Hezbollah

The Orange and the Blueberry

Check the color of the tie. (Image source: The Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament Website, HO)

Yes, I actually chose a picture where both ties are blue. I’m that mean. (Image source: The Daily Star/Lebanese Parliament Website, HO)

This is the 18th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the month of February 2016.

Perhaps the biggest lie in Lebanese politics is that power comes from the people. As the month of February 2016 demonstrates, it is the Lebanese supreme council of the tribal federation that decides on all matters. Everything else is just political bickering that has little and sometimes no meaning at all.

On the 27th of January 2016, the Lebanese supreme council of the tribal federation met with happiness and joy, and gave the orders to the Lebanese cabinet to end the deadlock. Just like that, what started as a feud over the appointment of Chamel Roukoz in the army command, and evolved into a crisis that almost brought down the government while paralyzing the cabinet throughout all autumn, was suddenly solved within hours. The Lebanese leaders shook their hands in the national dialogue session, and there was suddenly no problem at all. The cabinet was free to convene and do whatever it wanted to do, and as the media acted as if the deadlock was never here to begin with, everyone moved on with pleasure and delight and focused on solving the trash crisis by exporting garbage (:-$) – hint: even that turned out to be an epic fiasco.

So on the last days of January, we learned something very important, and this time we learned it for sure: When six months of protests and trash and humiliation don’t have any impact on the Lebanese policy makers and all it takes is eleven or twelve or thirteen godfathers sitting together on a table to get things going, know that power is not in the hands of the people. It’s not even in the hands of an unconstitutional parliament, a deadlocked cabinet, or a non-existent president. It’s in the hands of the Lebanese supreme council of the tribal federation, commonly referred to in the media as the national dialogue table.

Anyway, who cares about the people, time to go back to the politicians.

What the lack of quorum means right now

On the 8th of February 2016, the Lebanese parliament was supposed to elect its president. Unlike the previous 28294294 attempts to elect the head of state, this time it was supposed to be special (and, no, not because it was on the eve of St. Maron and that the president is supposed to be Maronite selon l’usage). For the first time since 2014, the main two candidates were now from March 8 and were both endorsed by parties from March 14. Yet just like all the previous times, March 8’s parties boycotted the session. Which why it’s time to do the math. If Michel Aoun is indeed March 8’s main candidate, and is now endorsed by all its parties (minus Frangieh’s Marada), that means that he has the support of around 55/56 MPs from March 8. Add to that the 8 MPs of the Lebanese Forces and some random votes in the center (Mikati’s bloc? Khaled Daher? Michel Murr? – especially that his swing votes in the Metn will become useless if the FPM and the LF go through with an electoral alliance, so he’ll probably eventually join in and help out the new mini-alliance of the Christian parties or risk losing his seat and Tueni’s), you end up with a candidate securing the 65 votes required for the win. [I counted the votes in a previous blog post in case you’re more interested about the numbers]

So why did the FPM boycott the session on the 8th of February 2016? There are two theories:

The first one, circulated by March 14 and their media has been alive for 12 years and can be summed up with the following three sentence: “Hezbollah doesn’t want a president. Hezbollah wants a constituent assembly. Hezbollah likes the emptiness of the status quo”.

The second theory is that the FPM does not have an absolute majority it can count on in the parliament and that participating in a session where Aoun loses by a narrow margin – with the two other candidates, Helou and Frangieh getting less votes – would be similar in impact to the 23rd of April 2014 session where Geagea got 48 votes: Yes, the candidate with the biggest number of votes might actually gain momentum, but – this is not the United States presidential primaries – on the long run we all know that Frangieh or Helou won’t suddenly withdraw from the race and endorse Aoun and that means that time would eventually kill off the Aoun candidacy the same way it did to Geagea’s. Moreover, attending a session where Helou might suddenly withdraw in favor of Frangieh can be a very risky prospect for the FPM as the Marada leader might himself end up winning an absolute majority. If the FPM (and Hezbollah)’s boycott of the session means something, it’s that the Aounists are not sure whether their other allies (or allies of ally) would stick with them. The mechanics of why the lack of quorum is happening mean that Berri will not vote for Aoun (which is why the FPM bloc is boycotting the session, since they fear he might side with Frangieh). This is where the fans (hello, March 14 guys) of the first theory come in and answer the people who believe in the second theory: If Berri is not with Aoun, it’s because Hezbollah is not forcing him to vote for Aoun, since deep down Hezbollah doesn’t want to elect a president.

If you believe that Amal is a Hezbollah proxy that ultimately answers to Nasrallah, then Hezbollah doesn’t truly want to elect Aoun but is blocking the election of everyone else, alongside the FPM, so that the alliance between Hezbollah and Aoun doesn’t fall apart. That theory has also been used by the Lebanese Forces after their deal with Aoun in order to force a clash between the FPM and Hezbollah – en vain. However, if you believe (theory number two) that Hezbollah and Amal are two separate “sovereign” parties with rival separate agendas, then Hezbollah wants Aoun to be in Baabda but just can’t convince Berri to join in on the deal.

But the reasons and the mechanics don’t really matter. Whether it’s only Amal, or secretly Hezbollah and Amal who refuse a Aoun presidency is details. What matters are the consequences: If the February presidential session that never happened taught us anything, it’s that there might be a rift among the March 8 parties that is as big as the rift in March 14.

The rift

As previously demonstrated, Amal indirectly/officially told the world on the first week of February that they are not fans of a Aoun presidency. True, that information wasn’t near as shocking as the idea of Geagea endorsing Aoun, but deep down every FPM official had hoped that Berri might in the end say yes to the General and help him reach Baabda. So when it became clear that Berri was more blue than he was orange in his presidential choices (in case you kept asking yourself what that creepy title meant), a full-blown political war on the Amal leader started. Although it’s a very nice thing to believe in the beauty of coincidences, I don’t think that the Christian parties’ criticism of all of Amal’s ministers in the cabinet and accusing them of disregarding the Christian interests in the country a week after Berri started sending signals that he does not to support the LF-FPM Christian consensual president can be counted as a coincidence: Minister of public works Ghazi Zaiter was accused of allocating less fund for the Christian areas (although some areas are much larger and more populous and have less funding than them [Check Najib from BlogBaladi’s arguments] – it’s why we need official state budgets anyway) while on the other hand, Ali Hassan Khalil, the finance minister, was criticized for replacing a Christian employee with a non-Christian one. Now again, the mechanics don’t matter. What matters here is the timing. Berri bypassed a Christian consensus on a Christian post (the presidency), and that was the LF and the FPM’s mediatized response (If you’re wondering why the Kataeb joined in too, it’s because of the competition on the Christian electorate 😉 )

Speaking of the Kataeb, they apparently found out about the trash crisis recently and decided that the best part to solve it was to pressure the government – in which they have one of the biggest shares – by protesting its policies in the streets as well as “fighting from inside the cabinet” (à la FPM). That recent hyperactivity within the party can be explained by the fact that they recently became the biggest Christian party not supporting an M8 candidate, and they clearly plan on gaining some momentum because of that. Time (and the electoral law type) will tell whether they’ll succeed or not. And even if Geagea and Hariri reiterated that the FM leaders’ remarks on the Christian wedding during the Biel commemoration were a joke, it is very clear – especially while looking at how the supporters of both parties acted – that there is a rising tension between the FM and the LF and that the FM and the Kataeb might get closer with time: Those extra-kisses from Hariri to Gemayel on the 14th of February commemoration were not so *innocent*. Hariri officially finally endorsed Frangieh on the 14th, and while it’s still practically impossible for Frangieh to make it to Baabda, the FM will need another minor Christian party to count on in the post-presidential elections era in case the Marada leader miraculously gets elected, and it seems day after day that relying on the LF (and of course, the FPM) will be awkward. It’s like asking Mikati and Hariri to be ministers in cabinet led by Walid Succarieh; on the other hand, Safadi might say yes to that prospect.

The fall and rise and fall of Ashraf Rifi

While the Lebanese government was proving once again what an epic failure it is, via the trash exportation fiasco and the no-kissing statement, something else was already cooking. It seemed that Michel Samaha was going out of jail, and while that information briefly united all the previous cadres of March 14 under one banner, another politician thought that it was more of an opportunity to gain momentum within his party. the minister of justice, Ashraf Rifi, whose presence in the ISF leadership brought the 2011 Mikati government down in March 2013, took it upon himself to resign from the government that wasn’t making it harder for Michel Samaha to leave his cell and that wasn’t standing with Saudi Arabia regionally (more on that afterwards). Yet it is unclear what Rifi was trying to do. When he previously stormed out of a cabinet session because of the same issue, Hariri disowned his stance and publicly criticized his actions . On the long run, Rifi’s move was smartly calculated, for him and his party: He showed himself as a “true” March14-er, taking his justice ministry seriously and refusing to “succumb to the fait-accompli and recognize March 8’s terms” (and yes, I’just sarcastically used March 14 terms in a Lebanese media context 😛 ). Rifi probably thought that the Prime Minister would ask him to reconsider his position in the cabinet and make him come back as a hero for his city, community, country, planet and galaxy so he may serve them with justice and order. But the former ISF commander is still new to Lebanese politics and he arguably did his first rookie mistake: He humiliated Tammam Salam in the cabinet, and bypassed Hariri’s stances when he refused to back Frangieh like most of the Future Movement officials. Rifi tried to rise through the ranks as quickly as possible by criticizing the negotiating/compromise qualities of his two bosses (and trying to look as pro-Saudi as possible by resigning in the middle of the crisis between the Gulf and Hezbollah), and signed with this move his mini-political death warrant. Bringing back Rifi to the cabinet would show weakness in the Future Movement leadership, give an impression that Hariri and Salam need Rifi more than anything – hint: no one cares about anyone in Lebanese politics – and eventually strengthen Rifi in the northern city of Tripoli, giving him the serious opportunity to overthrow – in an unlikely yet possible alliance with Karami, Mikati, and Safadi – the Future Movement in the next Tripoli parliamentary elections. So yeah, Salam – with an obvious green light for Hariri – signed the formal papers, and what started as a mini-political maneuver turned into a political farewell for Rifi – at least for now.

