(CNSNews.com) – Lebanon’s opposition movement accuses Syrian President Bashar Assad of having a hand in the formation of the new Hezbollah-dominated government in Beirut, timed to his advantage as he confronts an anti-government rebellion at home.
The new government, led by a Hezbollah-endorsed prime minister and with Hezbollah and its allies enjoying a majority in the cabinet (18 out of 30 seats), came into being last week, after five months of wrangling among different factions vying for ministries and influence.
The Obama administration has responded cautiously to the situation. In an echo of its “wait and see” approach to the inclusion of Hamas in a Palestinian unity government, the State Department says the administration will “wait and let the process play itself out” in Lebanon.
Damascus (along with Tehran) has long been Hezbollah’s ally and supplier, and analysts expect Assad’s future – whether the uprising leads to his ousting or is definitively crushed – to have a significant impact on political dynamics in Lebanon.
The U.S.-backed Sunni former prime minister, Saad Hariri, has been out of the country for several months – for his own safety, say political allies – but his March 14 bloc, now in opposition, after a meeting Wednesday described the formation of the new cabinet as a coordinated “coup” staged by Hezbollah and the Assad regime, rather than a “constitutional, democratic rotation of power.”
The statement tied the development to Assad’s domestic troubles, calling it an attempt by Damascus “to link Lebanon’s fate with its fate.”
American Enterprise Institute research analyst Katherine Faley noted that Assad had congratulated Lebanon on the formation of the cabinet “with suspicious alacrity” last week.
“Hezbollah’s political rise is a huge boon not only for Assad but also for the organization’s main financial supporter, Iran,” she wrote.
(Iran was also quick to congratulate Mikati, with Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi characterizing the move as a victory against Israel, and pledging Tehran’s readiness to comprehensively strengthen bilateral ties.)
Hezbollah’s close ties to Assad prompted it to vocally support the Syrian regime during the protests that erupted last March, in contrast to Hezbollah’s backing for anti-government movements in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain.
An article on the Hezbollah Web site argues that the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia are aimed at overthrowing U.S.-backed oppressors, while the turmoil in Syria is part of a U.S. plan to transform Syria into a country that supports “the resistance” (that is, Hezbollah) to one that opposes it, to the benefit of Israel.
Adding to tensions in Lebanon is the looming announcement of indictments by the tribunal investigating the region’s most politically explosive assassination. Hezbollah and the Assad regime have both been implicated in probes into the 2005 car bombing that killed Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and 22 others on Beirut’s seafront.
Hezbollah and Syria both deny involvement and have sought to discredit the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), accusing it of bias and of being part of a “Zionist” plot.
One of the daunting challenges facing new Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati is the drafting of the customary incoming government’s “policy statement,” which will tackle the sensitive issue of how the government deals with the Netherlands-based STL and responds to its indictments.
Lebanon has pledged through binding agreements to cooperate with the STL and to put up 49 percent of its costs, with the rest coming from “the international community.” Disputes over those commitments brought down the last government, headed by Saad Hariri, early this year.
Leaks reported in Lebanese media suggest that STL judges, who have been considering a prosecutor’s indictments since January, could take next steps in late June or shortly thereafter. Previous speculation has proven wrong, however, and the STL itself is not commenting.
Once the indictments are handed down, Lebanon is obliged to arrest those named. Hezbollah has vowed neither to do so nor to approve any funding for the tribunal. If the government fails to cooperate the U.N. Security Council – of which Lebanon happens to be a member until the end of 2011 – would have to respond.
Set up with Iran’s assistance in the early 1980s, Hezbollah operates today both as a political party and an armed militia whose continued existence violates U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The U.S. has listed it as a “foreign terrorist organization” ever since the FTO designation was first established under 1996 legislation. Its deadliest attacks included suicide bombings in Beirut in 1983 which killed more than 300 people, including 241 U.S. servicemen and 58 French troops.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in response to the formation of the Hezbollah-dominated cabinet that the administration wanted to “let the process play itself out” and see what emerges.
The new government would be expected to abide by the Lebanese constitution, renounce violence, cooperate with the STL and uphold relevant Security Council resolutions, he added.
Two of those resolutions require Hezbollah to disarm: resolution 1559 of 2004 calls for “the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias,” a call reinforced in resolution 1701 of 2006, which requires “the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon, so that … there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese state.”
U.S. Rep. Howard Berman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has introduced a bill designed to ensure that “that no U.S. taxpayer funds benefit the terrorist organization Hezbollah or any party that allies itself with Hezbollah.”
Co-sponsored by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Charles Boustany (R-La.) and Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) – all of Lebanese descent – the Hezbollah Anti-Terrorism Act was referred last Thursday to the Foreign Affairs and Financial Services committees.
Boustany said he had “grave concerns about the composition of the Lebanese cabinet and the direction they may take the country,” while Issa described Hezbollah as “a cancer on Lebanon.”
The bill would prohibit U.S. assistance to a government in which Hezbollah is part of the majority coalition, unless the president certifies either that Hezbollah has ended support for terrorism, renounced violence and disarmed; or that the government “has made demonstrable progress toward dismantling all Hezbollah terrorist and military infrastructure” and taken other steps including bringing wanted terrorists to justice.
Humanitarian aid, assistance for democracy-building and education, as well as International Military Education and Training (IMET) funding are excluded.