New Middle East: Rival Lebanese Factions Gearing Up for Day After Assad's Downfall

If a new Damascus government chooses to turn its back on Iran, the Shiite country will do its utmost to keep Lebanon in its sphere of influence.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned this week that if the UN refugee agency ‏UNHCR‏ does not receive more assistance, there will be no money left in the organization’s coffers next month to distribute food to refugees in Lebanon.

Some 400,000 Syrians, about a tenth of the entire Lebanese population, are refugees. They seek shelter anywhere they can, squatting in schools and backyards, taking up residence in tent camps, even sleeping among the shadows of building frames.

These refugees have become an intolerable financial burden for a country that is already experiencing tremendous economic difficulties. Reports of violence, illness, lice, the trafficking of women for prostitution − these are an integral part of the ongoing story in Lebanon, alongside the daily threat that Syria’s civil war will spill over into Lebanese territory.

Although the donor nations have promised contributions totaling $1.5 billion to the United Nations, only $400 million has arrived − and the money is quickly running out. Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are aiding the refugees in Lebanon, but the sums they send are small compared to those being sent to Jordan. These countries prefer to finance arms purchases for the Syrian rebels, rather than providing major humanitarian assistance.

This week, for example, it was reported that the rebels used money received from the Qatari embassy in Beirut to purchase ammunition and hundreds of weapons in the Palestinian refugee camps, where there are large caches of weapons for self-defense left over from the first Lebanon war.

The paradox is that while Sunni refugees are flooding Lebanon, Hezbollah continues to fight alongside the army of the Syrian regime, and is even responsible for security in several Damascus neighborhoods. The Free Syrian Army, which threatens to strike at Hezbollah fighters − and is actually following through on its threats − is thereby placing the Syrian refugees in Lebanon in real danger of being attacked by members of Hezbollah.

Mired in turmoil, Lebanon is now beginning to embark on one of its most important political battles to date, one that is liable to determine not only the nature of its government and parliament, but also to establish which countries will influence its future. Will it be Iran, or Saudi Arabia and Qatar?

In two months, Lebanon is scheduled to hold a parliamentary election, but it still cannot agree on an electoral law to replace the existing one. And though it has an acting prime minister, it still has no government to lay the ground for the election. The primary change in the present election is that, for the first time, the vote will take place without Syrian sponsorship, and is therefore seen by both Iran and Saudi Arabia as an arena of competition now that they are anticipating the downfall of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Last month, the Sunni Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a wealthy businessman and banker, resigned over the government’s refusal to extend the term of Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, the chief of the internal security forces, and over the lack of consensus about a new electoral law. Rifi, who exposed Syria’s involvement in plans to attack important ethnic sites in Lebanon − to demonstrate its ability to “set the country on fire,” as Assad threatened − is considered close to the March 14 alliance, a coalition of political parties unitied by their anti-Syrian regime stance. The main force in the coalition is headed by the Al-Mustaqbal movement of Saad al-Hariri, the son of the late Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005.

Rifi is also considered an experienced professional who is quite familiar with the situation in the Sunni city of Tripoli, where violent clashes erupted between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Prime Minister Mikati believes that it would be a mistake to allow Rifi to retire just when Lebanon is on the verge of a civil war, or at least a war between refugees and citizens.

Hezbollah, which controls every bastion of power with the exception of internal security, saw Rifi as a rival who needed to be removed. It was Rifi’s removal that also led to Mikati’s resignation. Appointing a replacement for the resigning prime minister should have been the subject of an intense political struggle, as is typical in Lebanon. Surprisingly, though, a 68-year-old Sunni, Tammam Salam, has received the overwhelming support of 124 ‏(out of 128‏) MPs to become prime minister. Hezbollah, Hariri, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United States and Russia all sent congratulatory telegrams to the new prime minister wishing him success.

Close ties with Nasrallah

Salam is not new to politics. He is the scion of one of the important and deeply rooted families in Lebanon, the son of former Prime Minister Saeb Salam and grandson of a political leader who served in high-ranking positions during the Ottoman Empire period. He served as minister of culture in the government of Fouad Siniora, Hezbollah’s bitter enemy, but has close ties with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. He opposed Syrian control of Lebanon but made sure to maintain strong ties with members of the Syrian government.

On the eve of his appointment this week, he flew to Saudi Arabia in Hariri’s private plane, in order to meet with Hariri and Bandar bin Sultan, the head of Saudi intelligence. However, he also met with the Iranian ambassador to Lebanon and requested “Iran’s assistance to help Lebanon achieve its goals.” One of the important goals he mentioned is “to strengthen the opposition to Israel.” In addition, Salam declared that “as long as Hezbollah’s weapons are aimed at Israel, it’s legitimate.” In doing so, he reassured the organization that there won’t be a renewed discussion about disarming it.

Salam hastened to add that “the decision about war or peace will be in the hands of the country,” a clear hint to Hezbollah not to heat up the border with Israel. The Lebanese media quickly interpreted the visit to Riyadh as “Saudi Arabia’s return to the Lebanese arena, after it was totally controlled by Syria and Iran.” In fact, the question that is as yet unanswered is why Iran agreed to Salam’s appointment, in spite of his close ties with Saudi Arabia and the March 14 group ‏(Hezbollah’s rival‏).

One assumption is that Iran is preparing itself for Assad’s downfall and the possibility that it will be unable to use Syria as a proxy to intervene in Lebanese politics. With Assad’s downfall and the chance that he will be replaced by a Sunni government − perhaps a radical religious one − Lebanon will be Iran’s most important political stronghold in the Middle East. Iran will therefore aspire be reach a political consensus in Lebanon, in which Hezbollah will have the ability to threaten and to influence, but without dragging the organization ‏(that operates on Iran’s behalf‏) into a violent struggle in which it will be unable to rely on Syrian logistical and military support.

That is the reason for the importance of the election. Or, to be more precise, of an electoral law that will ensure that the coalition of Hezbollah and Maronite Christian Michel Aoun will retain its power. The existing law largely guaranteed the organization’s political power, but various proposals threaten to undermine the consensual balance and to alter it in favor of the Sunnis or a Christian-Sunni partnership. All this in a situation in which Syria can no longer exercise its power, threaten candidates or threaten sanctions against Lebanon, as it has done in the past.

The assessment at present is that the election is likely to be postponed so there will be time to reach an agreement about an electoral law. The question is by how long the election will be postponed, whether it will be a “technical” postponement for half a year, or a long-term postponement that is liable to drag Lebanon down into an exhausting internal battle from which the shaky economy will also be unable to recover.

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