LEBANON: An unlikely alliance that could avert conflict

The election of Michel Aoun (below right), as president of Lebanon and his ap­pointment of long-time rival Saad Hariri (below left), as prime minister after two-and-a-half years of crippling political gridlock have drawn a regional sigh of relief. It has probably averted a political and economic meltdown but this unlikely partnership between two politicians who have been at dag­gers drawn for years has wider im­plications in the Middle East.

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The most important of these is that Shia Iran, striving to become the Middle East’s paramount pow­er, has shifted the balance of power away from Saudi Arabia, the bea­con of the mainstream Sunnis, in a continuing confrontation that could affect the entire region. Despite the evident political compromise that occurred in Leba­non, it is clear “that neighbouring Syria and nearby Iraq are not the places to look for signs of such a compromise”, the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor ob­served.

Aoun, an 83-year-old former army commander who has long hungered for the presidency, final­ly secured it on October 31st, pri­marily through a ground-breaking alliance with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, the most powerful force in Lebanon, on February 6th, 2006, that breached Lebanon’s rigid sec­tarian barriers. The pact was based on Aoun se­curing the presidency, with Hez­bollah’s support. Six months later, Hezbollah triggered a 34-day war with Israel. Under a 1943 agreement, Leba­non’s president must be a Maron­ite, while the prime ministry is reserved for Sunnis and the speak­ership of parliament for Shias.

So now, for the first time, the Tehran-backed Shias have unprec­edented influence in the presiden­tial Baabda palace, although it re­mains to be seen how they use it.

This new era in Lebanese politics suggests that, even though Tehran had to accept Hariri, named prime minister on November 3rd, it has supplanted Riyadh, which had championed Lebanon’s Sunnis and had strongly opposed Aoun’s nom­ination to fill the politically danger­ous presidential vacuum.

This was caused in May 2014 when the six-year presidential term of Michel Suleiman, another ex-army commander, expired with parliament unable to elect a suc­cessor, largely through the machi­nations of Hezbollah. The breakthrough, via French mediation, only came after Hariri, his popularity at an all-time low, endorsed Aoun after months of backing the Maronite leader’s ri­vals. Significantly, Hezbollah ab­stained from endorsing Hariri.

The Saudis have been gradually giving up on Lebanon as Hezbol­lah’s power grew.

In 2015, Riyadh, increasingly alarmed at Iran’s influence growing in Lebanon, cut off billions of dol­lars in military aid to protest anti- Saudi pronouncements by Aoun’s son-in-law, then Foreign minister. Riyadh withdrew its ambassador in September.

The Aoun-Hariri partnership, part of a complex power-sharing agreement, is an unlikely, and po­tentially volatile, one. Hariri, 46, leader of the Sunni-dominated March 14 alliance, pre­viously served as prime minister of a national unity government in 2009-11 that was eventually sabo­taged by Hezbollah.

His endorsement of Aoun is all the more surprising since the event that propelled him into politics — the February 14th, 2005, assassi­nation of his billionaire father and former premier Rafik Hariri — alleg­edly involved Hezbollah.

Four of its members have been indicted by a UN-mandated court in The Hague. Hezbollah denies any involvement.

This article by Ed Blanche originally appeared in The Arab Weekly

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