Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Mark MacKinnon, "Lebanon on brink of crisis," Globe and Mail, November 11, 2006.

Beirut -- Lebanon was perched on the edge of a dangerous new precipice last night as pro-Western and pro-Syrian factions were locked in a political standoff, with both sides threatening to call their supporters into the streets.

The crisis, which has been growing ever since the summer war between Israel and the Hezbollah militia, threatens to further destabilize a region still reeling from that conflict and to advance a possible confrontation between the United States on one hand and Syria and Iran on the other.

The fault lines widened yesterday with the resignation of a sixth cabinet minister from the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

A group calling itself "al-Qaeda in Lebanon" added to the tension by threatening attacks against Mr. Siniora's government.

The six ministers, allies of Hezbollah and the Syrian-backed President Emile Lahoud, quit in a 48-hour span to reinforce demands that Mr. Siniora's pro-Western government concede more cabinet positions to Hezbollah.

"There's a standoff and there's no third party or mediator inside or outside the country who can break the deadlock," said Karim Makdisi, a professor of political science at the American University in Beirut. "It makes for very, very tense times."

Fears were high, he said, that any street demonstrations could turn violent, a worrisome possibility in a deeply divided society that's still recovering from a 1975-1990 civil war that was fought along sectarian lines.

Many see the crisis as a faceoff not only between Lebanese factions, but between their foreign sponsors. Hezbollah and Mr. Lahoud are backed by Syria and Iran, while Mr. Siniora's government is supported by the United States, France and Saudi Arabia.

The White House, in particular, has held up Mr. Siniora's government as an example of what it calls the "new Middle East," though it is seen as having deserted Lebanon during the month-long Israeli assault this summer.

"It's a regional war being played out in Lebanon," sighed Farid Chedid, an independent political analyst. "The Lebanese have everything to lose, but it seems the situation is not in their hands. Everything is attached to external strings: Iran, Syria, the U.S., France, even Israel."

Hezbollah says it wants the extra cabinet positions in order to force through changes to the outdated country's electoral system, which gives Christians, who once made up 50 per cent of the population, half the seats in parliament, with the rest divided between the country's Druze, Sunni and Shia Muslim communities.

Though no census has been done since 1932, Muslims now make up a clear majority, and Shiites are widely believed to be the largest group.

However, Mr. Siniora's governing block -- made up of Christian, Druze and Sunni Muslim politicians -- says the real reason Hezbollah and its allies left the government is to block the establishment of an international tribunal into the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

It's a flashpoint issue neither side is likely to budge on. Interim reports filed by United Nations investigators suggested that the popular ex-premier's killing was planned in Damascus. Mr. Lahoud was specifically named in documents handed to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as having had contacts with key suspects in the killing.

Syria, which denies any involvement in the killing, and Iran see the tribunal as a U.S. -led effort to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime from power and seem prepared to use Hezbollah's clout in Lebanon to block its formation.

Mr. Siniora, a lifelong friend of Mr. Hariri's, is expected to nonetheless press the matter forward. The governing coalition is headed by Mr. Hariri's son, Saad, who believes Syria was behind his father's death and who warned recently of "an Iranian-Syrian coup to stop the formation of an international court."

The remaining members of Mr. Siniora's government yesterday pushed through laws setting the framework for the tribunal, though Mr. Lahoud has said the government is no longer legitimate without Shia representation. Analysts say the next move is Hezbollah's.

"The question is who's going to break, who's going to react to small things like a bomb here, a bomb there," said Prof. Makdisi, who predicted low-level violence as the two sides engage in a test of nerves.

"I'm hoping that at some point, having gone through the civil war, somebody will come to their senses. But right now, there's nothing positive happening."
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