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Mr. Hariri goes to Washington

By Dr Magnus Norell, Infosphere AB

When Lebanese Premier Saad Hariri met US President Obama on Monday May 24, it was the first time Mr. Hariri came to Washington as Premier and the first time he met President Obama. During the Bush administration, Saad Hariri had been a rather frequent visitor to the White House, as the leader of the US-backed March 14 coalition and as a key personality in the so-called 'Cedar Revolution', the Lebanese movement grown out of the assassination of Saads's father, former Premier Rafik Hariri. A movement which ultimately forced out the Syrian occupation forces from Lebanon.

Since the election in June last year (when Hariri's March 14 coalition retained power by a rather large margin – march 14 won 71 of 128 seats in parliament – Hariri's fortunes has changed considerable. Despite winning the elections, Hariri was forced (after 5 months) to accede to the Hizb'allah-led and Syrian-supported opposition forces and had to admit Hizb'allah into the cabinet, giving them a ”blocking third” position (one-third-plus-one cabinet seats) and effective veto power over any major  government initiative. With Hizb'allah still on the US FTO-list, the meeting in Washington had a white elephant in the room in the form of the Shi'ite militia.

The decision by Hariri to include Hizb'allah, effectively marks the logical end of a process that began with the assassination of Rafik Hariri in February 2005. At the time, that murder (by Syria) led to a movement and a liberal tide that forced the Syrian army out (although Syria kept their security and Intelligence assets in Lebanon) and seemed to herald a new beginning in Lebanon, where the Islamists in Hizb'allah and their backer in Syria and Iran, seemed to loose ground to the west-leaning liberals and reformist in the march-14 movement. That trend has since been reversed with Syria and Iran (through Hizb'allah) having been able to block any comprehensive change and serious challenge to continued Syrian hegemony in Lebanon. At the same time, this period have seen the disintegration of the March 14 coalition, with both Hariri and another key individual in the coalition – Druze leader Walid  Jumblatt – having to bow to Syria. And to a very large extent, this development was made possible by a far too lenient West, whose support Hariri and his allies were banking on to strengthen their bid for political change. Instead, an unintended consequence of President Obama's engagement policy  towards both Syria and Iran, has given these two allies an opportunity to regain (and retain) influence in Lebanon. The recent statement from President Obama's chief counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, that Hizb'allah contains “moderate elements” of interest to the US also plays into the hands of those who are happy to keep Lebanon well within the Syrian-Iranian orbit of influence.

Premier Hariri has been forced to accept hizb'allah and its take on the “resistance” (towards Israel) and is therefore in no position to give a lot to the US. But with Lebanon presently charing the UNSC, Lebanon has a potentially important role when the Iranian sanction-bill comes up for voting. The US will demand that Lebanon at least abstain from voting (that Lebanon should actually vote in favor of the sanctions-bill is completely out of the question, considering the position of Hizb'allah and its support for Iran).

In any event, the reversal of Hariri's fortunes over the last year, give ample proof of how important outside help can be for the liberal and democratic forces of Lebanon. And, what's more, how essential that kind of outside support is to give these democratic forces enough punch to withstand the counter-forces in Syria and Iran. When that support is lacking, or at least is too timid, the authoritarian and undemocratic forces in Lebanon (and their allies outside of Lebanon) will win. The sad thing is that for all its good-willed intention of wooing Syria away from Iran, that policy will not yield any positive results for the US. Syria is strong and a regional player because its alliance with Iran. That the present regime in Damascus would give up that very ingredient that make it strong and influential is of course a pipe-dream. Thus, it is hard to see right now how the West (mainly the US and some of the more important EU-actors, such as France and the UK) can be of any real help to the embattled Hariri.


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