UPDATE: According to this report, Salam did not sign the formal papers yet (apparently it has something to do with the logistics and the fact that there is no president to co-sign). But he’s making Rifi wait, and there has been no important sign that the FM leadership asked him to reconsider his resignation.

Alice Shabtini became acting minister of justice and Michel Sleiman’s ministers in cabinet are now in charge of 4 portfolios (deputy prime-minister, defense, sports, justice) which is higher than all the previous numbers of portfolios that were awarded to the presidency between 2008 and 2014 (2008: 2/30, 2009: 3/30, 2011:3/30). In other words, that awkward moment when Sleiman has more ministerial portfolios after he left power than he ever had during his 6 years in power.

The gulf engulfing Lebanon and the Gulf

The event of the month is as regional as Lebanese politics gets, with Saudi Arabia withdrawing 4 billion $ in military aid for Lebanon and most of the Gulf countries issuing travel bans because Lebanon abstained during a meeting to back a Saudi-initiated resolution criticizing Hezbollah. I really hate the regional speculations à la Lebanese media, but those developments are clearly – undeniably – either (1) related to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and a Saudi response to that because of whatever’s happening in Syria or (2) Saudi Arabia going through financial difficulties with Lebanon clearly not being a priority to them (or any country in the world), or (3) Saudi Arabia’s way of refusing the new developments in Lebanese politics and sending a message that it would only resume aid if a certain president is elected or (4) that for Saudi Arabia, official Lebanon wasn’t worth the investment if it was going to either keep a neutral stance or refuse to contain Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria. Deep down, Gebran Bassil didn’t make that much of a mistake by keeping Lebanon’s neutral stance in the region, as he was following on the government’s official policy of self-dissociation (النأي بالنفس). Regardless of why Saudi Arabia stopped its 4 Billion dollar donation and why a rift suddenly happened between official Lebanon and the Gulf countries in February, the impact on the Lebanese economy was huge: many Lebanese citizens risk being deported for the Gulf countries which might destabilize the economy especially that the travel ban by the Arab countries officially killed this year’s tourism season. The impact on Lebanese politics, on the other hand, was the definition of what a Lebanese political fiasco looks like:

  • The Lebanese government took it upon itself to meet for 7 hours – they almost did an all-nighter – in order to find solutions to this “outrage”, while simultaneously ignoring any reasonable eco-friendly solution to the garbage crisis for the seventh continuous month, insulting with this move the intelligence of every Lebanese being poisoned by the piles of trash polluting the country.
  • March 14 were united in their common support to Saudi Arabia (:-$), and asked Lebanon to sign a petition saying we’re sorry (:-$) and that we’re never going to have a neutral stance (:-$) in our life again. It was always a blow to March 14, since the cabinet, in which they more or less have the biggest share (even if it’s a theoretically 8-8-8 one, its president is still pro-March 14) had failed to achieve the only true thing it promised in its policy statement: Use the Saudi donation to arm the army and preserve stability.
  • The FPM received a huge (HUGE) blow with Saudi Arabia’s move, was blamed for their new leader’s diplomatic faux-pas by Saudi Arabia and March 14, and responded in a very awkward way, saying that NO ONE COULD CHALLENGE THEM IN THEIR SUPPORT FOR SAUDI ARABIA .(?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!)
  • Hezbollah’s officials were angry since they too – by the obvious rules of Lebanese politics – were blamed by March 14 and its regional allies for everything wrong happening in the country (M8 would have reacted the same if the opposite scenario would have happened). Nasrallah escalated, telling the Gulf Hezbollah doesn’t care what they think, which led the Gulf Cooperation Council to officially label them as a terrorist group.
  • The best thing ever? After criticizing Hezbollah and saying to Saudi Arabia that Lebanon is sorry, March 14’s highest-ranking minister in the cabinet eventually acted…exactly like Bassil during another meeting for Arab ministers –  refusing to condemn Hezbollah, which confirms one thing: The cabinet is here to stay, and Lebanon’s political class prefers to have a fall-out with a major regional country because of a sentence in a statement rather than escalate and push the cabinet to a dangerous resignation with no president in power and unconstitutional parliament in Nejmeh square.

Anyway, to sum up the month of February 2016 with one word: Zbele

On the bright side, 73 MPs actually attended the latest presidential elections session on March 2 (I think it’s a record).

Just kidding. There is no bright side. Zbele.

 649 days since the 25th of May (presidential vacancy). 485 days since the 5th of November (parliamentary extension). 231 days since the 17th of July (trash crisis). 

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The Christian Wedding and the Presidential Elections

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and former General Michel Aoun celebrate with officials from both parties Geagea's official endorsement of Aoun's candidacy for the presidency. Image source - Annahar

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and former General Michel Aoun celebrate with officials from both parties Geagea’s official endorsement of Aoun’s candidacy for the presidency. Image source – Annahar. In case you were wondering, I’m calling this agreement the “Christian wedding” because of the cake.

 

Political maneuvers are Lebanon’s daily bread, but very few are the moments that will truly shape Lebanon’s modern history: The 8th and 14th of March 2005, the 6th of February 2006, the 7th of May 2008, the 2nd of August 2009 and the 12th of January 2011 were the main plot twists in Lebanon’s recent political history. That was until the 18th of January 2016 happened.

On the 18th of January 2016, Lebanon’s biggest Christian rivals since the civil war ended more than 25 years of confrontation, and made (political) peace: Samir Geagea, of March 14’s Lebanese Forces, endorsed Michel Aoun, of March 8’s FPM, as his presidential candidate. For the first time in decades, the biggest two representative parties among Christians had agreed on a major issue. It was an attempt to end what is soon to become a 2 years presidential crisis that has left the country’s main post vacant because of the deadlock caused by the March 8 alliance and March 14 alliance’s disagreement. While it is far too soon to know the impact of this agreement on Lebanese politics and its outcome on the presidential elections in particular, the Aoun-Geagea agreement was almost unthinkable 8 months ago, and is on the verge of shattering the March 8 and 14 alliances for good.

As Elie of the blog A Separate State of Mind points out, the move also comes to the backdrop of a 10 point agreement that the two forged over the past 6 months. It reads as follows:

Geagea Aoun Agreement

I will comment on those points afterwards.

How it happened – Step 1

Although it was definitely unexpected, Geagea’s endorsement of Aoun was the most obvious of all political maneuvers – even too obvious to be true. Presidential elections are sacred to Lebanon’s Christian parties – the past 70 years of Lebanon’s history remind us of that every day. It is the highest post any Maronite can be elected to, and thus becomes the career goal of the Christian Zuamas. So when Hariri threw his political bomb in the last days of 2015 and hinted at the possibility of electing Sleiman Frangieh – the second in command of March 8’s Christians and one of the most pro-Syrian politicians in the parliament – while abandoning the candidacy of Samir Geagea, it was a political declaration of war.

Yet it was a rather smart gamble from Hariri: The Lebanese Forces were by far the most predictable party in Lebanese politics. For 11 years, they had stood with the Future Movement, while other alliances kept changing every year. In 2013, when the parliament was called to vote on the Orthodox gathering electoral law, they were the only Christian party that refused to do so – at the request of the FM, after they had drafted another electoral law draft together. In 2014, they stood alongside the FM once again and gave the parliamentary extension the Christian legitimacy it needed – the FPM and Kataeb had boycotted the session. In 2015, and while Lebanon’s Muslim parties – among them was the FM – were struggling to gather Christian legitimacy for a parliamentary session, it was the Lebanese Forces who saved the day once again, this time even bringing the FPM with them to the session. True, the Lebanese forces refused to participate in the 2014 unity cabinet, but that decision did not bring major harm to their long-term ally.

