The collapse of Saad Hariri’s government in Lebanon, following the resignation of eleven Hizballah (or Hizballah aligned) ministers, was not unpredictable; the same, however, is not true of the future...
In November I argued that tensions were on the rise, and a political vacuum would develop if Hizballah left the government under increased pressure. Justice versus stability was never going to be easy in Lebanon.
Ever since the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) results were leaked last year, and Hizballah was publically accused of the murder of Rafik Hariri in 2005, the Shi’ah group have been on the defensive, and were not likely to let the UN tribunal accuse and arrest its members peacefully. The fall of the government, and now absence of an authoritative power in Beirut, coupled with an already weak Lebanese Army, now means that the enforcement capability of Saad Hariri is dramatically reduced. Indeed, if the STL findings are ever published, it is doubtful they will achieve justice: the political climate is far from that of 2005, when the outrage over the assassination led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces for the first time in decades.
So where to now?
Internally, Lebanon is likely to be tense for some time. Efforts to form a new government will be tough, as Hizballah may have the power to dismantle the government, yet this does not equate to creative power. Saad Hariri is still the most likely leader in the medium term, but a shift in coalition politics will be needed for a new government to emerge with any substance. The Christian groups allied to Hizballah may be worth watching here, as their support could either isolate or reaffirm the weight of the Shi’ah block.
In terms of foreign pressures, most attention will now fall on Iranian influences within the south and eastern Hizballah strongholds, but the most interesting actor may be Syria. Known as the historical foe of Beirut, Syrian efforts to broker peace in conjunction with Saudi Arabia obviously did not work. Here, as with the Christian groups, any support of Hizballah will strengthen the hand of Iran greatly. Do not be surprised, therefore, if Western efforts to stabilise Lebanon increasingly include Syria, along with the Saudis and Turkey.
The greatest fear in all of this is the threat of violence, both on the streets and across borders. Indeed, from Israel’s point of view, an unchecked Hizballah now free of governmental constraints, sitting on her northern border, will no doubt be unwelcome.
In hoping to avoid violence, the West must be careful not to substitute justice for stability. Whilst the UN trial continues, efforts should be made to support the internationally recognised body in all of its work, and in the longer term, maintaining Lebanese sovereignty will be crucial to not let Lebanon fall back into the fighting ground of the region's varying influences. To do this, UN forces must be given strong backing and support from the wider international community.