Middle East

Syrian influence grows in the new Lebanese government

Posters supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at a rally in Beirut
Image caption More than ever, the face of Syria looms behind the body politic of Lebanon.

For the first time since the watershed moment in February 2005 when Sunni former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed by a car bomb, Lebanon finds itself with a one-sided, mainly pro-Syrian government.

It is an ironic development, crystallising the steady political comeback the Syrians have staged since their troops were obliged to pull out of Lebanon in May 2005, in the face of Lebanese and international outrage over the Hariri assassination.

Damascus managed to achieve its return to primary influence through close ties with powerful Lebanese clients such as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, the mainstream Shia Amal movement headed by parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and a broad network of allies across the sectarian spectrum.

Chief among all these is Hezbollah, whose power largely stems from the fact that its militia, which fought Israel in a month-long war in 2006, is stronger and more cohesive than the Lebanese national army itself.

Hezbollah has taken for itself only two cabinet seats out of 30, but its status as the prime mover in the government is beyond doubt, for the first time.

It took the Prime Minister-designate, Najib Mikati, five months of tortuous wrangling and horse-trading to produce the new administration, which has to spell out its political platform and pass a parliamentary vote of approval before taking office.

Image caption A relieved Najib Mikati announces the formation of his new government after five months of horse-trading.

The nature of the breakthrough that made the cabinet possible, and its timing, strongly suggest that Damascus urgently wanted to have a friendly government in place in Beirut, as Syria itself faces by far its most dangerous internal challenge in more than 40 years of rule by the Assad clan and the Baath Party.

The 11th-hour breakthrough was made possible by a sudden concession from one of Syria's staunchest allies, Mr Berri, who gave away one of the Shia seats that was in his gift to a Sunni figure from Tripoli, Faisal Karami - the son of Rafik Hariri's pro-Syrian successor as prime minister, Omar Karami.

That meant that the government - always carefully calibrated between the country's various sects - has seven Sunni members to only five Shias, in an unprecedented development.

Until that point, the strong impression had been that Hezbollah itself was content to see the government negotiations going round in circles.

It knows that the international Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is preparing to issue indictments over the Hariri murder in the coming few weeks.

Thinly-veiled warnings

The indictments are expected to name members of Hezbollah as implicated in the killing.

That is the issue over which Hezbollah and its allies in January brought down the previous, largely-paralysed national unity government, headed by Rafik Hariri's son, Saad, who rejected pressures to denounce and reject the STL.

Had the long-awaited indictments come out at a time when Lebanon had no properly functioning government, nobody would have been held responsible for failing to co-operate positively with the international body.

Image caption Superficially the new regime shows little sign of the sway, which Hezbollah with hold in reality.

As it is, despite the low profile it has given itself in the new administration, Hezbollah will be more exposed than it would have been.

The imminent indictments are likely to face Mr Mikati and his cabinet with their first major challenge.

How he and the government react could have a major effect in determining the attitude of foreign powers to the new administration.

So far the Americans and others have said they will judge it on its behaviour, and urged it to live up to its international obligations.

Mr Mikati himself has said he will strive to do that, but added: "I have responsibilities when it comes to Lebanon's stability".

That was a reference to thinly-veiled warnings from Hezbollah that there would be severe repercussions if any government goes along with the expected indictments.

Economic opportunity

The need to have strong Sunni cover in such contentious circumstances would explain why Syria's Shia allies were willing to give up cabinet seats to the Sunnis, as well as compensating for the absence of Saad Hariri's strong bloc, which boycotted the new government.

But Mr Mikati will be walking a tightrope within his own Sunni community, where the bulk of opinion supports Mr Hariri and is generally against the Syrians.

As well as trying to court Western opinion, he will also be striving not to fall foul of the Sunnis' powerful regional patron, Saudi Arabia, which has strong feelings over the Hariri case.

Less than 24 hours after the government announcement, Mr Mikati left for Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to perform the Umra, or minor pilgrimage.

A self-made billionaire, he has stressed that while trying to navigating the conflicting regional and international currents in which Lebanon is caught up, his main priority will be to improve services and create jobs.

Financial experts say that, political considerations aside, Mr Mikati's government is arriving at a good moment for the country's economy.

"It's a great opportunity," said one. "The economy is slow, so it's a good time to spend on developing infrastructure, with positive repercussions for growth and investment".

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