Leverage and Legitimacy in Lebanon and Syria
12:14 PM, Jun 16, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati has finally managed to form a cabinet. Since Saad Hariri’s “national unity” government was toppled in January, due to disagreements over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) investigating the assassination of Hariri’s father Rafiq, it is hardly surprising that this cabinet is dominated by pro-Syrian figures eager to end Lebanon’s cooperation with the STL.
The Hariri-led March 14 coalition has wisely decided to stay out of the government and remain in the opposition, pushing its campaign against Hezbollah’s weapons. What’s most noteworthy about the formation of the government is that it includes only two ministers actually affiliated with Hezbollah—which is to say, the party doesn’t need to control the government itself in order to determine the direction of Lebanese politics. So much for advocates of the so-called “Lebanonization” thesis, like the White House’s counterterrorism czar John Brennan, who believe that giving Hezbollah more of a stake in the country’s political system will moderate the terrorist organization. Here’s concrete evidence that the reverse is true—the Party of God participates in state institutions only to enhance its extra-governmental power.
There were a number of issues that delayed the formation of the cabinet, like the demands of Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun for more seats, as well as the fact that Mikati’s Syrian patrons have been otherwise pre-occupied of late. But now that Damascus has exercised its will in Beirut, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is trying to give evidence that he has things under control in his own backyard—even as the Syrian opposition shows no signs of folding, in spite of the mounting death toll.
There seems to be a campaign under way to salvage Bashar’s image by ascribing the violence to his brother Maher, the real “knee-capper,” according to some experts. This narrative likens Bashar to his father Hafez, who was responsible for the 1982 massacre at Hama, and Maher to Hafez’s brother Rifaat, who was exiled. Accordingly, as long as the international community is willing to swallow the lie that someone else is really calling the shots, maybe Bashar can stick around.
Assad plans on delivering a speech tomorrow, which some analysts suspect will simply repeal the death penalty for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood and an article of the constitution decreeing that the Baath party is in charge of the government and society. Of course that hardly constitutes the sort of reform that the Obama administration has demanded. But then it’s not clear what exactly the White House expects from the Syrian leader at this stage; nor does it know what instruments it has at its disposal. The administration fears it doesn’t have sufficient leverage on the regime.
However, as Tony Badran writes in Foreign Policy, “The evolution of the Syrian uprising has presented Washington with a unique opportunity to squeeze Assad. The United States has leverage; it has simply chosen not to use it.”
David Schenker and Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute write that the U.S. has plenty of leverage. First, there’s economic pressure—target the energy sector and businesses associated with the regime. Then there’s diplomatic isolation—refer Assad to the International Criminal Court, and focus the International Atomic Energy Agency’s attention on the regime’s secret nuclear facility. Finally, they recommend hastening the unraveling of the Syrian military and publicly voicing their support for the Syrian people.