How it happened – Step 2

So when Hariri, as well as Berri and the PSP rallied around the candidacy of Sleiman Frangieh, the FM probably thought that the Lebanese Forces would at the very most oppose that move while insisting on the candidacy of Geagea, someone from March 14 or anyone else in the middle. But they were wrong, and should have paid more attention to the recent LF maneuvering in Lebanese politics. Every time a mini-dialogue between the FM and Hezbollah was starting, the FPM and the LF were responding  – because of the fear that Hezbollah and the FM might agree on someone other than Geagea or Aoun- by getting closer. The mini Hezbollah-FM dialogues eventually led to mini FPM-LF rapprochements (in fact, if you remember correctly, the fear of an FPM-LF alliance pushed the Kataeb, Michel Sleiman, and other minor Christian politicians to unite under one front in March). All in all, that led in the end to an agreement to agree on an agreement between Aoun and Geagea in June 2015. It was called “the declaration of intent” and was the two Christian parties’ way of saying to their Muslim allies “it’s either one of us, or we ally together against you”. The message was very obvious: If you read the June 2015 declaration, you’ll find out  that it revolves around one main idea: protecting the Christian interests, and at their core, the election of a” strong president”. And in case you still don’t know what a “strong president” means after 20 months of presidential vacancy, “Strong” = Aoun and /or Geagea.

How it happened – Step 3

The FM – unlike Hezbollah, who refused to support Frangieh – chose to ignore the message that was the declaration of intent, and supported Frangieh in a very intelligent attempt to blow up the March 8 alliance:

I explained it two years ago, last year, and I’ll explain it again: For Hezbollah, Aoun is silver but Frangieh is gold. Frangieh – unlike Aoun who has 18 MPs representing solely the FPM – doesn’t have a big bloc (4 MPs, including himself and Emile Rahme who is much more pro-Hezbollah than he is pro-Frangieh). Frangieh also has a limited electorate that he can rely on. And by limited, I mean it in a geographical, demographic, and sectarian way. Most (If not all) of Frangieh’s popular base is Christian, mostly Maronite, from the Zgharta Caza (Which is one of the smallest in terms of parliamentary representation with 3 MPs) and some of the surrounding villages in Koura. Frangieh doesn’t have foothold outside the North, belongs to a feudal family – and most importantly – faces continuous competition from other renowned political families established in Zgharta (Such as the Mouawads). In other words, Frangieh is too weak and can be manipulated by Hezbollah / Future Movement while Aoun (as a comparison) is much, much harder to keep under control. If Aoun switches sides, his ~ 22/23 MPs would be enough to change the status quo and throw a party outside the cabinet – be it Hezbollah, or even the FM. Frangieh can’t do anything with his 3 MPs (Yes, 3, because once he’s elected he loses his seat 😛 – And it’s actually 2 since you can’t really count Rahme as a loyalist). Frangieh won’t have his own base in the parliament to rely on, which means that he will fully be dependent on Hezbollah or the FM in everything concerning the legislation. Even if Frangieh wants to call for demonstrations, it wouldn’t have any impact unless Hezbollah joins him. Aoun wouldn’t need Hezbollah at all on the popular level (the 2015 summer demonstrations prove it) –  in fact it would hurt him since the counter-propaganda would make it look as if his supporters aren’t Christian – making him an “illegitimate” Christian president. Frangieh is also a lot more pro-Syrian than Aoun is, and the Frangiehs have historical family ties with the Assad family that are almost 50 years old. Which means that even if every single MP in M14 endorses Frangieh, he would always be a friend of Syria – and thus closer to Hezbollah. Aoun, on the other hand, is a lot more unreliable so he might be a pain in the ass in case he decides to switch sides or go against the Syrian regime.

La morale: If you’re Hezbollah, and have to choose between Frangieh and Aoun, you’ll choose Frangieh every time. Every time.

How it happened – Step 4

But that’s not how the party of God thinks, since Hezbollah decided not to fall in the trap of supporting the Frangieh deal and eventually stood with Aoun. Agreeing to the Frangieh deal would have probably meant that Hariri was going to become PM again, that March 14 would regain foothold in the cabinet, and that the alliance Hezbollah has with the only non-Shia party collapses (it would have discredited Hezbollah for the next decade). Frangieh was not worth shattering the March 8 alliance.

Hariri’s gamble was brilliant, but it failed. And the FM were too slow to end it. The fact that the LF were very predictable and had never moved against the FM probably made the latter party think that rumors about a possible LF support to Aoun in early January were just a bluff destined to put a halt to the Frangieh deal. Maybe it was a bluff and maybe it wasn’t, but when the FM did not respond to the rumors, insisted on Frangieh, and did not support Geagea again, the Christian wedding eventually happened.

How it happened – Step 5

2009 lebanese parliament seats

The most important table in Lebanon for the next few months. Number of seats for every party in the parliament. Note that there are 127 instead of 128 because an FPM PM has past away in the summer. Compiled with the help of Wikipedia.

(a candidate needs at least the absolute majority, 65 votes, to win the elections in the second round. In the first round the candidate needs the two-thirds of the 128 votes, and that’s 86 votes)

The Lebanese Forces had all the reasons in the world to deny support for both candidates – Aoun and Frangieh. Look at the table above: As far as everyone was concerned, Frangieh had the support of the Future Movement (as well as their closest allies (blue)?), Amal, the PSP, and himself (the Marada). That means 28+13+11+3 = 55 seats. Their close allies (in blue) are about 9 MPs, and the other centrists have around 7 votes. 55+9+7= 71. And that’s if EVERYONE approves and has no problem with frangieh. But as the example of Khaled Daher (Daher, of the FM, said he preferred Aoun over Frangieh) shows, definitely not everyone from the center and M14 is going to vote for Frangieh. It is even said – in the dark alleys of the republic – that Berri is giving his MPs the freedom to choose between Aoun and Frangieh. Moreover, the quorum needed to let the session proceed is 86 MPs, which means that you need 43 MPs to stop the elections, and Hezbollah, the (Marada-less) FPM, and their smaller allies have 23+13+2+2+1= 41 MPs. Providing quorum, without Aoun and Hezbollah’s blessing, in order to elect Frangieh, will be the most difficult task on earth.

And if the LF deny quorum, it will be an impossible task. So everything the LF could have done to thwart the election of Frangieh was to deny quorum. The absence of support from the biggest two Christian parties in parliament would have also had a huge moral impact on elections that concern the top Christian post. There was no need to go as far as supporting Aoun. Not participating in the elections would have been more than enough, and would have weakened both Aoun and Frangieh.

But the LF did not only refuse to support Frangieh: They fully endorsed Aoun, another candidate from March 8, and for several important reasons. Frangieh, for the LF, is the worst candidate that the FM could ever endorse. He is at the heart of March 8, will directly threaten Geagea’s stronger base in the North, and  – while being one of the Maronite four – is not even the top Christian politician of March 8. It’s as if there was a choice between Karami and Hariri for the premiership in 2023, and the LF choose March 8’s barely-known Abdul Rahim Mrad instead of Hariri. So you can imagine the humiliation the LF went through when Hariri endorsed Frangieh.

If you can’t beat them, join them

The endorsement of Aoun by Geagea is definitely an “eye for an eye” maneuver. But the new mini-alliance between the two Christian parties is also more than that: It makes Geagea the second-in-command of a Christian alliance whose leader is 81 year old, and who cannot constitutionally run for a second-term in six years. And while Bassil might be a natural “heir” to Aoun’s presidency, he is – until now – far less popular than Geagea (having lost twice in a row the parliamentary elections in his home district against Geagea’s candidate) who will also have the seniority. If Aoun makes it this time, Geagea is likely going to be his successor. True, it is not written in their agreement, but it’s a natural result of the deal.

The Lebanese Forces, after 11 years in parliament, have realized that they cannot defeat Aoun on their own, even with the full weight of a 40 MPs FM-led bloc. They have also probably come to realize that the FM can turn their back on them, just as every Lebanese party can turn his back on another Lebanese party. The Kataeb are a rival to their monopoly within M14, and the only real way to increase their influence is by increasing their number of MPs in parliament. In a parliament of 128, they have a bloc three times smaller than the FPM’s. An alliance with the FPM would mean total dominance of the Christian constituencies by the FPM-LF duo in the next elections, and the ousting of the Kataeb and Christian independents from the Metn, Achrafieh, and the North. Their alliance would also give them negotiating ground everywhere else, as they will probably claim that they could control and influence at least 80% of the Christian electorate. That means a lot more MPs for the two Christian parties in the next elections, and even more MPs for the LF in particular.

The ten-point agreement between the LF and the FPM, while not directly criticizing Hezbollah, is very, very similar to the Baabda declaration and calls for an independent (no sign of the word “neutral” in the article) foreign policy, more efficient border control, a new electoral law, no use of weapons, as well as other cliche sentences that have become irrelevant with time and are not even worth translating. The agreement can’t be more vague which is actually good for both political sides on the short-term. For example, the LF can say that “independent” implies “neutral”, and the FPM can say that it does not imply that. It works for both parties.

