War again tops political agenda in the Levant as Israel asserts its security privileges

Now that the Lebanese and Iraqi elections are over and the countries’ political parties brace for the implications of whatever internal power-sharing arrangements emerge, the long shadow of Israel makes itself felt in Beirut and Baghdad.  Both countries have critical internal issues to address as well as keeping an eye on regional concerns that could undo whatever domestic progress is possible.

Lebanon cannot ignore its neighbors – an ascendant Assad regime in Syria that is close to achieving control over most of its urban areas; an Israel that continues to issue hostile statements regarding Lebanon’s internal political arrangements that allow Hezbollah key political and security roles; and as yet unfinished business on defining its borders with Israel. And then there is a very long domestic agenda that is made more challenging by the need to satisfy so many entitlements claimed by the competing parties.

Iraq’s struggles are even more complex. A coalition government that can be formed in a reasonable period of time will buy the leadership some space to address multiple internal security, economic, and social issues. And there is much more: what to do with Iran’s military, political, and economic presence that has only deepened with the success of its militias and proxies in combating ISIS and other militants; how to bring some sense of security on its border with Syria where US and coalition forces are working to eliminate terrorist threats in the area; how to manage relations with Erdogan’s Turkey and the restive Kurds; and an Israel government that is suspicious of Iraqi intentions under perceived Iranian influence and outright military muscle.

There is no escaping the reality that conditions are ripe for a significant rise in hostilities. Analysts warn that although none of the parties seem intent on ratcheting up tensions at this time, there is broad agreement that a miscalculation by any of the potential combatants can unleash a firestorm. With Israel toughening its redlines concerning Hezbollah’s activities in Lebanon and Syria, Iran’s deepening presence in Syria, the likely movement of Syrian and allied forces into areas close to Israel’s border, and Russia’s reluctance to take on a more proactive role in defusing tensions, opportunities for a flame-up are multiplying…and this is not even including what the UAE and Saudi Arabia are intending.

As an article in Foreign Affairs noted, “Another war between Israel and Hezbollah is almost inevitable. Although neither side wants a conflict now, the shifting balance of power in the Levant and shrinking areas of contestation are indicators of a looming showdown. The real questions are how and where—not if—the impending conflagration will occur.”

So the question is, how are the governments-to-be in Lebanon and Iraq to demonstrate wisdom in forming governments to avoid as much as possible the tipping points that undermine their countries’ stability? Can the leadership rise above sectarian and community identity politics and agree on a statement of principles and policies that diminish prospects for being dragged into regional conflicts? Will the new governments, based on broad consensus, be able to withstand external pressures on their internal politics?

It is interesting that Muqtada al-Sadr’s coalition won the largest number of seats in the elections running a populist, even Trump-like campaign, wanting to drain the swamp in Baghdad, fight corruption, and return government to the people. Sunnis were drawn to his lists as they were to Haider al-Abadi’s lists, challenging age-old sectarian divides.

But the wild card of the standoff between Iran and Israel casts a pall on the government formation process in both countries. Unspoken in Lebanon but obviously on the agenda is what can be done to diminish Hezbollah’s ties to Iran and its antagonism towards Israel? With Israel intent on brandishing its “privilege” of US guarantees of military dominance in the region, and its anti-Iran campaign in sync with many US political leaders, its power  cannot be overlooked in formulating scenarios and discussing policy options. Similarly, Iraq, still facing ISIS and the remnants of the ISIS caliphate, wants to be able to manage its own affairs, a goal that may not be possible without alienating some military, political, and religious factions in Iran.

It will be a long, hot summer.

The future of Syrian refugees – a vexing issue affecting government formation in Lebanon

With the election process almost completed, awaiting several challenges lodged with the Electoral Commission, Lebanon’s power brokers are moving ahead with crafting a new government within the framework of the power-sharing agreement. Since the total number of members allocated by sect is already set, the negotiations focus on three primary concerns: balancing the election results within alliances that represent the dominant parties, allocating ministerial portfolios along sectarian lines, and ensuring that the members support a ministerial statement outlining government priorities and policies.

From outside Lebanon, the view is that there are three overarching issues to be addressed: corruption, Hezbollah’s military role, and the future of the Syrian refugees. While this does not ignore the close to a half-million Palestinian refugees, border demarcation with Israel, or dissociation, meaning staying out of regional frays, it highlights the reality that international donors are insisting on a link between further funding and accountability, and that regional stability depends on Hezbollah acting less as a proxy for Iran and more as a key Lebanese political force.

With regard to the Syrian refugees, it is acknowledged that there is no game plan in the works without a political settlement in Syria, which increasingly favors the Assad regime staying in power and extending its reach into all parts of the country. This could take years, and Prime Minister Hariri has recognized the conundrum for Lebanon in statements made earlier this year. “We want the refugees to live in a dignified way, to take their children to school and to have this generation of Syrians return to rebuild their country.” Stressing that Lebanon would abide by international law, Hariri said that refugees would only return “once favorable conditions are available.”

In his statements, President Aoun as recently as this week, made it clear that he is not prepared to wait for a political settlement. “We are surprised by the position of some parties which obstruct this return or do not encourage it. Lebanon faces many challenges with 1.8 million displaced people on its territory since 2015,” he said. He believes that nearly 50 per cent of Lebanon’s population is made up of refugees if you count Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis, and others. He made some of his strongest rebuttals in response to the position taken by the EU and UN at the Brussels donors conference to gather for the refugees.

He rejected their position that the host countries must do more to assist in providing jobs, services, and future opportunities for the Syrians. Aoun pointed out that there are safe areas inside Syria where refugees can return safely, noting that Lebanon is doing as much as it can and should not be asked to do more.

Even the UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon, Philippe Lazarini, warned that Lebanese society is witnessing “increasing fatigue” as a result of the refugee crisis. He highlighted that such concern may turn into anger and tension between different segments of society, amid great pressures on employment opportunities, if not addressed by the government. Aoun clarified his earlier comments, noting that he was not including people who faced political problems with the Assad regime.

Two recent studies help frame the challenges in devising “return with dignity” scenarios. There is a 2017 UN data report indicating that more than 75% of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line and are unregistered so that they are unable to legally access the labor market and are often exploited in the informal economy, living on humanitarian aid, under the threat of arrest and hostility from host communities.

Refugees have also had a disproportionate negative impact on the host communities. The same study pointed out that most Syrian refugees have settled in Lebanon’s most marginalized regions, placing them in direct competition for access to work, public services, and resources with vulnerable Lebanese communities. There have even been claims that the influx of refugees is often cited as a reason for Lebanon’s stagnating economy.

This same survey showed that 70% of Syrian refugees would go home if they felt there was somewhere safe for them to return to.

This sentiment was echoed in a more recent study, found here, by the Carnegie Middle East Center that outlined four conditions that refugees surveyed indicated were essential to return. They are safety for their children, an end to conscription, physical homes to return to, and a safe and secure environment.

The study noted World Bank estimates that 30% of Syrian homes have been completely destroyed or damaged. Many undamaged properties are occupied by regime-affiliated forces, pro-Iran militias, or other Syrians displaced within the country.

Of the refugees interviewed, 80% had fled Syria due to incidents that stoked fear for their safety including arbitrary arrests by Syrian forces, the death of family or friends, and the deterioration in security conditions in their neighborhoods. A great majority could not see Syria stabilizing under the Assad regime. “Even if jobs and services were available, few believed the security and stability they want would exist if he remained in power.” Additional concerns were raised about the foreign forces in the country and the interference of outside powers determining Syria’s future.

Interestingly, an informal group of Syrian refugees in the north of Lebanon have drafted a peace proposal around establishing safe demilitarized zones in Syria that would allow for the return of refugees and displaced persons. They too want safety and security as the first conditions to return, with access to basic services and employment opportunities also as key. But they too recognized that “We know that such a solution today seems too far-fetched and unrealistic. With the recent sieges and bombings continuing in Syria, it is difficult for anyone to speak of return. For today the proposal is impossible, but one day the violence will lessen.”

For generations, Lebanon has been a safe haven for dispossessed people of the region despite its limited resources and governmental infrastructure. What the new government will say about its Syrian refugee policy will indicate how much further Lebanon is willing to go to support its good neighbor policy.

Lebanon Moves On after Parliamentary Election – But In What Direction?

A number of sources have compiled lists of Sunday’s winners, and Annahar grouped them by likely alliances so it is quite helpful to see districts by winner and affiliations. What the results actually mean, going forward, is the subject of a great deal of discussion and speculation. Those who have the most experience in the region are loath to predict how the new government will reflect the election outcomes since the number of members does not necessarily translate into ministerial posts. Even the Jerusalem Post opined that early assessments that painted the results as a black and white victory for Hezbollah may be quite off-track. “It is a victory for Hezbollah but it is far from the ‘Hezbollah swept the election’ story that some are putting forward. Hezbollah is only stronger after the election because its allies are stronger.” The question is whether the allies will remain in lock step with each other.

What we do know is that the election took place under a new law and with a relatively low turnout – some under 50% of qualified voters, that both Hezbollah and its allies and Christians opposed to Hezbollah strengthened their core support, and that it was relatively free of violence although a number of complaints have been filed contesting outcomes in Beirut and elsewhere.

According to Washington Post reporting, PM Hariri’s Future Party lost some 11 seats but at 21 is still the largest Muslim party in Parliament, which bodes well for his return as prime minister in a new government. Hezbollah and its various allies stand at some 67 seats if one includes Sunnis who support the Assad regime in Syria, and Amal, the oldest Shia party. This alliance now has a blocking minority that can prevent passage of any significant legislation, if it holds together.

