun and Geagea’s biggest fear is that the Future Movement and Hezbollah agree on a consensual presidential candidate. And their maneuver to counter this possibility was smart: Geagea’s sources hinted that he was ready – if certain conditions are met – to vote for Aoun in the presidential elections. Geagea knows that it is impossible for Aoun to make it through – Aoun would never accept Geagea’s conditions, and even if Aoun accepts Geagea’s terms, we still don’t know if Berri and Jumblatt would provide quorum – but he eventually forces Hezbollah to stick with Aoun now that the FPM’s candidate is supported by the LF. In other words, he forces the Mustaqbal to stick with him, while appearing as a kingmaker. Aoun looks like the most powerful (yet not powerful enough) candidate, and eventually any consensual FM-HA candidate loses momentum – even if it’s for a short period of time.

Connecting The Dots

So in one paragraph, here’s everything that happened in the past two to three months: Hezbollah and the Future Movement decided to have a dialogue. As soon as the rumors started, everyone panicked: Aoun agreed to sit with Geagea, Geagea agreed to support Aoun, and Jumblatt decided – via Wael Abou Faour – to preemptively mark his electoral territory.

Reminder: We still don’t have a president. (It’s been eight months)

242 days since the 25th of May. 78 days since the 5th of November. Three million years till the next parliamentary elections.