Lebanon: Things could be getting worse

By Hani Sabra

When James Fallon and I wrote about Lebanon last month, domestic tension was rising over the possibility that the international tribunal set up to prosecute the assassins of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri looked set to indict members of Hezbollah, Lebanon's most powerful military force. The tribunal hasn't issued indictments yet, but things have gotten a lot more complicated. As in the past, trouble in the region could fuel trouble inside Lebanon, but regional collaboration could help head off a political crisis inside the country.

For years, and especially after Hariri's assassination in February 2005, Saudi Arabia antagonized Syria, a key ally of the Saudis' primary regional rival Iran. Riyadh, along with Hariri's son Saad, now Lebanon's prime minister, blamed Damascus for Hariri's killing. Syria maintained its ties with Lebanon's opposition camp in general and Hezbollah in particular.

Relations between the Saudis and Syrians warmed in 2009 as the Saudis saw an opportunity to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, and Syria looked to expand its roster of contacts to ease its own isolation. Lebanon enjoyed a period of stability. To create some more breathing space at home, Saad Hariri worked to improve relations with Syria and (more or less) backed off claims that Damascus was responsible for his father's death. Domestic tensions lingered, but fears of an explosion of violence eased.

Now the Saudi-Syrian understanding appears to be fraying, raising the specter of turmoil again in Lebanon-especially with the tribunal's indictments expected soon. Riyadh may have overestimated Syria's willingness to try to block a bid by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki -- whom the Saudis view as too pro-Iran -- to keep his job following a close election. The Syrians appear disappointed that the Saudis haven't helped them torpedo the tribunal.

That could help explain why a Syrian court has indicted nearly three dozen people, including several Lebanese close to Hariri, on charges of providing false testimony in the assassination investigation -- a move that has provoked a rising tide of anxiety inside Lebanon.

Unless Riyadh and Damascus find a good reason to double down on better relations, Lebanon's domestic situation will deteriorate further. And if the Hariri tribunal issues indictments of Hezbollah members, Lebanon's opposition will probably withdraw its ministers from the government. The opposition has just 10 of 30 ministers, but it can easily persuade newfound friend and erstwhile Hariri ally Walid Jumblatt to withdraw one of his ministers, triggering a collapse of the government that could plunge Lebanon back into the state of sporadic violence and government paralysis that it suffered in 2007-2008.

In the less likely but more dangerous scenario, Hezbollah could respond to indictments as it acted in May 2008, when the group briefly seized control in Beirut. The group certainly has the firepower to take over the city to prove who has the real power in Lebanon.

The Saudis and Syrians could act to reduce the likelihood of these worst-case scenarios, but the point has been made yet again: Lebanon's stability largely depends on the calculations of other governments.

Hani Sabra is an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Middle East practice.