Rival camps’ Syria bets heighten tensions

Warplanes over the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Mediterranean.

BEIRUT: The fast-moving developments in Syria – including a possible impending U.S.-led military strike – have paralyzed Lebanon further as rival factions resort to the same old game: betting on the results of the war raging next door to boost their political standing, analysts said Monday.

While the Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc considers U.S. President Barack Obama’s delay in launching a punitive military strike on Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons as a “victory,” the rival March 14 camp still hopes the strike will deal a heavy blow to the regime of President Bashar Assad, and consequently weaken its allies in Lebanon, namely Hezbollah.

Even before the threat of a Western assault on Syria loomed, the monthslong paralysis that has hit Parliament, Cabinet and other state institutions threatened to sink the politically divided country into a power vacuum.

“The bets by the March 8 and March 14 camps on the situation in Syria, particularly on a military strike, have further increased the paralysis in Lebanon and brought the situation to the verge of disintegration,” Mouna Fayyad, a writer and a psychology professor at the state-run Lebanese University, told The Daily Star.

“The March 14 [coalition] is waiting for outside [powers]. So does the other [March 8] side. The parties’ dependence on outside [powers] to seek strength against each other reflects a lack of responsibility toward the country.”

Qassem Qassir, an expert on Islamic movements, including Hezbollah, echoed a similar view. “The conflict in Syria and the possibility of a U.S. military strike have added to the current paralysis in the Lebanese situation,” Qassir told The Daily Star.

“All political parties are laying a wager on the military strike. They are linking their political future and fate to the repercussions of the crisis in Syria, whether the military strike took place or not,” he said. “The March 14 parties are betting on a military strike on Syria in order to weaken Hezbollah and force it to make concessions on divisive issues.”

“But Hezbollah will not make any political concessions, particularly regarding its participation in a new Cabinet and its right to have a major say in the Cabinet’s decisions,” he added.

Having been locked in a fierce power struggle for years, the March 8 and March 14 parties have put their stakes on the outcome of the two-and-a-half-year-old conflict in Syria where the two factions support opposing sides.

Hezbollah and its allies back Assad in his war against armed rebels seeking to topple his regime, while the March 14 coalition supports the anti-Assad uprising.

Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria, where the group’s fighters are helping Assad’s forces against opposition groups, has further deepened the political crisis and sectarian divisions in Lebanon, which is already reeling under the repercussions of the unrest raging next door on its fragile security and stability.

Last week, Obama delayed what looked like an imminent U.S.-led military strike on Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons, saying he would seek approval from Congress.

Obama has vowed to punish the Assad regime after accusing it of using poison gas on Syrian citizens on several occasions this year, including the Aug. 21 attack which U.S. intelligence says killed over 1,400 people outside Damascus.

Both Fayyad and Qassir said the March 8 camp considered Obama’s retreat as a “victory.”

“Hezbollah and its March 8 allies viewed Obama’s retreat from a military strike as a victory,” Fayyad said.

“Obama’s retreat has given a boost to Hezbollah and its March 8 allies,” Qassir said.

“On the other hand, it is clear that the March 14 parties, as well as Israel, the Syrian opposition, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been annoyed by Obama’s decision to put off the strike,” he added.

Fayyad said the March 14 parties’ wager on a military strike on Syria to bolster their political position against Hezbollah would lead nowhere and would not change anything in the current situation.

“A military strike will not help end the military conflict in Syria or change anything in Lebanon. A cosmetic strike would strengthen the Syrian regime because Assad would claim that he stood fast against the attack,” Fayyad said, adding: “Any massive strike would trigger violence throughout the region.”

The parties’ wagers on the outcome of a military strike on Syria come as Lebanon is faced with mounting security threats following a wave of deadly car bombings last month in Beirut’s southern suburbs and north Lebanon that killed nearly 80 people and wounded hundreds. The attacks were directly linked to tensions arising from the war in Syria.

They also come as Lebanon has been left without a functioning government for nearly five months after Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam’s attempts to form a new Cabinet have stumbled over conflicting conditions by the March 8 and March 14 camps over the makeup and role of the government.

Parliament has also been paralyzed and unable to convene because of a running boycott by a majority of lawmakers in a dispute over the constitutionality of Parliament sessions under a caretaker Cabinet.

Fayyad, a Shiite, blamed Hezbollah for the political crisis in the country following its military intervention in Syria. She said the party should make concessions to facilitate the formation of a new Cabinet by accepting a March 14 demand to stay out of the government following its involvement in the war in Syria.

“Hezbollah is responsible for the political stalemate in Lebanon because it is fighting in Syria. Without concessions from Hezbollah, a new Cabinet will not be formed,” she said.

Fayyad added that March 14 leaders do not know how to behave and form pressure in the face of a powerful party like Hezbollah. “They had made concessions in the past they should not have made,” she said.

But Qassir stressed that Hezbollah would not make any concessions whether Syria was attacked or not.

“No matter what happens, the Hezbollah command will not make concessions and will not accept any settlement at the expense of its principled stances,” Qassir said. “With or without a military strike on Syria, Hezbollah’s position is very strong, and founded on a broad popular base.”

“Hezbollah is betting that a massive strike would have reverberations throughout the entire region which could lead to a total war and a direct conflict with Israel,” Qassir added.

There have been fears that Hezbollah might fire rockets into Israel in response to any Western attack on Syria.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 03, 2013, on page 3.




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