Geagea never had the support of March 8 and the center, lost the Kataeb’s support early on, and is now Future Movement-less. The LF have lost the presidential battle: That is more clearer today, that it ever was or will ever be. And this why they have opted to support Aoun’s candidacy. It’s a long-term investment that could definitely be worth the wait. For Aoun, the endorsment of Geagea is a huge moral boost, but has little impact whatsoever because of the small bloc the LF have in parliament. If Frangieh withdraws in favor of Aoun (no sign of that happening anytime soon), Aoun would have definitely secured his supremacy in parliament (the endorsement of three out of the four Maronite four) and would thus only need to find a way to secure the quorum in parliament (offering the premiership to Hariri would be an interesting thing he could try).

 The impact in parliament

The impact of the Christian wedding on Lebanese politics will be huge. If you look at the table above, the 42 MPs that were expected to deny quorum + the 8 MPs of the LF mean that Aoun now has at least around 50 MPs behind him. Without Amal’s support of 13 MPS, he doesn’t have the 65 MPs required for him to win, and even if support rises from the center (Mikata/Safadi), he will have only secured an absolute majority, which means that the other blocs could easily deny quorum and ironically use Aoun’s own weapon of denying quorum against him. And while Jumblatt withdrew his Frangieh support and is endorsing Helou once again (probably because he wants to keep a neutral stance between what seems to be a choice of the Christian-supported parties and another choice of a mainly Sunni-supported party, especially since his home district of the Chouf almost has an equal number of Sunni and Christian voters), that can only mean that the key player that will decide the outcome of the presidential elections is likely to be Berri. Amal have to choose between two Christian Zuamas who are the allies of its ally, and there are several scenarios of what might happen. It is said that Berri might even let his MPs choose freely. The FM is apparently sticking with Frangieh, although anything can still happen from now till the 8th of February – the date of the next presidential elections session. Some rumors are even hinting to the fact that Aoun might break with Hezbollah if Amal don’t support him, but that really doesn’t make a lot of sense since it would push Hezbollah towards Frangieh and effectively hand Frangieh the presidency.

The curious case of the Kataeb

While it is very clear that the Muslim parties still do not know what they are going to do with the whole Aoun-Frangieh conundrum, the Kaateb are experiencing one of the most difficult periods of their recent history. While they might actually benefit from this deal (all the anti-Hezbollah Christians of March 14 now only have the Kataeb as party to support – note how the Kataeb are actually using this to their favor with Gemayel saying that he would never support an M8 candidate and criticizing Geagea for supporting March 8’s choice), their very small bloc in parliament,  as well as the fact that both the FPM and the LF have more support in the Christian areas, mean that the Kataeb risk total parliamentary annihilation in the next elections. The FM could always share with them a couple of Christian seats in Muslim-dominated districts, but the fact that they did not support the FM’s endorsement of Frangieh, that they stood against the FM when it came to the electoral law, to the parliamentary session of 2015, and to almost every major issue (except the cabinet formation) is not in their favor. Moreover, without the LF, the Kataeb cannot challenge the FPM in the Christian constituencies, reducing their margin of negotiation with the FM to an all-time low.

Finally, a lovely reminder that the Christian wedding did not end the trash crisis. We are still drowning in garbage. Thank you.

This post was the 17th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post was about the month of January 2016.

 609 days since the 25th of May. 445 days since the 5th of November.

The WikiLebanon Files (Part VII): How Berri Tricked Hezbollah in August 2006

Nabih Berri Hassan Nasrallah poster

Two weeks ago, a political maneuver by Nabih Berri gave the green light to the March 14 alliance to go through with their plans and extend the commander of the army’s term for one year, much to the dismay of the Free Patriotic Movement. Berri, who gave signals throughout that week that he was at odds with Aoun, indirectly opened a window of opportunity for the cabinet and its minister of defense to extend the terms of the top security officials. Berri’s move against the FPM crippled them politically as any plan to respond – including bringing the government down – was made impossible. Without Berri’s support, a double Hezbollah-FPM resignation would have only resulted in a stronger and surely legitimate cabinet – since Berri’s M8 AND Shia ministers would remain in the government – officially dominated by M14. That meant that Hezbollah – regardless if they approved of the extension or not – couldn’t have supported a Aounist resignation move. The bottom line here is that Amal (1) succeeded in creating distrust between Hezbollah and the FPM (which Nasrallah tried to counter by officially supporting and endorsing the FPM’s interests in his latest speech), while at the same time  (2) making Salam, M14 and the centrists owe Berri.

Berri’s genius maneuver wasn’t a first, and definitely won’t be his last. This is why this month’s WikiLeaks cable will be a document detailing a similar ruse: How Berri, exactly 9 years ago, “tricked Hezbollah into agreeing to the 8/16 cabinet decision on deployment of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to the south, even though part of the decision went beyond Nasrallah’s “red lines.”

The cable is a conversation between Amal’s minister of health, Mohammad Khalifeh and U.S. ambassador Feltman. I hope you enjoy the epic stratagems of Nabih Berri.

