Saturday, December 16, 2017
Text Size

Site Search powered by Ajax

The SIS Factor in Beirut

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman recently appeared in the Saudi daily al-Hayat talking about ministerial appointments in Lebanon. Suleiman said that there was no law in Lebanon preventing the appointment of figures recently defeated in parliamentary elections, as cabinet ministers.

It was a long respected norm, he noted, but never a legal regulation.The Lebanese President was clearly making reference to the controversial case of Gibran Bassil, the son-in-law of opposition leader, Michel Aoun. The latter had lost the June 2009 parliamentary elections, yet Aoun insisted on naming him Telecommunications Minister in any cabinet—a demand that is strongly supported by Aoun’s allies in Hizbullah. This demand, among others, has obstructed formation of a Lebanese cabinet ever since parliamentary majority leader Saad Harriri was mandated to do so by President Suleiman last June.

The timing of Suleiman’s al-Hayat statement coincided with a groundbreaking visit by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to Damascus for meetings with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This was the first visit by Abdullah to Syria since he assumed the throne in the summer of 2005, six months after the assassination of his ally, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Harriri. Back then, relations had plummeted between Damascus and Riyadh, reaching rock-bottom during the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon. More recently, the two countries mended broken fences at a summit over Gaza in January 2009, which lead to the re-sending of a Saudi ambassador to Damascus to fill in a post that has been vacant for 18-months. In late October, the Syrian leader went to Saudi Arabia to attend launch of the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), a personal achievement for the Saudi monarch. Lebanese politicians were relieved that relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia were seemingly going so well, hoping that this would defuse tension in Lebanese domestics between March 14 and Hizbullah.

The two players after all are the strongest in Lebanese affairs, with Saudi Arabia backing the March 14 Coalition and Syria supporting the Hizbullah-led opposition. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri best put it recently, saying that the solution to Lebanese stalemate is in the hands of “S-S” (in reference to Syria and Saudi Arabia). A breakthrough in bilateral relations would automatically have a ripple effect on Lebanese domestics, prompting Michel Suleiman—an independent—to make such a powerful statement, effectively, giving March 14 Coalition a face-saving excuse to accept Gibran as Minister.

The Saudis have too much at stake in Lebanon, financially, morally, and politically, to let it slip into chaos. Prime Minister-designate Saad Harriri is an old and loyal friend of the Saudis, and they want him to succeed as premiere—at any cost. This is his first round at the premiership, after all, and defeat would be catastrophic for the ambitious young politician. If the price of Harriri’s success is caving into Hizbullah’s political demands, then so be it—this is a price the Saudis are willing to pay for the sake of success in Lebanon.

The tiny Mediterranean country after all, is still very important for the Saudi King. It is no longer a priority, however, given all that is happening in Palestine, Yemen, and Iraq. Solutions in Lebanon are relatively easier—and less costly—than those in the Palestine-Israeli conflict and that is why the Saudis wants to solve pending problems in Beirut and move on to more pressing issues in the neighborhood. To do that, the needs of Syria and the Hizbullah-led opposition need to be accommodated. One would be to grant them the required number of seats, and another would be a formula where they can have veto power—or a blocking third—to drown any future legislation that might harm the arms of Hizbullah. Heavyweights in Harriri’s camp claim that because they do not command a parliamentary majority, the opposition has no right in demanding veto power in any government. Harriri’s proposal, however, says that of the 30-man cabinet, 15 seats would go to the March 14 Coalition, 10 to the opposition, and 5 to President Michel Suleiman. Three of the five would be ministers of state, a Sunni, a Shiite, and a Christian. Hizbullah would get to name the Shiite minister of the President’s bloc—giving it 11 rather than 10 seats out of 30, meaning an effective blocking third.

That would be a win-win solution where the Saudis, Iranians, and Syrians would all be satisfied—making it an SIS formula, rather than an S-S one in Lebanon.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria. He is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Kalamoon in Syria and an author of four books on modern Syria.

Add comment

Security code

Login Form