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    Middle East
     Jul 31, 2009
Smiles all round over Lebanon's cabinet
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - After much delay, it was announced in Beirut on Wednesday that Lebanon prime minister designate Saad Hariri had succeeded in creating a cabinet of national unity, which includes two members of Hezbollah.

Although official names have not yet been released, it is expected that the cabinet will be announced on August 1. Allies of Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, France and the United States will all be included in the Hariri cabinet. The breakthrough, many believe, is the direct result of improved relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia on one front, and Syria and the US on the other.

It comes only days after US President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell wrapped up a successful visit to Syria and an announcement that the US was lifting certain sanctions

 

imposed on Damascus by the former George W Bush administration in 2004.

This week, Mitchell met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and described the talks as "positive". On the same day, US State Department spokesman Andrew J Laine said that the US had decided to exempt Syria from sanctions "related to information technology and telecommunications equipment and parts and components related to safety of civil aviation".

Talk of reducing sanctions as a prelude to improved Syrian-US relations had been in the air for months. The US took the lead in June by announcing it was going to send an ambassador to Damascus to fill a post that has been vacant, on Bush's orders, since 2005.

Now comes a breakthrough in Lebanon that pleases the US. The 39-year-old Hariri was absolutely determined to create a cabinet. This is his first attempt at the premiership, and like any other ambitious politician he did not want to fail.

Declining an offer by President Michel Suleiman would have been catastrophic for his political career, as would failure to get all parties onboard because without Hezbollah, the cabinet would have been doomed to fail from day one.

For a month, Hariri failed to get Hezbollah involved because of the controversial veto power they were seeking in government. The Hezbollah-led opposition, which controls 57 seats in parliament, was asking for a "blocking third" veto power, which would give it the right to obstruct sensitive legislation, especially that related to Hezbollah’s arms, and the international tribunal created to handle the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut in 2005.

Sources in Hariri's pro-Western March 14 Coalition blamed Hezbollah for the stalemate, with some even claiming that since the opposition did not have a majority in parliament, it was not entitled to veto power in the next cabinet.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah came out last Friday, denying that the "blocking third dilemma" was behind the delay in creating the cabinet. But in reality, Hezbollah was worried at the prospect of a renewed crisis with Hariri, especially after an article appeared in a German publication two months ago bluntly saying that Hezbollah members were involved in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Saad's father.

Saad Hariri and his team tried in 2006-2007 to challenge Hezbollah's arms, claiming that they wanted to impose United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 of 2004 which, among other things, calls for the "disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias".

Nasrallah even accused Hariri, right after the Hezbollah-Israeli war of 2006, of having encouraged the US and Israel to carry on with its war on Lebanon, with the aim of annihilating the Lebanese resistance. At one point, in May 2008, Hezbollah even clashed militarily with members of March 14 on the streets of Beirut. This was the result of a failed attempt by prime minister Fouad al-Siniora to dismantle the party's telecommunications network at Beirut International Airport.

With these worries in mind, it was only natural that they would demand a blocking third authority in any cabinet, taking into account that they had walked out on the Siniora cabinet in 2007, precisely because they did not have the necessary power to obstruct legislation that they saw as harmful to the party's political and military future.

The blocking third problem has now been solved creatively, with maximum face-saving for Saad Hariri. All parties now agree that Hariri's team will get 15 seats in the new cabinet, 10 will go to the opposition and the independent President Michel Suleiman will name five. The president will get to name the ministers of defense and interior, along with three ministers of state, who will be a Sunni, a Shi'ite and a Christian.

By consensus, it is now agreed that the opposition will get to choose the Shi'ite minister of the president's bloc. Meaning, the opposition will technically have only 10 seats, but effectively 11 ministers will be under its command. Eleven ministers would actually mean that Hezbollah's team has the blocking third, as long as its relationship remains strong to Suleiman. By all accounts, this is a breakthrough for Hezbollah, which now scores yet another victory in the Lebanese political system.

Shi'ite portfolios in the Hariri cabinet will be divided accordingly between two pro-Syrian parties: Hezbollah, which gets to name two ministers, and Amal, which gets a total of three. Amal has already chosen the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Health and Industry. Hezbollah is yet to name its ministers. Five Sunni seats will go to Hariri's team, and three will go to Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, which include the Ministry of Information.

Prince Talal Arslan, a protege of Hezbollah and a Druze heavyweight in his own right, has been dropped from the cabinet by consensus between Hezbollah and March 14. Ziad Baroud, a Maronite, gets to keep his job as minister of interior - after doing a great job, by all accounts - at securing safe parliamentary elections in June.

Elias al-Murr, a Roman Orthodox, also gets to stay as minister of defense. Hariri will have important portfolios like Economy, Education, Culture and Justice. Samir Gagegea, a Christian heavyweight in March 14 who is loudly critical of Hezbollah, gets to name two ministers, an Orthodox as minister of public works and a Maronite as minister of social affairs. His counterpart in the March 14 Coalition, ex-president Amin Gemayel, gets two posts for the Lebanese Phalange, and likely names include his son, member of parliament Sami Gemayel.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri attributed the breakthrough in Lebanon to Syrian-Saudi rapprochement, which he calls the S-S factor. Earlier in the year, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem visited Riyadh and agreed to work out a formula in Lebanon with his Saudi counterpart, Saud al-Faisal. The results of the parliamentary elections on June 7 played out in favor of the Syrian-Saudi rapprochement.

So did increased dialogue between the US and Syria, which means there was no real reason for the Saudis to continue not talking to the Syrians. Syria got the upper hand when Hamas was not wiped out in Gaza last December, which meant that world powers wanting to find solutions in the Arab-Israeli conflict had to come knocking on the doors of Damascus, due to its excellent relationship with Hamas.

Obama's gradual disengagement from Iraq was an additional reason for the Syrians and Saudis to cooperate, since they had similar agendas for the future of Baghdad. When the Syrians and Saudis cooperate, they can bring calm to the Sunni districts of Iraq, which plays out nicely in Obama's favor.

They only reason they had failed to see so much common ground on Iraq was due to disagreements on Lebanon. With Hariri firmly in power, and Hezbollah getting the veto power it has always wanted, the era of Syrian-Saudi disagreement is seemingly now history. Observers now expect a visit by Saudi King Abdullah to Damascus, where he will be accompanied by Saad Hariri, bringing all regional disagreements from the Bush era to a grinding halt.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


Hezbollah stalls Syrian-Saudi detente (Jul 25, '09)

Lebanon’s voters sideline US fears
(Jun 11, '09)

 

 
 



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