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Lebanese Government Collapse Adds to Obama Problems

The collapse of the Hariri-led government in Lebanon adds to the list of policy challenges the U.S. faces across the Middle East.

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Inter Press Service

Wednesday's collapse of the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri adds to the growing list of challenges faced by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama across the Middle East.

Increasingly concerned about mounting unrest in Tunisia and Algeria and sectarian violence in Egypt, Washington is also worried about what looks to be a protracted impasse in its efforts to promote peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and the potentially explosive impact of unabated Jewish settlement activity in the Occupied Territories and East Jerusalem.

The break-up of the Hariri-led unity government adds yet another potential flashpoint – one in which, as in nearby Iraq, Washington finds itself in a contest for influence with Iran. Tehran strongly backs the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance, whose departure from the cabinet precipitated the current crisis.

"Lebanon is once again falling victim to the regional tug of war between the U.S., Israel and their allies on the one hand, and Syria, Hizbullah and Iran on the other," wrote Joshua Landis, a regional expert at the University of Oklahoma on his widely read blog.

The government's collapse is regarded as unlikely to result, at least in the short term, in renewed violence of the kind that saw Shi'a-led Hezbollah quickly dispatch Sunni militias in pro-Hariri strongholds in West Beirut in May 2008. But it will no doubt increase sectarian tensions in the country and curb the tide of investment that boosted the Lebanese economy over the last 18 months of relative stability, according to veteran observers here.

The fact that Hezbollah's move appeared timed to coincide with Hariri's meeting with Obama in the White House added to the impression that it was directed as much at Washington as at the prime minister himself.

Indeed, Hezbollah and its allies have accused Washington of sabotaging Saudi-Syrian efforts to negotiate a solution to the political crisis impasse that precipitated the collapse – the anticipated indictment, as early as Friday, of several Hezbollah militants by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) established by the United Nations to investigate the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, Saad's father.

The assassination provoked mass protests by the Hariri-led March 14 movement that eventually resulted in the so-called "Cedar Revolution" and the withdrawal of Syrian troops – Hezbollah's most important foreign backer – from Lebanon. The March 14 movement was backed strongly by the U.S. President George W. Bush whose chief aim at the time was to weaken Syria and its ally, Iran.

"The big push of the Bush administration was to separate Lebanon from Syria and bring Lebanon within the U.S. and Israeli sphere of influence," said Landis. "But that has clearly failed, and what we've seen in the last several years is the unraveling of the Bush agenda."

Under Obama, Washington has remained the STL's biggest international booster, in part because it sees the tribunal as one of the few and diminishing points of leverage it can use to affect the balance of power in Lebanon.

If Hezbollah is formally implicated in the assassination of Hariri, who was Sunni, its efforts to establish itself politically as a national, rather than a sectarian movement, will be badly set back, according to analysts here.

"Hezbollah cannot afford the blow to its popular legitimacy that would occur if it is pinned with the Hariri killing," wrote Thanassis Cambanis, author of a highly critical book on the Shi'a militia, in the New York Times Thursday. Other analysts noted that it would also deal a serious blow to Hezbollah's standing, which soared through the Arab world after its 2006 conflict with Israel, elsewhere in the region.

As a result, the group and its allies have exerted pressure on Hariri to denounce the tribunal and cease all Lebanese cooperation for its work, a step that many analysts believe would amount to political suicide.

"If Hariri complies with Hizballah's demands, he is in my view finished as a national and as a Sunni leader, having compromised hiw own, his family's and his country's honor," wrote Elliott Abrams, an architect of Bush's policy in Lebanon, on his blog on the Council on Foreign Relations website Wednesday.

The mediation undertaken by Syria, Hezbollah's most important foreign backer, and Saudi Arabia, which has long supported the Hariri family, was designed to work out a face-saving compromise for all parties.

Bitter rivals during most of the past decade, Damascus and Riyadh worked out a rapprochement in 2009 when they began working together both to shore up Hariri's unity government and to boost Sunni and non-sectarian parties in last year's elections in Iraq.

For its part, the Obama administration shows little sign of backing away from its support for both the STL, which it has reportedly encouraged to announce its indictments as quickly as possible, and Hariri, whose "steadfast leadership" it praised in a statement released by the White House after Wednesday's summit.

Both leaders, it went on, expressed their "determination to achieve both stability and justice in Lebanon during this challenging period of government volatility, and agreed that all parties should avoid threats or actions that could cause instability."

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is currently on a tour through the Gulf, strongly denounced the walkout by Hezbollah and its allies.

"It is a crisis because there are those who do not wish to bring murderers to justice, or at least to have people who are charged with murder held accountable," she said. "(Y)ou cannot run any society where murder is given impunity."

Landis strongly criticized the administration's position as a continuation of Bush's failed efforts to weaken Hezbollah at all costs.

"They'll allow Lebanon to languish," he told IPS, "because they want to save American prestige and continue their fight against Hezbollah, which they know they can't win."

Indeed, Abrams praised the administration's support for Hariri and the STL but admitted that such statements were "perhaps all we can do for now… (A)t bottom, this is far less a test of the United States than of the Lebanese," he stressed.

For now, however, most analysts believe mediation efforts are likely to continue quietly and possibly involve new actors besides Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Qatar negotiated the Doha Agreement that ended the May 2008 crisis and helped pave the way for the unity government, and has indicated that it stands ready to join any effort.

Hariri himself was scheduled to fly Friday to Turkey, whose "zero problems with neighbors" policy – as well as its growing independence from Washington – has won it considerable prestige in the region over the last several years.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/). He blogs at http://www.lobelog.com/.

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