In the last ten days, the Lebanese media was mainly preoccupied by two stories.
Here’s the first one, published by the pro-M8 newspaper Al-Akhbar:
US President Barack Obama surprised his visitors, the delegation of Eastern Christians patriarchs, on Thursday when he told them that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “protected the Christians in Syria.” Obama met with the delegation in the White House for 35 minutes, during which the patriarchs presented a paper in which they exposed the situation of Christians in the Middle East and the threats and challenges they are facing, due in part to the expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.
Sources told Al-Akhbar that the highlight of the meeting was when Obama said the following phrase: “We know that President Bashar al-Assad protected Christians in Syria.”
Obama then used the term “the Syrian government” instead of “regime,” which is usually used by the US to describe the government in Syria.
Here’s the second one, published by the pro-M14 newspaper Al-Mustaqbal:
Hezbollah has established a new largely Christian armed group in Jezzine that has been compared to the Resistance Brigades in Sidon, drawing members from the party’s ally, the Free Patriotic Movement, security sources told The Daily Star. The Christian Resistance Brigades, as they have been dubbed, was created on the pretext of preparing for the threat posed by ISIS to Christians in the Levant.
However, the sources insisted that Hezbollah deliberately recruited Christian youth from the FPM in order to create an acceptable façade for the group, which is in fact controlled by Hezbollah.
Jezzine MP Ziad Aswad, a member of the FPM, couldn’t be reached for comment.
According to the sources, more than 60 members have been trained and divided into subgroups tasked with discreetly guarding the towns of Jezzine, Ain Majdaline and others at night.
Each member reportedly receives a monthly allowance of $500 and is supplied with a rifle, military clothing and ammunition.
Until now, between 60 and 70 rifles have been provided for the members of the Jezzine Brigades, the source said. Hezbollah is reportedly aiming to recruit at least 200 members, who are expected to patrol the Christian towns and villages of the area.
The decision to establish the brigades was made during a series of bilateral meetings between Hezbollah and the FPM at the house of an FPM official, identified only by his initials as N.N.
The two parties, according to the sources, have agreed that the FPM-affiliated brigades would take the responsibility for guarding the district’s Christian towns.
Is There A Media War?
Although contradictory statements and random arming procedures shouldn’t be something alarming in a country like Lebanon, the two stories are most probably closer to fiction than reality because
(1) If – according to Al-Akhbar’s suggestion – Obama was going to change stances vis-à-vis the Syrian regime, then why is it that he refused to cooperate with it against ISIS? Even if Obama became so protective of the regime, how is it that the M8 media previously helped circulating information that the U.S. armed ISIS? Something’s not right here, and it is highly unlikely that out of nowhere Obama would reveal that he is pleased with Assad’s policies in Syria.
(2) Let’s take the second story from a completely different point of view. Imagine that tayyar.org wrote an article with the following sentence: “Future Movement handpicked 200 members of the Lebanese Forces, from Bcharre, to patrol the villages in case something goes wrong. They are even arming them with 70 rifles.”
So what’s wrong with the story of Hezbollah arming Jezzine’s Aounists? Everything.
(a) Hezbollah is arming his Christian ally in the region where it is the least needed. Hezbollah is already in control in Jezzine and his decision to share power with someone else would only complicate things for him.
(b) Hezbollah is arming the FPM with 70 rifles. I’m no expert here, but 70 rifles are relatively easy for anyone to buy in the Lebanese black market. So why would the FPM need Hezbollah in order to arm itself with 70 rifles? It’s not as if they were buying Katiouchas or Khaibars…
(c) There is no relevant reason to why the FPM would arm themselves, especially in Jezzine. Most of the Muslims in the caza are Shias, and if Hezbollah truly wanted to arm them in order to benefit from their help afterwards, it would have been smarter for him to arm the Christians of a region were he doesn’t have any foothold such as the North or the Chouf.
(d) According to this Wikileaks cable, a similar story from 2007 tells us that Hezbollah would never directly arm Aoun.
2. (S) The Ambassador met privately with Samir Geagea in the Lebanese Forces stronghold of Bsharre, a town in north Lebanon, on 9/17 before a lunch with local officials attended by both. Geagea, with his usual intensity, zeroed in on what he insisted were tangible plans, training, and weapons distribution by pro-Syrian forces for a forcible military take-over of Lebanon. Claiming to have inside sources, Geagea said that Michel Aoun, Hizballah, Marada chief Suleiman Franjieh, Druse opposition figures Talal Arslan and Wi’am Wihab, and other pro-Syrians like Zahar Khatib were preparing their followers for militia-type street action to cut March 14 strongholds off from one another. Many things could spark putting this plan into action, Geagea said, but the election of a March 14 president without the presence of two-thirds of the parliamentary members would be the most likely.
