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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

The formation of a Lebanese government continues on its long and grinding path

Hezbollah can see the wider regional implications of the process and is blocking Hariri at every turn

Journalists and supporters applaud Lebanese prime-minister-designate Saad Hariri in Beirut. Hariri accused Hezbollah of hindering the formation of a new government. AP/Hussein Malla
Journalists and supporters applaud Lebanese prime-minister-designate Saad Hariri in Beirut. Hariri accused Hezbollah of hindering the formation of a new government. AP/Hussein Malla

Lebanon’s government formation process is in jeopardy following a speech on Saturday by Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. In it, he doubled down on his condition that the new cabinet include what he called an “independent Sunni” minister. This minister, he added, had to come out of Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri’s ministerial share, not anyone else’s.

On Tuesday, Mr Hariri accused Hezbollah of seeking to block the government’s formation and affirmed that the party could not dictate to him whom to include in it. If Hezbollah was so adamant about an independent Sunni, he added, then it should name him from its own quota. Mr Hariri admitted he had no solution to the impasse, suggesting the ball was in Hezbollah’s court because, constitutionally, only the prime minister-designate and the president can form a government.

The last-minute condition, which came as Mr Hariri was preparing to finalise his cabinet line-up, appeared to be part of a broader effort by Hezbollah to humiliate the prime minister-designate and whittle away at the cabinet shares of the major parties who had made up the March 14 alliance opposed to Syria's regime. March 14 was formed after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, when popular demonstrations led to a Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s move followed the party’s successful military campaign in Syria. Having helped consolidate the regime of Bashar Al Assad, the party has sought to cash in on this politically at home, primarily by marginalizing those Lebanese political forces hostile to the Assad regime and Iran. While Hezbollah and its allies did relatively well in the parliamentary elections in May, the party has overstated its margin of victory to build more momentum against its political foes.

Hezbollah is pushing hard because it realises that the regional context is rapidly changing, and it wants to consolidate its gains as soon as possible. For one thing, recent US sanctions against Iran have constituted a challenge to the Iranian leadership, and the party wants to show that it holds strong cards of its own.

In wanting to be seen as capable of imposing its writ in Lebanon, Hezbollah intends to send a message that that it holds the country hostage. Ironically, Israel and its acolytes have echoed this idea, suggesting that Hezbollah and Lebanon are one, meaning there is no viable Lebanese opposition to Hezbollah. By taking such a line, Israel only helps ensure that it becomes a reality, playing into the party’s hands.

Equally important to Hezbollah is that its domination of the government sends a message to Russia and Turkey that their accord over Syria should not be interpreted as meaning that Iran has a secondary role in the Levant. Mr Hariri suggested recently that he would not deal with the Assad regime in the future, because as he put it, Syria was controlled by Russia. Therefore, it was preferable to talk to Moscow. This cannot have gone down well with Hezbollah, because Mr Hariri hinted that he may seek to use Russia to navigate between Iran and Syria.

That is why, while Hezbollah may not openly oppose Russia, it does want to underscore that its political rivals in Lebanon would be mistaken to regard Moscow as a potential counterweight to Syria and Iran. There is a growing perception that Tehran has overreached in the region and no longer has the financial means to pay for its expansionism. Iran’s manoeuvres in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, and that of its allies, are aimed at disproving such an assertion.

A third aim of Hezbollah is to be seen as a cross-sectarian actor, after years of sectarian behaviour in Syria, by insisting on an independent Sunni minister and maintaining its alliance with the Christian Free Patriotic Movement. But when the party set as a condition that Mr Hariri take on an independent Sunni in the cabinet, and the prime minister-designate refused, to Hezbollah’s displeasure the president of Lebanon, Michel Aoun, sided with him.

In the meantime, Gebran Bassil − the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, of which Mr Aoun is the founder − began a mediation effort to find a compromise. He held talks with Mr Nasrallah, which newspaper reports said were tense, because Hezbollah was angry with Mr Aoun’s decision to back Mr Hariri. Mr Bassil is trying to push for a solution, whereby a consensus Sunni candidate acceptable to Mr Hariri would be named − one who would come out of Mr Aoun’s ministerial quota, in exchange for which Mr Hariri would name a Christian minister.

Whatever the solution, it is unlikely that Mr Hariri will bend to Hezbollah’s will. Unless a compromise is found, he will withdraw from forming a government, which may even be what Hezbollah wants. In his remarks on Tuesday, Mr Hariri observed that Hezbollah’s blocking of the government was “bigger” than its insistence on an independent Sunni. He couldn’t have been more correct. The party sees the future Lebanese government as having regional implications, at a bad time for Iran.

Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut