Weeks on, it remains unclear what exactly happened in the mountains of Lebanon at the end of June that resulted in the deaths of two security guards. What is clear is that it paralyzed all political business in Lebanon and plunged the country into a political crisis.
The raw facts are these: Lebanon’s controversial foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, a Christian, was due to visit a Druze stronghold in Basateen, a town in the Chouf Mountains. Under pressure, he backed out and a junior Druze minister, Saleh Al Gharib, went instead. The circumstances and sequence of events are still murky but at some point, a firefight ensued and two bodyguards were killed.
Both politicians and their parties are allies of Hezbollah and all portrayed it as an assassination attempt against either Al Gharib or Bassil (claiming the assailants thought it was him in the convoy). Both pointed the finger of blame at Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. As they argued over who was responsible and how to bring the perpetrators to trial, the Lebanese cabinet was deadlocked and the prime minister unable to govern. The standoff lasted for 40 days until the cabinet finally reconvened last weekend.
Certainly, the events of the past six weeks reveal the current political dynamics inside Lebanon. Alliances, adversaries and foreign supporters were all on show. But they also provide a glimpse of something bigger and more disturbing: how the Assad regime intends to police its smaller neighbor once the civil war in Syria is over and how it intend to do it without resorting to overt influence or violence. Having used an iron fist to get its way in Syria, the Assad regime is testing out a velvet glove on Lebanon.
The Lebanese parliament and the cabinet are more or less evenly split between those who are pro- and anti-Hezbollah and, by extension, pro- and anti-Assad regime. Tipping the scales decisively in favor of both is one of the primary goals of the Assad regime. In the past, that would have been accomplished by force; the regime was implicated in the assassinations of a number of anti-Syrian voices in the early 2000s. But after the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005 and with political resources in Syria currently consumed by the civil war, the regime wants to exercise a different form of control.
The strategy is two-fold: ruthlessly exploit sectarian divisions and grind their opponents between the gears of Lebanon’s heavily politicized institutions. Given Lebanon’s history, the first is potentially combustible, but Hezbollah’s allies have been cavalier about it. During the civil war, Lebanese Christians were driven out of the mountains at gunpoint by Jumblatt’s Druze forces, something Bassil, as a Christian himself, has dragged up in public.
For Hezbollah, unseating Jumblatt has become a priority. By promoting the Lebanese Democratic Party, the party of Druze minister Al Gharib, as an alternative power center, they hope to end Jumblatt’s domination of the Druze community and further push the numbers in parliament into the pro-Syrian camp. Jumblatt’s relations with Damascus, once close, have deteriorated since 2005 and he is now an ardent critic of Syrian involvement in the country. But stirring up internecine Druze conflict is dangerous. Rival power factions in the community have in the past taken up arms against each other and conflict within the Druze might easily drag in other faith groups.
Jumblatt’s mistake has been to agitate against Hezbollah maintaining its own weapons – the only major group outside Lebanese state control to do so. Weapons are a red line for both Hezbollah and Damascus. Without them, Hezbollah would lose a huge part of its domestic political leverage as a deterrence against Israeli attack and Damascus would feel a lot less secure. Let us not forget the essential role Hezbollah played in saving the Assad regime in the early days of the Syrian uprising.
The second part of the strategy is to utilize Lebanon’s institutions. The reason for the 40-day stand-off seems to be a legal technicality: was the June 30 attack an “ordinary” crime, to be investigated by the courts, or was it an attack on a government minister, which makes it a state security crime and brings it under the purview of the Judicial Council, Lebanon’s highest court. Bassil and his allies were pushing for the Judicial Council, because only an investigation at that level could assign political culpability, which would threaten Jumblatt directly. In the end, the pro-Syrian camp backed down; the fudged decision is that the courts will investigate the matter and then the cabinet will decide on further action.
The pro-Syrian camp, led by Hezbollah and Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement, have shown they are not afraid of endless political paralysis in Lebanon; indeed, part of the implied threat during the stand-off was that Hezbollah could persuade more than a third of the cabinet to resign, thereby triggering a collapse of the government. In its quest for political dominance, the pro-Syrian camp is happy to make politics itself a casualty.
The Basateen incident is over, for now. But it came about because of a convergence of three political issues that are unlikely to go away. The first is Bassil’s blatant desire to succeed his father-in-law, Michel Aoun, as president of Lebanon, perhaps as soon as at the next election in 2022. The second is Hezbollah’s desire to protect its weapons and to have that protection enshrined in Lebanese law. The third is Damascus’ desire for more normal ties with Beirut as the Syrian civil war comes to an end – a normalization that a Bassil presidency would most easily provide.
Those aspects remain current and there is little doubt the Damascus-Hezbollah axis will seek to foment a new political crisis before the next election. Damascus’ new strategy may be gentler than in the past, but it will still draw blood.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.