SHIA MINISTER CLAIMS BERRI TRICKED HIZBALLAH, NOW AT ODDS WITH NASRALLAH
2006 August 19, 08:23 (Saturday)
06BEIRUT2699_a
— Not Assigned —
SUMMARY
——-
1. (S/NF) Minister of Health (Shia, member of Amal) Mohammed Khalifeh (please protect throughout) told the Ambassador in a 8/18 meeting that Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah are currently at odds. By Khalifeh’s account, Berri was infuriated by Nasrallah’s 8/14 “victory speech.” Wanting to rein in Hizballah, the Speaker essentially tricked Hizballah ministers into agreeing to the 8/16 cabinet decision on deployment of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to the south, even though part of the decision went beyond Nasrallah’s “red lines.” Nasrallah and Berri, however, maintain agreement on certain “red lines,” including no NATO presence in Lebanon and no international soldiers along the Syrian-Lebanese border. Khalifeh claimed his own small victory, saying that his tour of the south restored GOL control to hospitals and clinics that Hizballah had tried to occupy. Citing health records and anecdotal evidence, Khalifeh estimated that 300-400 Hizballah fighters had been killed. He gave a gruesome account of wounded Hizballah fighters who emerged from underground bunkers after the Israelis pulled back. No fan of Hizballah, Khalifeh thought that the “victory atmosphere” would die down and that the people of the south would soon sober up to the losses they suffered because of a conflict Hizballah provoked. But, at the same time, hatred of Israel and the United States is prevelant everywhere in the south, Khalifeh said, and will not fade. End summary.
NASRALLAH, BERRI AT ODDS
————————
2. (S/NF) Asking to receive the Ambassador at his home (away from media and his staff), Khalifeh — one of the Shia cabinet ministers loyal to Berri — claimed that Berri and Nasrallah are not currently speaking to each other. Khalifeh, who has long complained to us that Berri has been too deferential to Nasrallah (allowing, in his view, Amal to be swallowed up by Hizballah), was clearly delighted by this turn of events. With whispered gusto as the TV blared to interfere with any listening devices, he said that the Berri-Nasrallah spat stems from two developments. First, Berri was furious by Nasrallah’s 8/14 “victory speech,” in which Nasrallah “acted like he thought he was bigger than Salahaddin, bigger than all of us!”
HIZBALLAH DEFINES RED LINES FOR CABINET DECISION
—————————
3. (S/NF) Second, Nasrallah is furious that Berri tricked the Shia cabinet ministers into approving the 8/16 cabinet decision that deployed the LAF to the south. The decision, Khalifeh explained, exceeded what Nasrallah could accept. Khalifeh said that Nasallah, through messengers, had told Berri that Hizballah was prepared to concur with the LAF deployment to the south and would permit the LAF to confiscate any weapons it stumbled across. But Hizballah was not prepared to turn over its fixed positions to the LAF. Most important, Hizballah wanted an understanding that certain parts of south Lebanon would remain off limits to the LAF and thus effectively off-limits to the beefed-up UNIFIL.
4. (S/NF) Berri, Khalifeh said, wore down Hizballah on the fixed positions issue, eventually persuading Nasrallah that, given that the Israelis knew where the fixed positions were and had so damaged them, they were a liability, not an asset, for Hizballah. But Nasrallah would not budge on maintainining “no-go” areas in the south. Berri and Siniora, meanwhile, agreed fully that the LAF had to have the right to go anywhere in the country, that no area of the south could be off limits to the LAF. Berri took particular offense by Nasrallah’s assertion that the national army would have to defer to Hizballah even in a cabinet statement. Berri told Siniora not to worry, that the cabinet would pass the LAF deployment decree unanimously, with the “no-go” areas eliminated.
USING A DIFFERENT MESSENGER TO FOOL HIZBALLAH MINISTERS
—————————
BEIRUT 00002699 002 OF 003
5. (S/NF) During the cabinet meeting, Berri then called Minister of Agriculture Talal Sahali. (Lebanon’s cabinet sessions are constantly interrupted by calls to the ministers from the political bosses — Saad Hariri calling Siniora, Walid Jumblatt calling Marwan Hamadeh, etc.). Berri told Sahali to vote yes for the measure and to tell Khalifeh and Foreign Affairs Minister Salloukh to do the same. Given the close coordination between Berri and Nasrallah throughout this crisis, Hizballah’s two ministers took Sahali’s action to mean that Nasrallah was on board, and the measure passed quickly and without debate, with Trad Hamadeh and Mohammed Fneish concurring. (Indeed, other ministers have told us that they were amazed at how uneventful the 8/16 cabinet meeting was, considering how close the cabinet had come to a breakdown over the deployment details only a few days earlier.)
6. (S/NF) Later, Nasrallah read the details of the cabinet decision and exploded. When the Hizballah ministers confronted Berri, Berri responded that he consistently uses Khalifeh to pass messages to the Shia ministers — a true assertion — when there has been an Amal-Hizballah agreement on something. The Hizballah ministers should have realized that something coming from Sahali is of a different nature. Had they checked, they could have voted no; no one forced them to vote yes. Not willing to split the cabinet or the Shia solidarity or admit that they’d been fooled into approving something without checking with their master, the Hizballah ministers — and Nasrallah — begrudingly accepted the cabinet decision.
BUT BERRI AND NASRALLAH MAINTAIN SOME COMMON RED LINES
——————————
7. (S/NF) The Ambassador asked Khalifeh if he thought there was some unwritten understanding that, while the LAF indeed received the right from the cabinet to go anywhere, in fact the LAF would not push. Khalifeh said that he expected that would be the case at first, but the LAF will become stronger and stronger, eventually able to assert its authority everywhere, which Berri is counting on. The Ambassador asked Khalifeh whether Berri and Nasrallah, despite their current spat, maintained any common “red lines” about implementation of UNSCR 1701. “Absolutely,” Khalifeh responded, tapping his fingers to tip off a list: “Nothing that looks or smells like NATO,” he said; “we cannot accept NATO here, period.” Second, even if there is a second resolution, it cannot be Chapter VII. Third, no foreign troops along the Syrian-Lebanese border.
8. (S/NF) Accepting any of these conditions, Khalifeh said, would be akin to Lebanon throwing itself back into a mandate status. “We become Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine (STET).” The Ambassador, pulling out the UNSCR 1701 text, reviewed with Khalifeh the unambiguous paragraphs on arms smuggling and border controls, noting that Lebanon has clear obligations. Moreover, the Ambassador said, Speaker Berri has a real interest in seeing that Hizballah cannot resupply its arsenals. Khalifeh argued that Lebanon must do the border controls, perhaps with high-tech help, but not with foreign troops. The Ambassador cautioned Khalifeh that the air and sea blockade on Lebanon will continue until the international community has confidence that border controls are being improved, and a quick way to do so would be to ask UNIFIL’s help, per the resolution. “Berri will never accept that,” Khalifeh said, “never! You can’t ask him.” The Ambassador tried to make the point that tightened border controls with international assistance strengthened the state, not weakened it.
HOPING THE SOUTH SOBERS UP, ANTI-AMERICANISM ON THE RISE
—————————-
9. (C/NF) Changing the subject, Khalifeh described what he saw on his two-day tour of southern Lebanon. The destruction in some villages, he said, was “unbelievable, far worse than the civil war.” He thought that, as the extent of the damage sinks in, the population would stop being “drunk on victory” and start questioning the Hizballah policies that provoked the Israeli wrath. In the long term, he claimed, Hizballah will suffer. But he said that he found the hatred of the United States and Israel to be very high. “The people think you are as guilty as Israel,” Khalifeh said, telling stories
BEIRUT 00002699 003 OF 003
of even Christian villagers blaming the United States for providing cluster bombs and political support for what is seen as indiscriminate targetting of civilians. They may get around to blaming Hizballah — “let’s hope they do” — but that doesn’t mean that their hatred for the United States and Israel will drop, Khalifeh predicted.
COUNTING THE DEAD — HIZBALLAH LOSES 300-400 FIGHTERS
——————————–
10. (S/NF) The Ambassador, noting that estimates of infrastructure damage appeared to be exaggerated for political reasons, asked about the actual death toll. Khalifeh said that there were somewhere between 850 and 875 bodies identified and claimed. In addition, there were approximately 300 corpses in mass graves or in hospital morgues that had not been identified or claimed. Those in graves were photographed, described, and DNA samples removed, in case people seek missing relatives. Some of those were probably Hizballah fighters that Hizballah does not want to publicly acknowledge, but many of the unclaimed bodies are also elderly and in some cases entire families. In addition, he said, he guessed from gathering anecdotal information that Hizballah had independently buried about 100 of its fighters out of sight, to prevent its real losses from being known. 11. (S/NF) Going through a complicated accounting process of whom Hizballah acknowledged was killed, how many of the unclaimed bodies were of fighting-age men, and how many Hizballahis might have been buried surreptitiously, Khalifeh estimated that the Israelis killed 300-400 Hizballah fighters. That number is actually quite a blow, he said, and will also help make the population think twice about Hizballah as the losses become more known. Khalifeh then gave some gruesome accounts of Hizballah fighters who emerged from hiding and sought medical attention only after the IDF started pulling back. In one gut-wrenching example, Khalifeh pointed to his shin, saying that one fighter had a huge wound and burns in his lower leg. Although he stopped the bleeding, he did not seek medical attention for 15 days. By the time he saw a doctor, maggots had penetrated up his rotting leg tissue as high as his thigh. “Who are these people?” Khalifeh said; “how could you stay like that? Did someone make him stay like that?”
RESTORING CENTRAL AUTHORITY IN HEALTH
————————————-
12. (S/NF) Khalifeh expressed deep pride that he had planted the flag of the central state during his tour. Accompanied by ISF forces, Khalifeh reclaimed hospitals and clinics that Hizballah had started to occupy, to compensate for the destruction of Hizballah’s facilities. Except for those state health clinics damaged beyond use, Khalifeh said that he had restored Ministry of Health control to all health institutions in the south. The Ambassador noted that the GOL should be more assertive across the board, and Khalifeh agreed.
COMMENT
——-
13. (S/NF) We don’t doubt Khalifeh’s hatred of Hizballah, and his account of the cabinet deliberations explains the curious lack of controversy and discussion last Wednesday — after political fireworks during the preceding cabinet session. But we also think that he was trying to place his boss Berri in a more heroic light for us. Berri may indeed have been able to trick Nasrallah this one time. But Berri is nevertheless very much the junior partner and does not yet seem willing to confront Hizballah frontally. For example, if Berri were willing to join with the March 14 movement in removing Emile Lahoud from the Presidency, then we would could truly classify him as a courageous leader. And as for the Nasrallah-Berri “red lines,” we can probably avoid provoking the Shia on the NATO issue, making sure that any NATO countries’ security or troop contributions to Lebanon do not come in explicit NATO packaging. But we will have to keep pushing on the international element that is clearly needed along the Syrian border and at entry points, including at the airport and seaports.
FELTMAN

The WikiLebanon Files (Part IV): The Hezbollah-Amal Electoral Deal that Preceded the Israeli Withdrawal

The Khiam Detention Center, bombed in 2006, was one of the most infamous landmarks associated with the Israeli occupation

The Khiam Detention Center, bombed in 2006, was one of the most infamous landmarks associated with the Israeli occupation

This month marks the 15th anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from the South Lebanon security zone and the subsequent collapse of the South Lebanon Army. People often focus on the military side of the end of the occupation, and forget the political implications that followed, notably Hezbollah’s accelerated rise to power after basking in the glory of ending the occupation in the South. In this post, I’m only going to quote one cable, about one of the direct political consequences of the Israeli withdrawal: How Amal gave up two MPs to the stronger Hezbollah (Via a Syrian-mediated deal) in order to avoid what would probably be a lost electoral battle, and most importantly, how both party feared the new liberated security zone might influence the rest of the electorate in the South. Amal was confident that the Christians of the liberated regions would fear Hezbollah retribution and would side with Berri, and Hezbollah feared that Kamel Al-Assaad would manage to make a political comeback, especially that the security zone is “his power base” and that the “symbol of the old guard” had managed to secure 40% of the votes in 1996.

Just to be clear here, the cable was written in April, the Israeli withdrawal happened in May, and the general elections in late August/early September

This is one of the most awesome/non circulated/informative cables I have read in a while, so I hope you enjoy it.

