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Dispute between Lebanese president, Hezbollah heats up

As presidential elections approach in Lebanon, the dispute between President Michel Suleiman and Hezbollah over the latter’s intervention in Syria has intensified.
Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman (L) and Parliament speaker Nabih Berri (3rd L) look on as Hezbollah's deputy leader Sheikh Naim Kassem (C) greets released Lebanese prisoner Maher Qorani at Beirut airport July 16, 2008. Five Lebanese freed from captivity in Israel were flown to a heroes' welcome in Beirut on Wednesday after Hezbollah returned the bodies of two Israeli soldiers seized in a cross-border raid in 2006. REUTERS/ Mohamed Azakir   (LEBANON) - RTX7ZV4

The political truce in Lebanon did not last long, as a heated debate was sparked off once again between Hezbollah and President Michel Suleiman. This came as no surprise. The points of disagreement remain unresolved and continue to revolve around the ongoing intervention of Hezbollah in the war raging in Syria. Before the outbreak of the Syrian war, the bipartite issue of the army’s arms and Hezbollah’s weapons was a point of disagreement between the March 8 and March 14 camps.

For his part, the president took a medial stance. He was trying — through the dialogue table — to find a unifying approach to reconcile between the imperatives of resisting Israel’s ambitions in Lebanon on the one hand, and the requirements of Lebanese sovereignty and the principle of limiting weapons to the Lebanese state on the other. This is not to mention Lebanon’s international obligations, especially when it comes to implementing international resolutions, namely UN Security Council Resolution 1701. The president’s intention was clearly reflected in his proposal for an “integrated national defense strategy,” which he distributed to the participants in the dialogue table on Sept. 20, 2012.

It is true that it has been the custom of Maronite presidents in Lebanon to spend the first three years of their term calling for national accord, building bridges between different political parties and components of Lebanon. This has sometimes been done to the detriment of traditional Christian principles.

On the other hand, the last three years of the president's term have been usually dedicated to upholding and defending the requirements of Lebanese sovereignty. This is when they cling back to the dominant movement of their denomination and identify with their historical principles as Maronite Christians.

Thus, the first half of the presidential term can be placed under the title of “reconciliation and the requirements of governance,” while the second half goes under the title of “sovereignty and the defense of the republic.”

Suleiman was no exception to this rule, which has become almost mandatory for all presidents who come to office. His rejection of the idea of having a second term, as he has declared on many occasions, is nothing but further proof of his unwillingness to compromise on these principles for the sake of any voter.

Moreover, there is no doubt that what encouraged him to take a more rigid stance on sovereignty matters is the fact that he is well-aware of the need to return the balance to the domestic equation, especially following the collapse of the March 14 camp after the overthrow of the Hariri government in 2011.

Those who are well-informed of the situation in Lebanon know very well that balance is a prerequisite for the country’s stability, which is based on peculiar balances between its historical and cultural components.

Undoubtedly, the main reason that prompted Suleiman to shift from his medial stance is that Hezbollah has been deeply involved in the war raging in Syria, which poses many security and economic challenges to the country. That Hezbollah has been fighting alongside Assad’s forces has taken many dimensions and posed a threat to the Lebanese diversity.

What’s more, Hezbollah has waged many campaigns against the Gulf states that are friendly to Lebanon, including Qatar or Saudi Arabia, because of their policy against the regime in Syria. To say the least, the party’s stance is in direct conflict with traditional Lebanese diplomacy, and harms the economic interests of Lebanon and those of its citizens residing in the Gulf. This is not to mention the perils at the domestic level, including the burden of the Syrian refugees and, most important, the infiltration of extreme jihadist groups into Lebanon. In the face of these threats to civil peace, Suleiman was left with no other choice but to distance Lebanon from the Syrian crisis. 

This is the essence of the Baabda Declaration that was approved by all parties, including Hezbollah, in June 2012. At the time, Hezbollah believed that this document constituted a pledge, one that was coupled with a Saudi approval, to stop the infiltration of militants from the northern Sunni areas to support the Syrian rebels. Back then, Hezbollah probably thought that its military victory was only a matter of a couple of days. Today, however, the party believes that the Baabda Declaration targets it, since the declaration says that the party ought to withdraw from Syria.

Ironically enough, the Hezbollah-led campaign against the president — set against the backdrop that Suleiman was clinging to the Baabda Declaration, which aims to isolate the party — did not achieve its goals, but rather yielded contrary results. Most of the parties at home and abroad have supported the sovereign, or “neutral,” positions of the president, starting with the March 14 camp, in its two parts — the part that is within the government and the part that is outside the government, namely the Lebanese Forces Party.

Interestingly, those who participated in the government are making an effort to adopt the Baabda Declaration in the ministerial statement. For their part, those who are outside the government have rather preferred not to participate because they did not get the other partner’s prior consent on the Baabda Declaration specifically.

But the biggest surprise came from Bkerke, the seat of the Maronite Patriarchate, which issued a document on Feb. 9, days before the formation of the government and a few weeks before the presidential elections. This document mainly tackled the principle of neutrality that was mentioned in the National Pact that laid the foundation for the Lebanese state. From this standpoint, the Bkerke document adopted the Baabda Declaration as a translation of the National Pact and the importance of coexistence. Most of the domestic groups have welcomed this document, amid a Christian consensus and a resounding silence on the part of Hezbollah.

In parallel with the Christian consensus and domestic support, the International Support Group for Lebanon adopted the Baabda Declaration through a decision issued by the secretary-general of the United Nations in the wake of the New York meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2013, which gave the document a legal and international dimension.

What makes the matter more embarrassing for Hezbollah and constitutes a source of confidence and support for Suleiman is the US policy of openness toward Iran. Lebanon has not paid the price for this openness. On the contrary, everything indicates that Iran made sure to send positive signals to the United States through the Lebanese arena, despite its being eliminated from the Geneva table because it did not pay the required price, namely supporting the departure of Assad. The price required to show good intentions on the Syrian arena seemed expensive for Iran. In the Lebanese arena, however, the price seemed reasonable and was reflected by the approval of the government of partnership with the March 14 bloc, in which the latter received a major share.

Interestingly, the Iranian openness signals began with the statements of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who praised the efforts of Suleiman during his visit to Lebanon earlier this year, and then reiterated in Davos weeks ago his call for the withdrawal of all foreign fighters from Syria. Isn’t this the essence of the Baabda Declaration? It should be noted that Hezbollah showed no objection to Zarif’s statement, and its silence was taken as an approval. So what happened today that reinstated the campaigns against the president of the republic? It is a simple question whose answer could be linked to the presidential elections.

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