The Lebanese Powder Keg
By: Stratfor.comNovember 20, 2007
Lebanon's fractured government has until Nov. 23 to elect a new president that is acceptable to both the pro-Syrian Hezbollah-led opposition and the pro-West March 14 coalition. With no compromise in sight, Hezbollah and its Syrian allies are readying plans to set up a shadow government in Beirut. Even by Lebanese standards, this is one political crisis that has the potential to plunge the country into all sorts of craziness.

Emile Lahoud's term as Lebanon's president expires Nov. 23. Under the country's constitution, the government has until that date to elect a new Christian president.

There are a few not-so-minor problems with this state of affairs, however. First and foremost, it must be remembered that this is Lebanon, where legalities do not generally take precedence in the political system. Hezbollah and its allies in the Shiite Amal Movement and Michel Aoun's Christian faction already have boycotted the government. Technically speaking, the pro-West faction led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora can elect a new president on its own through a very narrow, simple majority. But without the votes of Hezbollah and its allies, the election of the new president easily can be labeled illegitimate and illegal by a sizable political force in the country.

There are weighty issues at stake in this election, particularly for Syria. The Syrians steadily have reasserted their presence in Lebanon since the government was forced to withdraw its troops from the country in the wake of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Naturally, the Syrian regime wants to ensure that the new president-who must be a Maronite Christian, according to the constitution-is amenable, to say the least, to serving Syrian interests in Lebanon. At the same time, Syria's militant proxy, Hezbollah, is seeking to expand its political presence in the government and ensure that it faces no long-term threats to its survival as a movement.

The Siniora-led March 14 alliance, however, is on an entirely different page. This coalition is being heavily backed by the U.S., French and Saudi governments to counter Hezbollah and keep a tight rein on Syrian and Iranian influence in Lebanon. Though diplomats from the region, the United States, Europe and Russia have been flying in and out of Beirut in an effort to come up with the ultimate political resolution, the feuding factions are nowhere near a compromise, with only four days left until Lahoud's term expires.

Hezbollah and Syria essentially have drawn a red line. If a compromise cannot be reached and the Siniora-led faction calls a special session of parliament to elect its preferred candidate independently, plans likely will be activated to set up a shadow government in Beirut.

According to sources in the city, a security meeting recently took place between Syrian officials and Hezbollah to go over these contingency plans at the residence of Hussein Khalil, Hezbollah's political consultant, in the eastern Baalbek region. The plan that was agreed on involves the occupation of 20 ministries and public institutions in the greater Beirut area by a combined military-civilian force provided by Hezbollah. It also calls for storming the Sarai, the headquarters of the prime minister, and reopening by force the coastal highway between Beirut and Sidon, as well as the Damascus highway-both of which lie within the Druze stronghold of Walid Jumblatt, who is allied with the anti-Syrian March 14 alliance. Controlling these key highways is central to Hezbollah's plans to set up a rival government. The Damascus highway links Hezbollah strongholds in the central and northern Bekaa Valley with Beirut's southern suburbs, while the coastal highway between Beirut and Sidon connects Hezbollah bases in the South with Beirut's southern suburbs.

Occupying ministries by force undoubtedly will be a complicated affair if this plan actually goes into effect. By law, the Lebanese army would have to step in to defend these institutions. But here again we have another problem, in that Lebanon's army already is deeply fractured and lacks the will to stand up to civilian protesters, much less to Hezbollah. Moreover, nearly half the army is comprised of Shia who will not necessarily go against their patrons in Hezbollah. Any foreign force that even attempts to intervene in such a scenario very rapidly will become bogged down in a domestic fight in which Hezbollah most likely will take the upper hand.

This plan by Hezbollah has long been in the making. Recently, Hezbollah replaced the party official in charge of the sit-in protest camps in downtown Beirut. While Hezbollah circulated rumors that the official was replaced because several of its members were caught smoking hashish in the downtown camp, the real reason was to prepare Hezbollah operatives for the coming confrontation by inserting a strong officer capable of mobilizing the group's human resources in downtown Beirut. Recruiting and training efforts by Hezbollah also have picked up speed in recent months, with hundreds of men from the militias of Lebanese opposition groups undergoing training in the area of Wadi al-Nabi, between the villages of Brital and Hour Taala in the Bekaa Valley.

There is no guarantee-as of yet-that Hezbollah's plan will be activated. After all, Syria traditionally plays politics in Lebanon via car bombings. If Damascus wants to deprive the March 14 alliance of its slim majority in parliament, it can take out another parliamentarian as a stopgap measure. There also is the possibility that Lahoud will appoint Lebanon's army chief, Michel Suleiman, to run the country in order to prevent Siniora's government from taking over. Suleiman has been singing a pro-Syrian tune in the past few months, making this a potentially viable option for Damascus.

In any case, the situation is turning explosive, even by Lebanese standards. The conflict will not be confined to Lebanon, either. The Iranians, the Syrians, the Americans, the French, the Saudis, the Jordanians and even the Turks will in a variety of ways become entangled in this crisis as the country further destabilizes. For a country whose government was designed to rule by consensus, the probability of a consensus candidate getting elected in the next few days is dangerously low, bringing Lebanon even closer to the dark days of civil war.

Stratfor is a private intelligence company delivering in-depth analysis, assessments and forecasts on global geopolitical, economic, security and public policy issues. A variety of subscription-based access, free intelligence reports and confidential consulting are available for individuals and corporations.

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