ELECTION 2000: AMAL-HIZBALLAH MAKE A DEAL, FOR NOW
2000 April 17, 16:04 (Monday)
00BEIRUT1411_a
CONFIDENTIAL
CONFIDENTIAL
— Not Assigned —
FOR NOW
CLASSIFIED BY AMB. DAVID SATTERFIELD. REASON: 1.5 (B, D)
1. (C) SUMMARY: AMAL MOVEMENT AND HIZBALLAH HAVE MADE A SYRIAN-INDUCED DEAL TO DISTRIBUTE SEATS AMONG THEMSELVES IN THE UPCOMING PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS. IF THE DEAL HOLDS, HIZBALLAH WOULD HAVE A NET GAIN OF TWO SEATS, PLUS A STRONGER FIGURE IN A THIRD ONE. THESE EXPEDIENT PAIRINGS ARE TYPICAL OF LEBANESE LEGISLATIVE CAMPAIGNS AND SYRIAN MACHINATIONS. THIS YEAR, DAMASCUS SEEMS EAGER TO SEW UP WINNING COALITIONS NOW, BEFORE ISRAELI WITHDRAWAL, TO ENSURE THAT THE POLITICAL STATUS QUO IS PRESERVED AND TO MINIMIZE INTERNAL LEBANESE RIVALRIES. HOWEVER, MANY OF THESE DEALS ARE BEING CUT SO EARLY, AND SO UNNATURALLY, THAT THEY ARE UNLIKELY TO HOLD TOGETHER UNTIL THE LATE SUMMER ELECTION. BOTH HIZBALLAH AND AMAL MOVEMENT BELIEVE THEY CAN DO BETTER, AND GET MORE SEATS, POST-WITHDRAWAL: HIZBALLAH BECAUSE OF THEIR “VICTORY” OVER ISRAEL, BERRI BECAUSE HE THINKS NEWLY LIBERATED CHRISTIANS IN THE SECURITY ZONE WILL VOTE FOR HIM AS THE STRONGEST ALTERNATIVE TO THE PARTY OF GOD.
END SUMMARY.
2. (C) THE HORSETRADING AND DEALMAKING ASSOCIATED WITH LEGISLATIVE CANDIDATE LISTS HAS BEEN UNDERWAY FOR SOME TIME, AND WILL LIKELY CONTINUE UP UNTIL THE EVE OF THE PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS IN EARLY AUGUST. AMONG THE MORE INTERESTING ELECTION DEVELOPMENTS IS WITHIN THE SHI’A COMMUNITY. THE SYRIANS HAVE GOD- FATHERED AN ALLIANCE BETWEEN AMAL MOVEMENT, LED BY PARLIAMENTARY SPEAKER NABIH BERRI, AND HIS ARCH- RIVAL, HIZBALLAH.
3. (C) ACCORDING TO ALI KHALIL, AMAL MP FROM TYRE AND THE PARTY’S CAMPAIGN COORDINATOR FOR THE ELECTIONS, AMAL AND HIZBALLAH STRUCK THEIR DEAL IN FEBRUARY. AMAL AND HIZBALLAH CANDIDATES WILL RUN ON A SINGLE LIST IN THE SOUTH, ACHIEVING MUTUAL AGREEMENT ON ALL NOMINEES FOR THE 23 SEATS THERE. NATIONWIDE, THE DEAL CALLS FOR A NET INCREASE OF TWO SEATS FOR HIZBALLAH, FROM NINE TO ELEVEN IN PARLIAMENT, BRINGING BACK INTO PARLIAMENT EX-MPS ALI AMMAR AND MUHAMMAD BERJAWI. THE CHANGES WOULD COME AT THE EXPENSE OF AN INDEPENDENT SHI’A IN BEIRUT CLOSE TO PM HOSS (EDUCATION MINISTER BEYDOUN) AND A SHI’A FROM BAABDA ALLIED WITH HARIRI (EX-INFORMATION MINISTER SABA), THEREBY SPREADING THE PAIN AMONG OTHER ALLIES OF SYRIA. IN ADDITION, NAZIH MANSUR, AN MP FROM BINT JUBAYL ALLIED TO HIZBALLAH, WOULD REPUTEDLY BE REPLACED BY A CARD-CARRYING PARTY MEMBER. KHALIL SAID AMAL AND HIZBALLAH HOLD REGULAR ELECTION MEETINGS NOW TO COORDINATE CAMPAIGNS, EVIDENCE OF AN AT LEAST SUPERFICIAL EFFORT TO FORGE A TRUE PRAGMATIC ALLIANCE.
4. (C) EVERY ELECTORAL YEAR, AMAL AND HIZBALLAH COME TO TERMS — VIA SYRIAN MEDIATION — ON A “FAIR” DISTRIBUTION OF SEATS. IT IS NOTABLE THAT THE ARRANGEMENT HAS BEEN MADE SO EARLY THIS YEAR, AND THAT AMAL APPEARS WILLING TO CONCEDE THAT IT IS HIZBALLAH’S TURN TO GROW. JUDGING FROM THE ELECTORAL LAW AND THE ACTIVITIES OF SYRIAN MILITARY INTELLIGENCE CHIEF FOR LEBANON GHAZI KANAAN, SYRIA’S GOAL FOR THE 2000 LEGISLATIVE ELECTIONS IS IN GENERAL THE STATUS QUO. POLITICAL RIVALRIES LIKE THE ONE BETWEEN HIZBALLAH AND AMAL CAN ESCALATE INTO OPEN POWER STRUGGLES, POSSIBLY OPENING UP THE COMPETITION TO ANTI-SYRIAN ELEMENTS, SUCH AS FORMER SPEAKER KAMAL AL-ASAD, WHOSE POWER BASE IS IN THE SECURITY ZONE. BERRI’S APPARENT WILLINGNESS TO CONCEDE ANY EXPANDED PRESENCE IN PARLIAMENT TO HIZBALLAH IS ALSO NOTABLE (HIS 19-MEMBER PARLIAMENTARY BLOC HAS ONLY FOUR AMAL MEMBERS; THE OTHER 15 ARE LOOSE ALLIES.) WHILE AMAL MOVEMENT REMAINS THE ORGANIZING PRINCIPLE FOR POLITICS IN SOUTH LEBANON, YEARS OF CORRUPTION HAVE DISCREDITED THE PARTY. BERRI MAY HAVE JUDGED IT BEST TO LOCK IN A MODEST GAIN FOR HIZBALLAH NOW, RATHER THAN FACE HIZBALLAH DEMANDS FOR A GREATER SHARE OF THE SEATS AFTER THE EXPECTED SURGE IN POPULARITY FOR HIZBALLAH AT OCCUPATION’S END.
5. (C) SOUTHERN MPS YASSINE JABER AND SAMIR AZAR, ALLIES OF AMAL MOVEMENT, TOLD US SEPARATELY THAT THE AMAL-HIZBALLAH COALITION, WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF A UNILATERAL WITHDRAWAL, HAS QUESTIONABLE LONGEVITY. THEY MAINTAIN BERRI WAS NOT COMPLETELY CONVINCED THAT ISRAEL WOULD ACTUALLY WITHDRAW UNTIL RECENTLY. AS REALITY SINKS IN, HIS CALCULATIONS ARE CHANGING. THEY CLAIM BERRI ASSUMES THAT NEWLY-LIBERATED CHRISTIANS OF THE SOUTH WILL LOOK TO HIM FOR REPRESENTATION, NOT HIZBALLAH, WHICH IS FEARED AS THE PARTY OF POSSIBLE RETRIBUTION. HIZBALLAH’S WITHDRAWAL OF ITS SLA AMNESTY PROPOSAL IN PARLIAMENT IS SEEN AS AN ABANDONMENT OF ITS EFFORT TO APPEAL TO SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN VOTES.
COMMENT
6. (C) SYRIAN HANDLERS FOR LEBANON MADE EVERY SIGN OF WANTING TO SEW UP THE ELECTION RESULTS EARLY ON. THE MOST EFFECTIVE TOOL IN THIS PROCESS IS TO COMPEL ALLIANCES BETWEEN NATURAL RIVALS IN EACH DISTRICT WHICH EFFECTIVELY ELIMINATE COMPETITION AND GIVE “FIXED MENU” COALITION OFFERINGS TO THE VOTERS. IN SOME DISTRICTS FRACTIOUS LEBANESE, EVEN THOSE ON EXCELLENT TERMS WITH DAMASCUS, ARE DEFEATING THIS AIM, AS THE BARGAINING MELEE CONTINUES. THIS HAS BEEN ESPECIALLY ACUTE IN THE NORTH, WHERE TRADITIONAL POWER CENTERS OF UMAR KARAME, SULEIMAN FRANJIYAH, AND NAYLA MUAWID CONTINUE TO MANEUVER IN WAYS WHICH UNDERMINE COALITION LIST FORMATION.
7. (C) IN THE SOUTH, BERRI HAS HIS WORK CUT OUT FOR HIM. OF THE TWO PARTIES, HIZBALLAH CAN EASILY OUTSPEND AMAL. IT WILL NOT BE ENOUGH FOR BERRI TO MARKET AMAL TO THE LIBERATED SECURITY ZONE. AFTER DECADES OF OCCUPATION, DESTRUCTION, AND AN ABYSMAL ECONOMY, PEOPLE WANT ASSISTANCE, NOT RHETORIC. HIZBALLAH COULD GAIN SIGNIFICANT POLITICAL GROUND FROM AMAL IF, FOLLOWING AN IDF WITHDRAWAL, IT ACCENTUATES CONSTITUENT SERVICES. HOWEVER, IN ITS PERPETUAL GAME OF PLAYING FACTIONS AGAINST EACH OTHER, THE SYRIAN REGIME MAY SEE A NEED TO DEFLATE HIZBALLAH FOLLOWING AN ISRAELI WITHDRAWAL, TO KEEP IT OFF BALANCE AND DEPENDENT. BERRI IS THE ONLY RELIABLE TOOL AT THEIR DISPOSAL TO COUNTER HIZBALLAH, AN ARGUMENT HE NO DOUBT MAKES IN DAMASCUS.
8. (C) ONE WILD CARD IS THE SUPPORT RETAINED BY KAMAL AL-ASAD. ALTHOUGH A SEEMINGLY DISCREDITED SYMBOL OF THE OLD GUARD, VIEWED AS TOO ACCOMMODATING TO ISRAEL, ASAD POLLED A RESPECTABLE 30% OF THE VOTE IN 1992 AND 40% IN 1996, AGAINST THE AMAL/HIZBALLAH ALLIANCE LIST. HIS APPEAL IN THE SECURITY ZONE — THE FAMILY’S TRADITIONAL POWER BASE — IS UNTESTED BUT NO DOUBT STRONG. ENSURING HE REMAINS FIRMLY AT THE BOTTOM OF THE ELECTORAL SWEEPSTAKES IS A GOAL SHARED IN COMMON BY SYRIA, BERRI, AND HIZBALLAH.
SATTERFIELD

