My piece on ABC’s Unleashed:
Lebanon’s national unity government collapsed last week following the resignation of Hezballah and its allies in protest at a controversial UN investigation into former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri’s assassination in 2005.
Deposed Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain former premier, and his Western-backed March 14 coalition have refused Hezballah’s demands to end co-operation with the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is expected to indict Hezballah members.
The crisis has spurred regional powers into action, aimed at preventing the troubled tiny Arab country from relapsing into civil war.
Regional talks have hit a snag, however, as Saudi Arabia – a key player in Lebanon – announced in frustration its withdrawal from negotiations this week.
Nevertheless, the emergence of new regional players signals a clear decline of US influence in a region where it once held exclusive hegemony.
It is not only the typical arch nemeses of Iran and Syria that are challenging the US in the Middle East, but friendly states in Turkey and Qatar that are becoming increasingly assertive on the regional arena.
The Turkish alternative
Turkey, in particular, has in recent years distanced itself from Washington in its Middle Eastern approach. Gone are the days when Ankara turned a cold shoulder to its east. Turkey is today asserting its own agenda in the region that is visibly independent of American interests.
The Turks – a NATO ally – have refused to take sides in the regional battle for influence between the US and Iran, and instead have pursued friendly relations with Tehran and continue to conduct trade and business with a country under increased US sanctions.
The rise of a Turkish, democratic and Sunni alternative to the US and Iran is proving to be increasingly popular among ordinary Arabs resentful towards American and Israeli regional hegemony, and wary of Iran’s intentions.
Public and vocal condemnations of Israeli policies in Palestine have made Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan among the most popular figures in the Arab world.
Turkey’s drive to the forefront of regional politics has pushed long-time Arab Sunni powers, and key American allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt out of the spotlight.
Many Lebanese analysts – as well as Hezballah leader Hassan Nasrallah – blamed the US for scuttling months-long Saudi-Syrian efforts to prevent the current crisis from occurring. Washington’s refusal to play ball would have infuriated its Saudi allies after Riyadh reportedly reached an agreement with Damascus and local Lebanese factions.
Obama’s failing Lebanon policy
Entrenched in a regional contest with Iran, the Obama administration has inherited Bush’s legacy of a divided, tense Lebanon.
The neoconservative Bush administration included Lebanon in its plan to transform the region into a New Middle East. Bush sought to expel Syrian and Iranian influence from the country – a feat the US already failed to accomplish in the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War – and destroy Hezballah.
The Israeli onslaught of 2006 failed to achieve the key goal of eradicating Hezballah. To the contrary, Bush’s confrontational policies in Lebanon only empowered Hezballah, with Iran enjoying unprecedented levels of influence in the country.
American scholar and expert on Syria Joshua Landis accurately writes that “President Obama finds himself trapped in a Lebanese civil war that President Bush reignited and that he cannot win”.
Obama’s insistence on the STL in an attempt to strike a blow to Hezballah, Syria and Iran risks backfiring. Hezballah’s local Western-backed opponents do not have the capability to confront the Shi’ite group in a civil war.
The “military and popular” pressure of Hezballah is greater than White House statements, according to key Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who holds the balance of power in determining the next Prime Minister.
Should the Americans continue to squeeze Hezballah, its Iranian and Syrian backers may give their local ally the green light to take control of the state by force.
The US is pursuing an aggressive Lebanon policy that will inevitably lead to conflict, a game the Iranians are willing to play. Tehran is aware it holds the upper hand, and there is little the Americans can do to dislodge Hezballah, which enjoys widespread popular support in addition to its unrivalled military presence in Lebanon.
Internal Lebanese strife raises the stakes of regional conflict as Israel has previously warned it will not allow a Hezballah-ruled Lebanon on its doorstep. Any future war with Hezballah, according to Israeli strategists, is likely to draw in Syria.
Aware of the spiralling effect war in Lebanon may have on the region, emerging regional powers such as Turkey are countering with their own drive and interest for regional stability. The current Lebanon crisis is most certainly a test to see which regional will prevails.