HIZBALLAH ARMS ALLEGEDLY GO TO AOUN VIA FRANJIEH
3. (S) Geagea said that Hizballah is being careful to avoid direct military support to Aoun, which, if discovered, would discredit Aoun with the Christians and Hizballah (with its claims that its arms are directed against Israel only) more generally. Instead, Hizballah is providing arms to Franjieh. Franjieh then opens his arsenals to Aoun, making the arms transfers, if leaked, appear to be one Christian opposition leader helping another with personal protection. One of the main recipient of the arms from Franjieh is MP Selim Aoun, an Aoun bloc MP on Ily Skaff’s Zahleh list. Selim Aoun is charged with distributing the arms to others in the Aoun camp and has established strategically located cells of 50-70 fighters each. Franjieh is providing some of the training facilities and has recently opened Marada offices far beyond its Zghorta headquarters in order to serve as rallying and training points as well as safehouses. Zahar al-Khatib plays a key training role of Aounist fighters, again in order to keep Hizballah somewhat at arms distance from Aoun.
So why Is There A Media War?
the M8 media wants us to think that Obama likes Assad, and the M14 media wants Saida’s Sunnis and Jezzine’s M14 Christians to panic and become paranoid of scary rifle-armed FPM proxies. And they are both probably making up stories that help their strategies. This brings us to the main question: If the parliament is going to smoothly postpone the elections and re-extend its term, why on earth are we witnessing one of the most aggressive media wars since 2012? Why would the media outlets be bothering themselves with bashing the other side of the political spectrum if it leads to nothing? I mean, Obama is about to join the Baath party and 200 FPM members from Jezzine are about to invade Saida with 70 rifles, so there must be something worth this.
Are We Heading To Parliamentary Elections?
The sudden aggressive stances attributed to the parties’ mouthpieces tell us that we might eventually be having parliamentary elections (Here’s the full list of candidates by the way). After all, October 2014 is nothing like May 2013.
The political maneuvering Michel Aoun has done with the Orthodox Gathering Law for the past few months clearly made him more popular among Christians than the Christian M14 parties. If 2000 to 3000 votes change side in each Christian district, the FPM will have the ability to win several more districts than 2009 like Batroun, Ashrafieh and Koura. 10 extra MPs on M8’s side mean that the majority changes in the parliament. And that makes one understand why the Future Movement are currently Ok. with an extension of the Mandate. Hezbollah doesn’t have time for elections with what is happening at Qussair, and an extension to the mandate also means that Berri gets to stay speaker for 6 extra months and even 2 extra years (Who knows). And why the big No from Jumblatt to elections? 68 MPs on the side of M8 without the Jumblatt votes make Lebanon’s kingmaker as powerful as the Kataeb. The man who was responsible of the last two governmental changes in 2011 and 2013, will not stay as influential as he is now if the Status Quo changes and an alliance gets able to hold more than 64 MPs without him.
October 2014 is different. The rise of the Islamic State and Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria boosted M8’s popularity in Lebanon, especially among Christians. Michel Aoun – who used the Orthodox Gathering Law in May 2013 to gain the upper hand in the Christian scene – is now using ISIS’s presence for the same reasons. Unlike 2013, if M8 wins the elections it will probably get to choose the next president – making it worth it this time for the Shia duo to proceed to elections. Things aren’t so messy anymore for Hezbollah in Syria, and Berri – with M8’s probable win – would probably stay speaker anyway, and this time for 4 years. And how can we be sure that M8 has the upper hand? Saad Hariri was perhaps one of the first politicians to publicly back the parliament’s extension, the Future Movement is panicking, our FM minister of interior doesn’t want elections and is handling the issue very badly, Hezbollah is suspiciously silent on the matter while Michel Aoun actually made the effort and visited Jumblatt in Clemenceau, probably in order to ask for his support. And the fact that Aoun met Jumblatt might suggest that everyone else in M8 is already Ok with the idea of elections.
And here’s the cherry on the top: The March 14 Alliance is actually giving up its parliament boycott after a meeting between Berri and the LF’s Adwan. In other words, M8 probably blackmailed them into giving up some of their stances (and in exchange, agreed to the parliament extension?)
We might or might not go to parliamentary elections, but if we go to elections, M8 will probably be in command, and if we don’t, M8 will still probably be in command.
Reminder: We still don’t have a president.
117 days since the 25th of May. 60 days till the 16th of November.