How Hezbollah Took Power In 2011

Soldiers advance towards stone-throwing Sunni Muslim supporters of outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri near Tariq al-Jadidah in Beirut January 25, 2011. (REUTERS/Hasan Shaaban)

Soldiers advance towards supporters of outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri near Tariq al-Jadidah
in Beirut January 25, 2011. (REUTERS/Hasan Shaaban)

Presidential politics are becoming very repetitive these last two months, which is why I’m going back till 2011 today, in order to try to decipher one of the most complicated and underrated large-scale maneuvers any Lebanese party did since the Syrian withdrawal. Today’s post is on how Hezbollah managed to go through with a one-sided government without starting a mini-sectarian civil war, something M14 failed to do when they tried to achieve the same goal of ruling all by themselves in 2007/2008.

How It All Began

So let’s make a small, very simplified summary of what happened in January 2011: M14 wanted (to fund) the STL, M8 didn’t want (to fund) the STL, things started to escalate quickly, and as Hariri (who was still Prime Minister back then) was preparing to meet Obama on the 12th of January 2011, M8’s ministers in the cabinet resigned, forcing the government to collapse (The irony here is that Mikati would eventually indirectly fund the STL without asking the M8-run cabinet for the funds via a very weird loophole that he managed to find by using the money of the Prime Minister’s budget). But the thing is, Hezbollah and its allies did not have what politicians in Lebanon love to call the “blocking third”. Unlike the previous cabinet of Fouad Siniora (2008) where Hezbollah had 11 ministers out of 30 and M14 – the majority back then – still held more than half of the seats, the new Hariri cabinet of November 2009 was supposed to be a “refreshing experience”: The majority (M14) did not hold the majority of seats (only the half, 15/30), and the minority (M8) were not awarded the blocking third – 11 seats – but only 10 seats out of 30, a number that is high, yet not high enough to bring the government down in case M8 decided one day to withdraw support. The five other seats were given to the President, who was considered to be the only centrist player in the game back then. That’s how the government of November 2009 saw the light after 5 months of negotiations. Today the number “five” is nothing to the eleven months that Salam took to form his government, but back then such a number was shocking. So when the 10 ministers of M8 resigned in 2010, the cabinet was not supposed to collapse, at least not directly. Like 2006, M8 was expected to maneuver and play the sectarian card, by saying that the cabinet had no credible Shia representation, and hence – according to a very vague article in the constitution’s preamble “( J) There shall be no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the pact of mutual existence”  the president should consider the cabinet resigned and seek the formation of a more legitimate and representative one. That’s what everyone thought M8’s maneuver was, at least for the next couple hours. The speculation ended when President Michel Sleiman’s Shia representative in the cabinet (The last of the 6 resigning Shia ministers), who was always rumored to be more of a sympathizer of M8 than a centrist, submitted his letter of resignation.

It was no longer a 10 minister-resignation political maneuver in order to force some terms on the ruling alliance. It was an 11 minister-resignation and the beginning of a political coup.

Patience Is a Virtue (Part I)

From that moment on, things accelerated quickly: There were signs of Sunni discontent in Beirut and the M14 controlled regions and in the end, the President, who was probably under intense pressure from both sides,  postponed the parliamentary consultations for a couple more days. As things were calming down on the political front, the front-runner was still Hariri (even Nasrallah said the Hariri would probably be nominated again at the time), as Jumblatt was still more or less part of M14 and his share in the parliament and the cabinet was still considered to be part of M14’s one. Then the unexpected happened: Rumors spread that Hezbollah had dispatched armed members of the party in Beirut, referred to by M14 as “the Black-shirts” (M14 was probably trying to compare them to Mussolini’s Camicia Nere). M8, who still had no clear candidate in mind (there were talks that Karami or Hoss might be nominated by M8, but the rumors were quickly dismissed) dropped a political bomb: They announced that they had formed an alliance with Tripoli’s key politician, Najib Mikati. Mikati had also brought with him 2 other MPs from Tripoli to the M8 side. Jumblatt – who was known to switch allegiances quite often – switched allegiance and supported Mikati’s nomination to the premiership. His 11 MP-strong bloc collapsed, and four of his MPs, who turned out to be closer to the FM than to him, stood with Hariri. Strong with Jumblatt’s 7 extra votes and Mikati’s extra 3 votes, the March 8 alliance was now, and for the first time since 2005, the ruling coalition in parliament. On the 25th of January, it was Najib Mikati, and not Saad Hariri who was designated Prime Minister. Riots started in Beirut and Tripoli. (Remember the “Day of Anger”?) Hezbollah couldn’t go forward with M8’s plan to rule without calming down the Sunni streets before making any additional step. And thus began a 5 months period of vacancy and negotiations that was probably intended for that sole purpose.

Patience Is a Virtue (Part II)

The first step of calming down the M14 regions was by giving the impression that M8 did not want to rule all by itself. For several months after Mikati was designated, M8 and M14 carried on endless negotiations that were intended to make the new cabinet a consensual “unity government”, similar to the Hariri one, except that it wouldn’t be led by Hariri. Hezbollah knew that the FM was going to put conditions, and we all knew that Hezbollah would refuse them and that M14 couldn’t possibly accept to be a minor player in the executive power especially after the way M8 removed Hariri from it. So giving the impression/illusion that a consensual cabinet was on the way was a smart maneuver.

But that first step wasn’t enough: The Arab spring had just begun, so Hezbollah had to make sure that the cabinet would not collapse right after it was formed. Hezbollah knew that the FM couldn’t escalate things/riot against the Christian FPM in the way they would do so against Hezbollah (since any demonstration against the FPM could turn into one against the Christians and would eventually weaken M14 in the Christian regions). This is why Hezbollah’s second step was to make the cabinet confrontation a Christian-Sunni one and a Christian-Christian one instead of a Shia-Sunni one. It was only a matter of time before Aoun asked for half of the cabinet’s seats (we all saw that coming), and Hezbollah’s silence on the matter made Sleiman and Mikati, who both expected to have 1 or 2 Christian ministers, panic. It also made M14’s parties shift their criticism towards Aoun and his Christian base instead of Hezbollah and its Shia base. Thus began 2 or 3 months of internal struggle over those seats between Aoun, Mikati, and Sleiman. The statements in Lebanese politics were no longer about how Hezbollah threw the FM outside, but how Aoun and the others were fighting over the leftovers of the M14 seats. As a matter of fact, the main maneuvering tactics that the cabinet adopted during its rule were based on the idea that if Aoun argued with Mikati and Mikati argued with Aoun, both would look like “heroes” within their sects and it would eventually lead to a whooping M8 victory at the 2013 general elections.

In the last months preceding the formation of the government, the media focused on something they called “العقدة السنية” (The Sunni complication). That was Hezbollah’s last maneuver of the 2011 vacancy. After the Aoun-Mikati-Sleiman mini-battle ended, Hezbollah’s two key allies in Tripoli (The Karami family and Mikati’s men) wanted to be represented in the cabinet. But the cabinet doesn’t have an endless number of Sunni seats, and most if not all of the post-Taef cabinets have had a fixed amount of seats for every sect (Maronites, Sunnis and Shias have each an equal share of 6 seats in a 30 ministers cabinet). This gave the impression that it was no longer a Sunni-Shia struggle for power, but rather a Sunni-Sunni bickering. M8’s major parties, after letting this feud go on for a while, ended the vacancy with a gesture that everyone still remembers. Berri gave up one of his Shia ministers so that M8 seemed like it did a sacrifice in order to satisfy its Sunni allies, while Hezbollah was now ruling with a cabinet that had a Sunni relative majority (7 Sunnis, 6 Maronites, 5 Shias) for the first time since years. Tripoli, the epicenter of the “Day of Anger” riots, was awarded more ministers than any other region. That maneuver made every M14 statement that would include the sentence “Hezbollah is undermining the Sunnis / Tripoli” irrelevant. The only way of describing that maneuver is by quoting Berri: “Eventually I lost a minister but won Lebanon“. They had in fact won Lebanon for two more years with that tactic.

