Tuesday, June 14, 2011
The Implications of Lebanon's Syria-Approved Cabinet
Five months after the Lebanese government collapsed, Lebanon formed a new Cabinet on June 13. The Cabinet greatly favors members of the Syria-backed March 8 coalition and sidelines members of the Saudi-backed March 14 alliance. The Cabinet, which was created only with Syria’s approval, indicates that Saudi Arabia’s efforts to move Syria into the Arab camp and away from Iran’s influence are running into serious problems. Analysis
After five months of political stagnation caused by a Hezbollah-engineered collapse of the Lebanese government in January, Lebanon formed a new Cabinet on June 13.
There are two important things to note about the Cabinet formation. First, the Cabinet is dominated by members of the Syria-backed March 8 coalition and contains no members of the Saudi-backed March 14 alliance, which boycotted the negotiations. Second, this government — whose sustainability is in doubt — was formed only after Syria gave its blessing. Indeed, Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s visit to Damascus on June 9 to meet with Syrian President Bashar al Assad was crucial to the formation of the Cabinet. Not surprisingly, al Assad was also the first to publicly congratulate Lebanese President Michel Suleiman on forming a government.
The distribution of the seats for those that participated in the Cabinet formation talks is roughly proportional to each party’s representation in parliament. This explains why Hezbollah emerged with three Cabinet positions, while Maronite leader Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement received six. With its allies leading the Lebanese government, Syria (and Hezbollah) has greater ability to thwart the ongoing Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. There is little question, however, that Damascus intends to use this political development to show its regional allies and adversaries that while Damascus is struggling with an uprising that so far does not appear to be losing momentum, Syria’s domestic preoccupation has not undermined its preponderance in Lebanon, a traditional bastion of Syrian influence.
At the same time, the political evolution in Lebanon introduces fresh complications to an already strained Syrian-Saudi relationship. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other U.S.-backed Sunni Arab states have long attempted to draw Damascus into their fold and away from Iran and saw an opportunity in the Syrian uprising to press Damascus on this issue while it was most vulnerable. To this end, the Saudi government has quietly provided support to the al Assad regime while more vocal critics in countries like Turkey have loudly condemned the Syrian government for its violent response to the uprising. The Saudi hope was that Syria would recognize the Arab show of support in its time of need and thus feel compelled to fall more in line with the regional Arab consensus.
But the Saudi-led agenda for Syria appears to be faltering, as illustrated by the exclusion of Riyadh’s allies in the new Lebanese Cabinet. Though Syrian and Iranian interests do not always align, Iran has a strong interest in ensuring the survival of the al Assad regime in order to maintain a strong foothold in the Levant region. Rumors have long been circulating that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is assisting Syrian security forces in cracking down on protesters. Both Syria and Iran were also likely irked by Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian and Qatari efforts to relocate the headquarters of Hamas’ politburo from Damascus to another Arab capital like Doha as a way to undermine Syrian and Iranian influence over the Palestinian organization at a particularly fragile period in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Regardless of the politicians in question, many in Lebanon are relieved to see a government form to lift the country out of its five-month stalemate. However, given the volatility of Lebanese politics and the intervening interests of outside players like Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran, there is no guarantee that the new Lebanese government will hold together for a meaningful period of time. To formalize the new government, the Cabinet still needs to pass a vote of confidence within 30 days and present its political platform, and much can happen between now and then to break this political agreement apart.
Lebanon’s Cabinet Lineup
Prime Minister: Najib Mikati (Sunni)
Deputy Prime Minister: Samir Moqbel (Orthodox)
President Michel Suleiman’s Picks
Interior: Marwan Charbel (Maronite, also considered close to Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement)
Environment: Nazem al-Khoury (Maronite, political advisor to Suleiman)
Prime Minister’s Share
Finance: Mohammad Safadi (Sunni, moved from economy)
Economy: Nicolas Nahhas (Orthodox, Free Patriotic Movement)
Education: Hassan Diab (Sunni)
Information: Walid Daouq (Sunni)
State: Ahmad Karami (Sunni)
Change and Reform Bloc
Justice: Shakib Qortbawi (Maronite, Free Patriotic Movement)
Labor: Charbel Nahhas (Catholic, Free Patriotic Movement, former telecommunications minister)
Tourism: Fadi Abboud (Maronite, Free Patriotic Movement, reappointed)
Energy and Water: Gebran Bassil (Maronite, Free Patriotic Movement, reappointed)
Telecommunications: Nicolas Sehnaoui (Orthodox, Free Patriotic Movement)
Culture: Gaby Layoun (Catholic, Free Patriotic Movement)
Defense: Fayez Ghosn (Orthodox, Marada Movement)
State: Salim Karam (Maronite, Marada Movement)
State: Panos Manajian (Armenian Orthodox, Tashnaq Party)
Industry: Freije Sabounjian (Armenian Orthodox, Tashnaq Party)
Progressive Socialist Party
Public Works and Transportation: Ghazi Aridi (Druze, reappointed)
Social Affairs: Wael Abu Faour (Druze, former state minister)
The Displaced: Alaeddine Terro (Sunni)
Administrative Reform: Mohammad Fneish (Shiite, reappointed)
Agriculture: Hussein Hajj Hassan (Shiite, reappointed)
Youth and Sports: Faisal Karami (Sunni)
Foreign Affairs: Adnan Mansour (Shiite)
Public Health: Ali Hassan Khalil (Shiite)
Lebanese Democratic Party
State: Talal Arslan (Druze; latest reports indicate that Arslan is refusing to join the government)
Syrian Social Nationalist Party
State: Ali Qanso (Shiite)
State for Parliament Affairs: Nicolas Fattouch (Catholic)