Lebanon should prepare for a different Syria


On Wednesday, Syria got a reprieve at the United Nations Security Council, when Russia, China and Lebanon opposed condemnation of the Syrian regime’s brutal repression of nationwide protests. But for all intents and purposes, President Bashar al-Assad has lost his legitimacy by unleashing security forces on unarmed civilians.

If discussion is stifled at the Security Council, it will find other paths. We can assume that the Assads will pursue their savagery. We can also assume that the Syrian upheaval will continue, since nothing is more degrading to a people than to be ruled over by a confederacy of thugs. In that case European states, perhaps even the United States, once the Obama administration reaches a conclusion about what it really wants to achieve in Syria, will take measures outside the confines of the United Nations, circumventing Russia and China.

Perhaps we shouldn’t blame the Lebanese for having played it safe. The country is hopelessly divided, and avoiding a problem is always more convenient than taking the morally defensible stance. However, Lebanon is as unprepared as ever for what looks like the certain disintegration, whether rapid or slow, of the Assad clique.

Every few days majority politicians assure us that a government will be formed soon, “if not Monday, then Thursday,” to borrow from the Lotto commercial. However, the prime minister-elect, Najib Mikati, had no incentive to form a government “of one color” two months ago, before the unrest in Syria began, and he has even less of one today. Mikati initially wagered on Syrian backing to counterbalance the troublesome embrace of Hezbollah and Michel Aoun. But with Bashar al-Assad preoccupied with crushing his own people, Mikati has had to recalculate, finding that doing nothing is the best decision.

Mikati was foolish to imagine that he could form a government against Saad Hariri and the Sunni majority. Now he realizes that all his options are bad, and so Lebanon is left paying a heavy price for his conceit. However, there is an irony here: Hariri probably welcomes sitting out of government while the storm hits in Syria. In other words, if Mikati were to step down and Michel Sleiman were to call for new parliamentary consultations, it is not at all certain that the acting prime minister would relish receiving a fresh mandate.

Amin Gemayel has proposed that a government that is non-aligned on regional conflicts be formed. The idea is worth considering, although it may be better to establish a government of national unity, ideally on the basis of a 10-10-10 distribution of power – split evenly between the March 8 parties and Aoun; Sleiman, Walid Jumblatt and Mikati; and the March 14 coalition. Better still, these three blocs could nominate technocrats to represent them. The government’s principal aim would be to fill the leadership vacuum, stabilize the situation on the ground, and move forward on the economic and administrative fronts, leaving more bothersome political issues for later on.

It won’t be easy, but Lebanon should begin preparing for the possibility of a post-Assad era in Syria. Above all, Hariri and his March 14 allies, along with Sleiman and those wedded to Lebanese state authority, should determine how to address the future of Hezbollah, which could emerge as the great loser if Assad falls. Yet the party will not disappear; indeed, it may become more dangerous if politically cornered. That’s why Hariri and his partners, as well as the president, must formulate a consensus position for the eventual neutralization of the divisive issue of Hezbollah’s weapons, when and if that becomes possible. Walid Jumblatt’s mediation, and even that of the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, may be useful in this regard.

The only realistic way to reassure Lebanon’s Shia if there is a leadership change in Damascus that undermines Hezbollah’s authority is to offer the community a quid pro quo: Hezbollah’s weapons in exchange for greater political power to the Shia in the context of the Taif Accord. The process would be complex; all communities would demand reassurances. But there is no alternative, if the sordid Baath order collapses in Syria, for Lebanon to renegotiate its social contract and reach agreement, once and for all, on Hezbollah’s arms, a cancer eating away at Lebanese concord.

As the Europeans and the US slowly maneuver into outright opposition to the Assad regime, which will become inevitable if the slaughter in Syria goes on, Lebanon should read the writing on the wall. There is nothing wrong with shielding the country from the tempests all around, as Gemayel has proposed; but it would be short-sighted not to prepare for the likely tempests in Beirut. Defenders of the state must consider participating in a national-unity cabinet, even as they lay the foundations for a political covenant that could absorb the political shockwaves from Syria.

Michael Young’s columns

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