Moreover, M8, with its endless 5-months inner fights looked like a very weak coalition that wouldn’t last long. That illusion of not lasting long led the M14 public to be more forgiving about the presence of a one-sided cabinet. It was way better for the new opposition to bring down a failing cabinet right before the 2013 elections (weirdly enough, that’s what eventually happened, although we never had those elections…) than to violently oppose it before it even got to action. And that’s how the 2011 cabinet saw the light and managed to overcome the different crises that shook the country in 2012 and 2013.

La Morale

In a way, today’s political impasse is a lot similar to the one we had in 2011. Everything is not what it seems it is. In the future we’ll look at this presidential vacancy in a  different perspective than we do now, just like M8’s mini-tactics were in fact a huge political maneuver (whether it was intended or not) that could have been summed up with the word “patience”.

Reminder: We still don’t have a president.

350 days (30,240,000 seconds) since the 25th of May. 186 days (16,070,400 seconds) since the 5th of November. 

Eleven Months of Vacuum

Lebanese children hold placards and a giant Yemeni flag during a demonstration organized by Hezbollah, in front the United Nations headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, April 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Lebanese children hold placards and a giant Yemeni flag during a demonstration organized by Hezbollah, in front the United Nations headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, April 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Ten years ago, the Syrian army was withdrawing from Lebanon. In April 2005, “Syria was out”. But the truth is, Syria was never out. Syria was everywhere. Syria is everywhere.  For a brief moment, it seemed as if the politics of Syria and Lebanon would be at last separated from one another. But we were wrong. In the seven years that followed, the political coalitions in Lebanon were built on nothing but their stance regarding Syria, and for the 3 years after that, Lebanese politics became about the Syrian Civil War. The government will be formed when things in Syria settle down, they said. The president will be elected when things in Syria settle down, they said. Even the parliamentary elections would be held when things in Syria settle down, they said. And that last thing, it was said twice. Lebanese politics became a part of the Syrian Civil War. The Syrian Civil War became part of Lebanese politics.

But then came April 2015. The rival coalitions were not arguing about Syria anymore. At least not as much as they had argued during the past half century.

Congratulations, Lebanon. You have finally been promoted. Instead of arguing about Syria, Lebanese parties are now arguing about Yemen. You know, because we have a proper budget, no public debt, a president, a functioning cabinet, an elected parliament, no threats on our southern and northern borders, and most importantly, a successful democratic sovereign free republic. A republic so successful that its parties and elected representatives have spare time to discuss the politics of a country whose capital lies 2200 Km south of Beirut.

Anyway, enough nagging, and let’s look at the political events of the eleventh month of presidential vacancy.

Yemen, Yemen, Yemen. Did I forget to mention Yemen?

First, Hariri supports the “Saudi intervention” in Yemen. Then, Hezbollah condemns the “Saudi aggression” in Yemen. Then, the Future Movement supports the “Saudi intervention” in Yemen. Then, Nasrallah criticizes Saudi Arabia. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah. Then, Hezbollah criticizes the Future Movement. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah. Then, Nasrallah criticizes Saudi Arabia. Then, Hariri criticizes Nasrallah. Then, Hezbollah criticizes the Future Movement. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah. Then, Hezbollah criticizes the Future Movement. Then, the Future Movement criticizes Hezbollah.

That, dear reader, was a short summary of the three productive weeks we had between the 27th of March and the 17th of April.

Also, it seems that the FM-Hezbollah dialogue is “still safe and sound” despite the war of words. No offense here, but isn’t a war of words the exact opposite of a dialogue? Or do we have to be in a state of war to declare the dialogue a dead-end?

Oh, and by the way, in case I wasn’t too clear, Sanaa is 2200 Km far from Beirut. Deux-mille-deux-cents Kilomètres.

Gebran Bassil

This is by far the event of the month (Hint: It’s also about Yemen). A couple of days after the Saudis launched their campaign, Gebran Bassil, the FPM’s no.2 dropped April’s political bomb: From the Sharm Sheikh summit, he told the world that he expressed support for “legitimacy in any Arab country, especially in Yemen”. Four days later, Bassil struck again: “We don’t wish to see Hezbollah fighting with the Houthis or see anyone from the Future Movement fighting alongside the Saudis”. For the second time in the same week, Bassil was indirectly criticizing the FPM’s key ally, Hezbollah. True, the last statement also included Future Movement criticism, but the very fact that Gebran Bassil dared to start a “mini rebellion” against Hezbollah means a lot, even if it’s just a simple maneuver to make the FPM look as if they care about Lebanon and Lebanon only. Gebran Bassil’s stances were actually so strong that Aoun had to intervene in the very beginning of April with reports saying that he described the Saudi war in Yemen as illegal. But that did not stop Bassil from continuing what he started: On the second day of April, he said that “National unity remains an overriding priority for Lebanon’s foreign policy“.

Aoun’s relative silence here says a lot too. I’m going to put in context: “He [Samir Geagea] said after holding talks with Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi at Bkirki: “In principle, there is nothing stopping Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun from becoming president, but we have to take into consideration his political platform.”” (April 3)

Walid Jumblatt

Gebran Bassil wasn’t the only one criticizing Hezbollah this month. On March 30, Jumblatt launched an anti-Iran tirade. This stance was followed by a direct critique of Nasrallah’s speech on the first of April, describing it as lacking objectivity. By the 19th of April, Jumblatt asked “What’s wrong with Nasrallah?“. Jumblatt criticizes Hezbollah every now and then, but this time it came together with a Bassil criticism. It was not a very pleasant month for the party of God.

Tammam Salam

Not a very pleasant month indeed. As if the waves of criticism coming from the FPM, the FM, the PSP, the Saudi ambassador and the Grand Mufti weren’t enough, the Prime Minister said that Beirut supported any move that preserves Sanaa’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

If you have been following Lebanese politics for the past few months, you’d notice that Hezbollah usually doesn’t get into a war of words with Tammam Salam (Because weakening him would mean strengthening his ally/rival Hariri). Well, guess what? The pressure was too high on Hezbollah this time that the party’s minister in the cabinet Hussein Hajj Hassan said in a statement that “Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s remarks on the Saudi military intervention in Yemen at the Arab League summit two days ago do not represent the views of the Lebanese government”

But to be fair here, Salam’s pro-Saudi stance (even if discreet) is understandable. It was Saudi pressure that eventually brought Salam to the premiership in April 2013. This is why Hezbollah probably didn’t make a big deal out of it and chose to calm things down in the cabinet meeting.

Nabih Berri

Even Berri tried to distance himself and Amal as much as possible from the FM-Hezbollah clash over Yemen. Within 7 days, the speaker said he supported three things: (1) Oman’s efforts to solve the crisis (April 1), (2) himself hosting the Yemeni dialogue 😛  (April 5) and (3) moving forward with the FM-Hezbollah talks he’s mediating (April 8).

With Tammam Salam and Jumblatt pushed slightly/temporarily towards M14, Berri found himself in April as the new Kingmaker in the Lebanese centre. He wants to host the Yemeni dialogue, because solving the presidential crisis in Lebanon is so 2008.

The Three Blows

Hezbollah suffered three more blows this month. The first blow was when M8 politician Michel Samaha confessed on the 20th of April that he transported explosives (with support of Syrian regime officials) into Lebanon with the aim of targeting Lebanese politicians and religious figures. (Although deep down, and as I said three years ago, this could be a good thing for Hezbollah since it would give the impression that they had nothing to do with the assassinations of the M14 politicians, and that it was Syria via its operatives all the time)

The second blow was the mysterious death of Rustum Ghazali, Syria’s man in Lebanon from 2002 till the 2005 withdrawal. While his death doesn’t have direct or even indirect consequences on the Lebanese scene, Lebanese and Syrian politics are still interconnected and it was seen as victory for M14. And a victory for M14 is never a victory for M8.

And because it wasn’t yet the worst month for M8 since the beginning of time, the third blow came from The Maronite Patriarch who accused Aoun and his March 8 allies of being responsible for the presidential vacuum. That’s the most violent criticism coming from the Maronite church since August 2014.

Yemen and the Baabda Declaration

Also, in other news, Michel Sleiman indirectly declared his candidacy as a “consensual candidate” if all parties accept the Baabda declaration and distance themselves from outside conflicts (inspired from the Lebanese dilemma over Yemen). His reelection would be unconstitutional: Presidents can’t have two consecutive terms in Lebanon. But then again, he was elected unconstitutionally since grade one civil servants need a constitutional amendment to be elected ( something the parliament did not do when they elected him in 2008), so who cares.

If a former protector of the constitution gets elected unconstitutionally and wants to get reelected unconstitutionally, I really don’t know what to say.

Actually, I know what to say. I’ll just repeat what I said at the beginning of the post: Lebanon is a successful democratic sovereign free republic.

341 days since the 25th of May. 177 days since the 5th of November. 773 days till the next parliamentary elections. Just kidding. We’re never going to have elections again 😀

Also, 3 days since Salma Hayek came to Lebanon.

(This last sentence was an attempt to make this political blog more “social”)

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.