Belmont Club

Lebanon in Crisis

The Lebanese government has fallen as Hezbollah withdraws after receiving information that it may be named responsible for the murder of Rafik Hariri by an international tribunal.

Lebanon’s year-old unity government collapsed Wednesday after Hezbollah ministers and their allies resigned over tensions stemming from a U.N.-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri went to France on receipt of the news after cutting short his trip in Washington. The Hariris are said to be close to some French leaders. Hariri may be gauging support in Western capitals before deciding on his next move.

The walkout followed the failure of a diplomatic push by Syria and Saudi Arabia to ease political tensions in Lebanon. There had been few details about the direction of the Syrian-Saudi initiative, but the talks were lauded as a potential Arab breakthrough, rather than a solution offered by Western powers.

Bassil said the ministers decided to resign after Hariri “succumbed to foreign and American pressures” and turned his back on the Syrian-Saudi efforts.

Calls to the tribunal seeking comment Wednesday were not immediately returned.

Hariri formed the current national unity government in November 2009, but it has struggled to function amid deep divisions. The crisis over the tribunal has paralyzed the government in recent months.

The crisis precipitated by the UN tribunal’s decision to name Hezbollah in the assassination — or rather Nasrallah’s decision to make it an issue — will determine whether the “international community” has picked a fight it can’t win or whether Hezbollah will force the worm to turn.

The fear factor generated by the US invasion of Iraq was partly what emboldened the Lebanese to stand up to the Syrians. It has since evaporated, replaced by the contrary feeling of helplessness created by the West’s inability to stand up to Iran or Hezbollah. If the West has truly choosen to beard Nasrallah in his den, it has picked the moment when its prestige is weakest. Hezbollah is unlikely to avoid the fight and in fact seems eager to precipitate a confrontation.

That suggests Nasrallah thinks the international tribunal is a bluff and he’s going to call it. That leaves the Western allies with the unhappy choice between raising the stakes or folding. What Hariri is probably seeking to discover in Paris is whether anyone will back his play in a crisis with Hezbollah.

One option for the West is to preemptively exculpate Hezbollah by announcing they are not considering any of its members as suspects. If this happens then Hariri may as well stay in France. The other option is for the West to make choices they have long been attempting to avoid.

The balance of probability is that the West will fold like a cheap suit. The international bureaucrats may have been deluded by their own propaganda into thinking international “legitimacy” and “tribunals” actually intimidate organizations like Hezbollah. But unlike countries like the United States, which bow and scrape before diplomats with fancy titles, organizations which rely on guns and C4 may not give a damn. Presenting Hezbollah with legal documents is like throwing baguettes at wolves. It doesn’t matter how good the baguettes are, the wolves aren’t interested. Now the diplomats are either going to have to mix it up with the wolves or throw them some red meat — and only the Lebanese are handy.

Supposing the West folds, the real problem is what happens afterward. If the semblance of stability and balance in Lebanon is lost then either Hezbollah effectively takes it over — creating a crisis that even the West can’t ignore — or it becomes wracked by instability, which may bring the Israelis in. The policy of buying time and hoping for the best is on the verge of failing. The West must either give Lebanon back to the Syrians — and to Iran, or make a play for it.

Although it is tempting to kick this can down the road one more time, it comes at the price of realizing that the fateful tin of beans is being booted into OK Corral, just down the street from the can’s present location, which is the Last Chance Saloon. If the West wants to go there, it should kick the can. Otherwise, it should tell Nasrallah to pick it up off the floor.


Link to Wretchard’s novel “No Way In” print edition
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