Lebanon’s year-old coalition government collapsed Wednesday amid fears that a United Nations report into the 2005 assassination of the country’s prime minister will trigger a new civil war and plunge the Middle East into another conflict.
“We may well be seeing the opening moves of the next Middle East war,” said Bruce Riedel, a veteran U.S. national security official who is now a Middle East scholar at the Brookings Institution.
The government in Beirut fell after 11 of 30 Cabinet ministers, all supporters of the Hezbollah-backed March 8 bloc, resigned - the culmination of a long tussle with other elements of the coalition over how to respond to a U.N. special tribunal investigating the killing. Hezbollah, a Shiite extremist group backed by Iran and Syria that the United States has designated a terrorist organization, is a legal political party with a large parliamentary caucus in Lebanon. Following inconclusive elections in 2009 and months of haggling, Hezbollah and its allies joined a unity government in Beirut.
“This is obviously, in our view, a transparent attempt to force the Lebanese government to back away from its support for the special tribunal,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters.
In public, the United States has insisted that the tribunal, as an independent, U.N.-backed law enforcement body, merits the backing of the Lebanese government and must be allowed to complete its work free of interference.
In private, however, there is a debate, said Aram Nerguizian, a scholar with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
“Some [in the administration] are asking where this is all heading and what it might mean” for regional stability and broader U.S. interests if the Netherlands-based U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon indicts senior Hezbollah figures, precipitating a crisis that could end in “civil strife, if not outright civil war,” Mr. Nerguizian said.
The tribunal is poised to complete its lengthy investigation into the 2005 car bombing that killed then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others, and tensions over the probe have paralyzed the coalition in Beirut for months.
Tribunal officials have been silent about the progress of the investigation and what evidence it collected. However, several observers told The Washington Times that investigators are expected to hand their dossier to the tribunal shortly, perhaps as soon as this weekend.
Based on the evidence collected by investigators, the tribunal may then issue indictments, but the outcome of the investigation is being guarded very closely.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said last year that “rogue” members of his group would be named by investigators as involved in the slaying plot. But he denounced the probe as “an Israeli project” and called on Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated leader, to reject the tribunal’s findings.
Some observers also say Syrian officials might be implicated by the probe. “My understanding is, the trail is going to lead eventually to Syrian officials through Hezbollah,” said Jeffrey White, a former U.S. intelligence official and Middle East specialist who is now a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Mr. Hariri in the past accused Syria of having a hand in the killing of his father. He retracted those allegations last year, but so far has resisted pressure from Hezbollah and its allies to denounce the tribunal.
As is traditional in Lebanese politics, foreign interests have taken a hand, with the leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia trying to broker a compromise deal between Lebanese factions, and the United States, with France, attempting to shore up support for Mr. Hariri’s government.
“It’s a game of chicken,” Mr. White said. “This is one of the options Hezbollah had — to escalate the crisis in an effort to force the hand” of the other parties.
He predicted Mr. Hariri would blink first. “If it’s true that [the investigation has uncovered links to the plot] high up in Hezbollah, they can’t blink first … and emerge from this intact.”
On the other hand, it will be hard for Mr. Hariri not to blink if he wants to put together any kind of new government.
“I don’t think it’s possible to get a functioning coalition in Lebanon right now without the involvement of Hezbollah,” Mr. White said.
Part of the problem, Mr. Nerguizian said, is that sectarian polarization has seized Lebanese politics over the past several years. “Polarizing debate and polarizing rhetoric has really shrunk the [perceived] gap between Hezbollah’s interests and the interests of the Shiite community in Lebanon as a whole,” he said.
If the tribunal indicts leaders of Hezbollah, “the majority of Shiites will see that as an indictment against their whole community,” he said.
Another problem for diplomats is that Hezbollah, a key player in the crisis, is considered a pariah by most Western governments. “Only Syria and Iran can rein in Hezbollah and prevent it from taking over the Lebanese state,” Mr. Riedel said.
Mr. Hariri was in Washington meeting with President Obama as news of the mass resignations broke Wednesday. In a statement issued after the meeting, Mr. Obama praised the prime minister’s “steadfast leadership and efforts to reach peace, stability and consensus in Lebanon under difficult circumstances” and his commitment to support the tribunal.
Mr. Hariri was on his way to Paris on Wednesday night to meet with French President Nicholas Sarkozy for talks about the crisis, but Mr. Nerguizian cautioned against expecting any swift results.
Instead, he described the government’s collapse as “the opening of a new cycle” in Lebanese politics, which he compared to a game of “confessional musical chairs” played by the country’s various religious and political groupings.
“When the music stops” during a crisis such as the coalition’s collapse, “each [religious] community tries to sit on as many chairs as it can,” Mr. Nerguizian said, predicting that Wednesday’s news would herald “a resumption of that cycle of contestation for state power.”
Mr. White also stressed that although the crisis was dangerous, conflict was not inevitable. “Lebanon has a long history of demonstrating a large capacity for dealing with crises like this,” he said, “This will test it. … Things will likely get more tense over the coming days and weeks.”