Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 14 – 21 February 2014

Conflicts Forum

There is a new government in Lebanon – though one not yet in possession of a parliamentary vote of confidence, nor indeed a Ministerial Statement of government policy.  The new government has thirty days to agree a statement of its aims (no easy prospect in such polarized times), and to win the support of parliament – or it will be voided (technically resigned).

After eleven months without an empowered government (a caretaker government has minimal capacities), this positive development has been widely welcomed here in Lebanon. But that said, the life of this government will be short (even if it reaches a confidence vote): In May, Lebanese Presidential elections are due, and no one can tell here whether it will actually prove possible to elect a President – a very fraught issue at this time.  But more importantly, any relative success with this ‘experimental’ government may facilitate the Presidential election. Conversely, a failure will compound the prospects.

It is indeed an experiment. And some here are a bit surprised, and nervous, at the risks inherent in it.  More properly, the new government might be understood as a pilot or bell-weather for a Syria ‘understanding’.  Or, stretching it further, a confidence building measure for some yet-to-unfold regional settlement. Lebanon has often played this role of the canary in the mineshaft (signaling either a safe environment, or the gathering of a poison in the atmosphere).   This ‘canary’ government effectively will do the same.

So what is so significant about this new government?  First, and foremost, it includes Hizbullah (who deliberately have eschewed seeking any heavy-weight cabinet slots in the present line-up).  Recall, that it was so little time ago that former PM Saad Hariri foreswore any possibility of a government that includes Hizbullah. And such a blatant about-turn is unlikely to have come about without at least a tacit nod from Riyadh. And secondly, the March 14th parties – but notably Seyed Hasan Nasrallah – has agreed to turn Lebanese political tradition upside down.

Over the years, Hizbullah and its allies have focused on retaining influence over the security sphere (given the pervading threat from Israel), whilst the March 8th camp have been more interested to maintain a hold over the lucrative economic and financial levers of business and the state. In this latest set up, all this is reversed.

How interesting that Hizbullah and their allies have now focused more on the Energy and Finance ministries, just as Lebanon is about to open its EEZ off the coast to exploration for gas and oil, in the expectation that Lebanon will take a significant share of the huge potential of the East Mediterranean Levant Basin.

And how interesting that at a time when Lebanon is racked by the dangers from Sunni extremists, that the key security posts, such as those of the Interior and Justice ministries should go to March 14th  – and not just March 14th, but to a March 14th noted partisan, and anti-Assad activist – in the case of the Justice ministry.  No wonder a few eyebrows were raised that Hasan Nasrallah and Hizbullah could have acceded to this arrangement.

It is a test; an experiment.  It gives Lebanese Sunnis (of Hariri’s party) the prime responsibility for combatting the Sunni extremism emanating out from Syria: they will carry the can for securing Lebanon from the takfiri suicide-bombers that are plaguing Lebanon.  In just two years, retail sales in Beirut have fallen by more than one third, as fewer people risk the streets. Can they – will they, the Lebanese Sunnis – do it?

It is not hard to see the wider significance: Saudi Arabia gives the nod to a unity government.  Hassan Nasrallah and General Aoun (who has played a pivotal part in all this), now have responded to this gesture by recognising the Sunni fears and vulnerabilities arising from Shi’i involvement in Syria – not though, by giving up Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria:.They have reciprocated by giving the Sunnis of the Future movement effective full control over their own environment.  It is a notable gesture of reassurance to the Sunnis of Lebanon, but also a possible confidence-building measure for Riyadh to think about a settlement in Syria.

Of course, the risk is that the experiment may be abused – and will not just help facilitate a settlement in Syria, but rather, on the contrary, will lead to an escalation of violence in Lebanon.  Should this Iranian-Saudi ‘canary’ remain in good health however, it could possibly pave the path to a similar understanding in Syria. Security reassurance is provided for Syrian Sunnis – here we are referring to Syrian Sunnis, alienated from the government, who fear Shi’i influence — although most Syrian Sunnis are not feeling vulnerable to the Shi’i (who they in some sense see allies, but to the takfiri extremists). Thus, evidence of a commitment by the mainstream Sunni community in the region to fight the jihadists might shake lose a political ‘understanding’ in Damascus too.  We shall see.

Might all this make Lebanon more stable?  Unfortunately ‘no’. It is important here to understand how the strand of jihadism in Syria is evolving. The Salafists are in midst of a radical redefinition of doctrine. It is an evolution, if it is persisted with, that precisely puts them at odds with established authority – whether it is the authority of King Abdallah or any other formal Sunni authority.  In short, this strand oftakfiri jihadists do not give a toss for any understandings reached between Riyadh, Damascus and Moscow or Tehran.  They are at war with the very symbols of established authority in the Sunni sphere.

These movements are evolving a ‘revisionist’ history of the ‘Islamic State’. It did not come into being by virtue of the leadership of the Quraish or through the workings of Arab traditionionalism; or by the efforts of any one person (a Salahidin, for example). Historically, the Islamic state rather, came about as small, separate groups of Muslims fighting for Islam who finally coalesced together to form the Islamic state. This network of fighting-‘Imams’ represented the legitimate Islamic state at the point at which they fused together to form a united Umma.

Da’ish or ISIS precisely defines itself as a state – and its leader as the leader of believers.  It fights other Islamist movements because it is a state, viewing potential rivals as no more than rebellion against an arm of the Islamic State. The traditional pillars of Saudi authority (the descent from the Quraish, the keepers of Mecca; the established mosque or al Azhar) mean nothing in their view.  They provide no legitimacy for a Saudi king to claim to speak on behalf of ‘Muslims’.

Paradoxically, as Saudi Arabia wages war on the Muslim Brotherhood for its doctrine that sovereignty stems from the people, the real threat to Saudi authority has been, in fact, incubated within Wahhabism.  The Al-Saud family no longer control this sphere – as once they did.  It is out of control.


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