Interestingly, the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces, which almost doubled its number of seats to 15, and Hezbollah, have called for combating corruption a priority for the new government.

Perhaps one of the more useful assessments of the election outcome was penned by Nabeel Khoury for the Atlantic Council. He wrote that given the results so far that “The internal balance of power has been jostled and shaken a bit but not basically altered. He notes that any tally of potential winners “Does not take into account the labyrinths of alliances that were struck during the election campaign.” Earlier alliances, dating back to the 2005 elections, effectively grouped parties into two major blocs, March 8, which included current President Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement as well as Hezbollah and its allies, and March 14, based around Hariri’s Future Movement and its allies. “Western media analysis that Hezbollah came out a winner is based on the two-bloc system holding.  Hezbollah’s gains are real only if their alliance with Aoun remains solid. The same goes for the March 14 bloc; their losses are only real if the two-bloc system remains static.”

So if anything, it is better to wait to see the composition of the new government, to see which parties gain what ministries, and the overall statement of priorities adopted by the new government and Parliament. As Khoury points out, “The National Pact’s principle [established between Muslims and Christians in 1943] of no winners and no losers remains in effect, and the notion of trying to do everything via consensus instead of majoritarian votes also remains.”

Is There Any News about Lebanon Besides the Elections?

Depending on the source, and the time of day, prognostications about Lebanon’s parliamentary elections provide even more confirmation that the results will either be a landslide for good or for evil or somewhere in between. We are assured, simultaneously, that the new electoral law eases the way for new entrants into the system and that there is little chance for unaligned candidates to break into the closed loop of Parliamentary districts.

Well, what is going on and why is it important if there is so much conviction and uncertainty at the same time? In a cogent article penned by Hady Amr, who has served in the US Foreign Service and knows Lebanon better than most, the fact that the election will be held after so many delays is in itself an important achievement. After mentioning the positive and not-great conditions surrounding the elections, he notes that “And compared to an Arab world filled with either war, sham elections, or undemocratic regimes, things could clearly be much worse.”

Well one area in which there is a bit of sunshine is the number of women who have entered the contests. Although the number of female candidates from the original list has declined by some 22%, there are still a record number of 86 female candidates competing for Lebanon’s 128 legislative seats in a country where women make up only three percent of the current parliament. Lebanon ranked 137 out of 144 countries on the Global Gender Gap Report 2017, published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), and 142 when it comes to political empowerment, as reported in an article in Al-Jazeera. A long way to go for sure and it is hoped that more women in parliament will lead to ground-breaking legislation and role models that start to improve Lebanon’s ranking through empowering more women and girls to enter the public political space.

But the old guard is not going softly to their cabanas on Zaitunya Bay. More than a dozen candidates are directly related to current power brokers and are heavily favored in their districts. In addition, the existing distribution of seats divided equally between Christians and Muslims further excludes new entrants (National Democratic Institute graph http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/LEBANON-ELECTION/010062EN4C9/LEBANON-PARLIAMENT.jpg) demonstrates the overall distribution). As in other countries, access to media is important and is priced out of the range of smaller parties, independents, and those who don’t own or have major influence with existing outlets; so social media is important in reaching out to voters.

The Lebanese Center for Political Studies (LCPS) published a very useful article describing how power brokers and parties work to influence voters and make sure they participate correctly in the election. The system relies of building strong ties with influencers in local communities and ensuring that services target those who can best mobilize votes for particular candidates.

Given that there are a number of competitive races and the heightened interest in the positions of the candidates on domestic issues, party platforms have appeared addressing local concerns. Among those mentioned most often are quality health care, access to a functioning power system, educational reform, waste management, the environment, infrastructure improvements, transparency in government contracting, reducing corruption, and enhanced human rights protections. Clearly on the table but largely unspoken are how to deal with the Syrian refugees, assistance to host communities, eliminating bias in government programs and the army and security services, and internal power balances among Sunnis and Christians.

The most critical issue, if and when Hezbollah will draw Lebanon into a war with Israel, is only mentioned loudly by Hezbollah and its allies, continuing to claim that they represent Lebanon’s best security guarantee. While some have mentioned that Hezbollah will increase its seats in parliament at the expense of Sunni representation, there is a bit of hopefulness that their bloc will not attain the two-thirds needed to have a veto-proof majority in parliament, despite the reality that it only takes one-third plus one to ensure gridlock, as Hezbollah has demonstrated skillfully in the past.

So while Lebanon is on the edge of a ground-breaking election, it continues to teeter on the brink of an unwanted war that the great majority Lebanese wants to avoid. The policy of dissociation, staying out of the affairs of others in the region, will be the first item on the table for the new parliament given the rapid consolidation of Assad’s power in Syria, bringing even more pressure on Lebanon on multiple fronts. Managing this complex agenda will take all of the skills of the executive and legislative leadership in the country.