BEIRUT: The 19-month-old bloody conflict in Syria is putting strain on President Michel Sleiman’s ties with Hezbollah as the two sides have conflicting political calculations, analysts said Monday.
However, the analysts predicted that tension that burst out into the open last week following Sleiman’s unexpected tough stance on Hezbollah’s arms would eventually be overcome and not lead to a break in relations.
“Of course, there is tension between President Sleiman and Hezbollah. The president is escalating his position on Hezbollah’s arms,” Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, told The Daily Star.
“The developments in the region, particularly in Syria have encouraged the president to go on escalation against Hezbollah’s arms,” he added.
Khashan said Sleiman was dissociating between Hezbollah’s arms and its role in resistance, meaning he was seeking “a compromise agreement” with regard to the party’s military wing.
“The president was saying: No to Hezbollah’s military wing in domestic Lebanese politics, yes to Hezbollah’s military wing to help defend Lebanon against a possible Israeli attack,” Khashan added.
Political analyst Carol Maalouf concurred that Sleiman has been taking “a strong national position on different issues, including the divisive issue of Hezbollah’s arms.” She said that Sleiman’s stance was directly linked to domestic politics and developments in Syria.
“The president is taking a critical position on Hezbollah mainly because of the party’s involvement in the internal Syrian conflict,” Maalouf said.
“The president is taking advantage of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria to voice his political opinion freely, including outlining the role of the party’s weapons in defending the country,” said Maalouf, a lecturer in political science and political history of Lebanon at Notre Dame University.
She added that Sleiman’s changed position on the role of Hezbollah’s arms was tied to the party’s involvement in the developments in Syria.
First signs of the crisis between Sleiman and Hezbollah emerged on Sept. 20, when the president put forward during a National Dialogue session he chaired at Baabda Palace a blueprint for a national defense strategy that would allow Hezbollah to keep its arms but place them under the command of the Lebanese Army, which would have exclusive authority to use force.
Under the proposal, Hezbollah would not hand its arms over to the Army, as demanded by the opposition March 14 coalition, nor would there be coordination between the resistance and the Army, the defense strategy that Hezbollah has backed.
Sleiman’s defense blueprint, which is to be debated by March 8 and March 14 leaders at the next National Dialogue session on Nov. 12, was viewed by pro-Hezbollah politicians as a departure from the tripartite equation endorsed in the government’s policy statement: “The Army, the people and the resistance,” which is upheld by Hezbollah as the best means to defend Lebanon against a possible Israeli attack.
The March 14 coalition has long demanded that Hezbollah surrender its weapons to the Lebanese Army. The resistance party has strongly rejected local and international calls to disarm, arguing that its arsenal was needed to face any possible Israeli attack.
The simmering tension broke out into the open last week when Hezbollah rejected Sleiman’s recent remarks in which he distinguished between Hezbollah as a political party and a resistance group.
Speaking to reporters in Argentina during his Latin American tour last week, Sleiman said: “Arms that are being used domestically [in internal conflicts] are forbidden. Be they with Hezbollah or the Salafists or others, they [weapons] must be stripped.”
Sleiman’s statement drew an unprecedented quick response from Hezbollah’s No. 2 man. “We don’t have arms for the resistance and arms used for other purposes. We don’t have arms to face Israel and arms for domestic bickering,” Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem said during a graduation ceremony at UNESCO Palace in Beirut Saturday. “In Lebanon, there is one party called Hezbollah. We don’t have a military wing and a political wing. Hezbollah is a political party and a resistance party.”
Analyst Qassem Kassir said the rhetoric between Sleiman and Hezbollah reflected “different viewpoints” over the role of Hezbollah’s arms. “The president has his own [political] calculations and so does Hezbollah,” Kassir, an expert on Islamic fundamentalist movement, told The Daily Star.
“As a result of the changes in the region, Sleiman’s stance on Hezbollah’s arms is aimed at boosting his popularity and political ambitions,” he said. Kassir added that Sleiman’s tough stance was designed to set the stage for launching his future political project, including the possibility of renewing his term in office, which expires in 2014.
Shafik Masri, professor of international law at the state-run Lebanese University, defended Sleiman’s stance.
“The president has settled the matter with regard to the role of the Lebanese Army in defending the country and its border in line with his oath to preserve the Constitution,” Masri said.
He pointed out that Sleiman’s position came a few months after he sent direct and indirect messages to the Syrian side, condemning Syrian attacks on the Lebanese border.
“During the National Dialogue session, the president was firm that the Lebanese Army is the one that defends the country ... He made it clear that it was not a matter of disarming Hezbollah but coordination with the Army which is alone responsible for the country’s national defense,” Masri added.
Khashan said Hezbollah is reconsidering its domestic role as a result of the developments in Syria.
“I won’t attach much significance to the president’s statements in Latin America even though they caused tension in Lebanon,” he said. “But in Lebanon tension is a way of life and can easily be overcome by the repercussions of strong statements.”
“Tension will be contained because the president’s statements do not speak for an official policy in the making. Lebanese politics is a conflict management,” Khashan added.
Maalouf, the NDU lecturer concurred. “The tension is going to be contained. A Hezbollah delegation will visit the president in Baabda to sort out the problem,” she predicted.