Friday, November 16, 2007

Who will blink first?

Nov.16, 2007

Who will blink first in Lebanon?

A LAST-ditch effort is under way to resolve the crisis in Lebanon over who should be the country's next president. The latest to join the effort is UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon after Lebann's powerful Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir has been thrust to the forefront of the bitter struggle between pro- and anti-Syrian — or between pro-US and anti-US political camps as some might want to see it.
For long, Sfeir has resisted being drawn into the crisis, but he was persuaded this week by former colonial power France to name presidential candidates. Surely, Sfeir could not remember but his bitter experience of 1988 when he tried to break a similar presidential deadlock by naming five candidates. Syria, the then dominant power in Lebanon, rejected the list. The dispute was eventually settled with a Syrian military assault on the presidential palace two years later.
Indeed, there is no such Syrian compulsion today. Coming under intense US-led pressure Syria has ended its military pressure in the country, and it is high unlikely that Damascus is entertaining any hope of regaining its lost dominance of Lebanon.
However, Syria is very much felt in Lebanese politics; and so do the US and, as such, there is a US compulsion in Lebanon today.
Both Washington and Damascus are accusing each other of interferring in Lebanese affairs but there could be no doubt that the US-Syrian confrontation is linked to the broader crises of the Middle East — the conflict between the Arabs and Israel, a "strategic ally" of the US and the brewing conflict between the US and Iran.
It is into this minefield that Sfeir has been forced to enter. A heavy responsibility that is beyond his call as a religious leader has been thrust onto his shoulders, with the church finding itself in the middle of a dangerous political conflict.
Indeed, it was a relatively better option for France to have thought of the Maronie Patriarchate as the last resort to settle the presidential feud among the country's Christians. However, the fact that the church had to be called in to solve the problem — with no certainty that it would be successful — shows the depth of the political problem.
Neither the US nor Syria would give up their respective positions. As far as Syria and its allies in Lebanon are concerned, the presidential tug-of-war would determine how far Damascus could influence Lebanese politics without maintaining a military presence i Lebanon.
As far as the US and the groups it supports are concerned, it is a matter of establishing that Syria does no longer command any influence of significance in Lebanon, and Israel is playing its own game from the sidelines.
With the Nov.24 presidential deadline fast approaching, all bets are off in Lebanon because the powers that are pulling the strings are very powerful and detemined.
At the same time, it could also turn out to be a question of who will blink first because the stakes are too high and consequences of the crisis left unresolved would be too negative.