x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Lebanon: political crisis looms, but no war

After a stormy week filled with violence, Lebanon remains split on Syria, but not on the brink of war, observers claim. Analysis by Rima Abushakra

BEIRUT // With civil war raging in Syria, Lebanon's political and religious factions will remain powerless to tackle the schism running through the country, analysts say.

That schism widened last week with the assassination of Wissam Al Hassan, an intelligence chief in Beirut.

The anti-Syrian March 14 opposition blamed Bashar Al Assad's regime for the car bombing in the Achrafiyeh district that also killed three others last Friday. They called for the immediate resignation of Lebanon's prime minister, Najib Mikati.

In the days that followed, protesters attempted to storm government headquarters and the Lebanese army had to quell the violence in predominantly Sunni areas of the country.

The premier and Michel Suleiman, the president, both came to office in a consensus between the Hizbollah-led March 8 coalition, which holds the cabinet majority over March 14.

Mr Mikati announced on Tuesday that he would be going to Mecca for a pilgrimage over the Eid holiday.

He had offered to resign but stayed in his position at the president's request.

Without any perceived neutral figures who could take over the premiership, there is widespread speculation that Mr Mikati will remain prime minister.

As Lebanon is inextricably linked to developments across the border, Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at the Middle East programme at London's Chatham House, said that Lebanese political division "cannot be fixed before the outcome in Syria is clear".

"The Lebanese are divided over the Syrian question," said Mr Shehadi.

"You have a pro-Syrian government, which came to power in 2011 with some coercion just before the Syrian crisis erupted. It doesn't hold anymore."

Syria maintained a decades-long military presence in Lebanon until its 2005 withdrawal and still wields significant political influence.

The information branch headed by Al Hassan was established in the aftermath of the assassination of former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, in 2005. It was widely believed Syria had a hand in each of Lebanon's existing security institutions.

The branch received sophisticated training from western governments and co-operated with forensic teams investigating the Hariri killing and other political assassinations.

In August, the information branch foiled a Syrian plot to create mayhem in Lebanon culminating when Michel Samaha was arrested, a former information minister.

"This can all be seen as a process of transition away from Syrian infiltration and control that began in 2005. These incidents are quite normal in the course of a political transition," Mr Shehadi said.

Mr Mikati's government has officially adopted a policy of disengagement in Syria's conflict.

Mr Shehadi said this "position is no longer tenable".

Both Mr Suleiman and Mr Mikati made statements indirectly implicating Syria in Al Hassan's killing, suggesting a political shift among those perceived as neutral in government.

While many media outlets characterised the weekend's events as a spillover from Syria and described the scenes as reminiscent of Lebanon's 16-year civil war, which ended in 1990, observers maintain that a conflict in Lebanon is unlikely.

A political crisis in the halls of government rather than street warfare is the most likely outcome.

"Things have calmed down now. We may see incidents now and again, but not more," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.

"It is still conjectural, but there is talk of a possible cabinet reshuffle. It is complicated. It may or may not happen," he added.

A member of parliament agreed.

"Civil war doesn't happen overnight. It requires mobilisation and a sustained flow of arms on both sides. That is not happening in Lebanon right now," the MP said.

Sporadic bouts of instability seem to be taking their toll on the Lebanese, known for their passion for politics. Turn-outs at political rallies have been smaller and disappointment in political leaders has become the prevailing sentiment.

"The politicians have forgotten Achrafiyeh and the catastrophe that happened. All they're focusing on is taking or protecting their [cabinet] seats," said small business owner, Sura Suleiman.

"No one cares about those who lost their homes and all the had. They just care about their game of chairs and they have forgotten the nation."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae