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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Reassessment ?

I have had a hard time posting anything of value lately, mostly because the situation in Lebanon is so downright repulsive that I could not bring myself to sit down and write anything useful that the Lebanese blogosphere has not already successfully and repetitively tackled...

Perhaps at the risk of breaking that trend, in this post I intend to briefly examine the current impasse in Lebanon from the context of the power struggle between the various political factions in Lebanon, the regional players, and the international ones, as well as the interplay among them.

For anyone who reads this post, I ask that you be patient with me as I try to dissect the situation and that you keep in mind that I am doing this as much for my understanding of the Lebanese impasse as for anything else.

Zoom Out
It may be quite useful to take the current delays in voting in a new president as simply another skirmish in the battle for Lebanon. Clearly the battle for Lebanon, from an international perspective, is to be taken in the context of the diplomatic war being waged between Syria and Iran on one hand and the West on the other. Nothing has changed from that perspective. Except that the momentum seems to have shifted, for various reasons.

In particular, in the immediate aftermath of the Hariri assassination and the ensuing intense international and local Lebanese pressure the momentum was clearly in favor of the March 14 movement and its international sponsors thereby forcing the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon. Furthermore, the Mehlis era of the international investigation put extreme pressure on the Syrians and on their March 8 allies placing them in a distinctively defensive position. March 14 managed to consolidate some gains with a government composed mainly of their people but failed miserably to push the envelope any further by ousting Lahoud.

Since then, blunder after blunder on the March 14 side and a cooling of the pressure put by the international investigation under Brammertz led to the momentum slowly shifting to the March 8 side. Moreover, the aftermath of the July war between Hezbollah and Israel has proved to be a particularly miserable time for the March 14'ers with the offensive shifting to the opposition which even tried (and failed) to topple the government.

Fast Forward
After the continuing ebb and flow between government and opposition, and more generally between March 14 and March 8, and more globally between the West and the Syro/Iranian axis, there seems to be a certain equilibrium that has been reached, a certain balance of power. The trenches are dug and the opposing sides are unable to gain much ground.

Zoom In
While the internal balance of power is understandable given everything that has happened and the possible incompetence of March 14 in managing the crisis to their favor, one question that remains is whether it would be possible for them to regain the upper hand?

The Big Picture
Well, to answer that question, one must look at the current stalemate and examine the possible ways to break it, but more importantly one must understand that any risk taken could result in defeat rather than victory. Thus it becomes important to assess the possible gains in taking any risky maneuvers, weighing them against the risk factor and making an educated guess as to whether the maneuver is worth it. Finally, it is imperative that the decision reached be based upon a sober analysis of the above factors.

In the Blue Corner
As far as March 8 is concerned, the strategy that they are employing is mainly summarized by: impede, impede, impede. In the background, plan B lurks (whether or not it would be put into action) and the March 14ers know it. More precisely, in case March 14 chooses to try something that March 8 considers bold or threatening, the M14ers have to do it with the implicit threat of civil disorder - or worse - by their opponents and the tightly controlled Hizbollah crowd.

While they impede and hold their opponents in check with the threat of chaos, the M8ers don't really have a victory strategy apart from waiting for the current parliament to either finish its 4 year mandate or for enough M14 MP's to spontaneously combust so that the majority in parliament shifts.

In the Red Corner
On the other hand, the M14 cards have quickly run out, and all they can do is threaten with a 50+1 election of a new president or with a government initiated amendment of the constitution in favor of an army chief who at best is an unknown commodity. The latter option is being impeded, while the former is held in check with the opposition's implicit threat of chaos.

Thus, it is most likely that the internal balance cannot be broken without outside assistance that has to be real, understood, appraised and efficiently utilized.

Weight of the Supporting Cast
Clearly the M8ers have solid political and logistic support from the Syrians and solid political and financial support from the Iranians. However, they are incapable of helping their allies deliver a KO to the March 14ers for fear of international retribution. Thus the M8ers support is real, understood, appraised and insufficient for a KO.

Similarly, March 14 has (semi-?)solid international support and (weak ?) Arab support that keeps the opposition from leveraging its external allies/sponsors' superior financial and logistic support into a clear victory. However, for one reason or another March 14 seems incapable of leveraging its own external support into victory. Namely, their own indecisiveness has proven crippling, and the constant European and occasional American engagement of Syria has possibly instilled doubt into the March 14ers minds and made them refrain further from any bold gestures. Thus, March 14 knows it is supported but does not know for sure how much, or how far its international supporters would back it should chaos erupt, or how useful such support would be. Moreover, even if it does understand all of that, M14 may not be willing to live with the consequences of chaos. All that uncertainty seems to be crippling M14 which seems to be just dancing around the ring waiting for their opponent to slip up. Their time would be better spent waiting for Godot.

Assessment: In Brief
It is thus more and more clear that this is not a time where a clear victory can be expected from (and by) either side. The crisis is being managed and political battles are being fought slowly, with a backdrop of assassinations and possible (real/perceived) instability. It seems that those are the now accepted rules of the game. In any case, now that the president will be either the increasingly unlikely army general or an inconsequential other, the opposition seems resigned to live with the M14 government while trying to haggle for position in the next.

Back to The Future
Moreover, as the clock ticks on the international tribunal, the presidential election, and the ensuing government, the current parliament trudges slowly closer to the end of its term without a viable electoral law in place. As that further deadline looms closer and closer, and as the regional and international players fail to force the other side's hand, the only internal possibility to break the stalemate seems to be either a bold M8 move in the direction of chaos, or a bold M14 move in the direction of electing a 50+1 president that is not Suleiman - or both. Of course, another distinct possibility is a gradual softening of stances from some of the individual components of one side or both sides, maybe even leading to realignment...

Reassessment: In Briefer
The most likely option, based on the above, is more of the same. Meanwhile, the players seem to accept the new rules of the game, and will most likely play by them. It is still a stare down.

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