News Notes: Hezbollah Stalls Lebanon’s Government Formation; President Aoun Talks Economic Developme

Thursday, November 15, 2018
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

There is not much that can be said to explain Hezbollah’s latest efforts to torpedo PM Designate Saad Hariri’s by insisting, at the last minute, on a ministerial portfolio for their allied Sunni members in Parliament. Even President Aoun insists that the previous configuration, arrived at after almost six months of consultations, is the preferred outcome. Acting Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil suggested a solution in a meeting with the Prime Minister and Nabih Berri, Speaker of the Parliament, yet the outcome is still uncertain. Meanwhile, Lebanon continues its downward economic spiral and lags on enacting important legislation to deal with widespread unhappiness with the state of government services.

Insiders insist that Hezbollah is playing a long game to undermine the current government and even President Aoun by holding the government hostage and insisting on broadening its support at the expense of the president and the prime minister. Given Hassan Nasrallah’s recent speech in which he reiterated his insistence on an additional ministry, more deadlock seems inevitable.

President Michel Aoun, meanwhile, has been making his own efforts to keep Lebanon’s economy from further deterioration. After meeting with Charles Arbeed, the President of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Mohammad Choucair, President of the Lebanese Economic Authorities, and Bechara Asmar, President of the General Labor Confederation, he said, “The delicate and difficult economic situation that the country is going through as a result of accumulations of previous years and unexpected events in the Middle East and the world require an effort to find the necessary solutions. This will top the priorities’ list of the next government upon its formation, especially since the foundations of these solutions are clear and need the participation of all, officials as well as economic, social and labor forces.”

He reviewed with them the ECOSOC working paper that recommends 22 actions “[focused] on reducing public expenditure, reforming pension and delivery systems, regulating public administration and establishing new financial controls and policies,” according to Arbeed. He later met with a delegation of the Union of Importers and Exporters of Vegetables and Fruits as well as the President of the Union of Truck Owners who urged the president to continue his efforts to open up the border crossing critical to Lebanon’s exports to Jordan, the Gulf and Iraq, and work to reduce taxes and fees on agricultural transactions to enable Lebanese products to be more competitive.

Russia continues to build up its role as the regional go-to leader. In a series of meetings in Iran and Syria following the Istanbul summit, Russian officials made sure to let their allies know how their interests were served by Russia’s leadership. On topics such as the future of the conflict zone surrounding Idlib, dealing with Syria’s objections to the UN formulation of participation in the proposed constitutional committee, plans for refugee repatriation and Syria’s reconstruction, and the implications of the Istanbul summit, Russia made it obvious that its interests are aligned with Iran, Turkey, and Syria and in direct opposition to the US and UK.

However, the article concluded that despite its aggressive agenda, as one Syrian official put it, “Russia neither had a constructive agenda themselves nor significant influence on the ground [in Syria] to be able to push their decisions on us. It’s OK, they needed almost a year to understand it. Now all but the United States and the UK come around to work with us, we are open.”

National Interest posted a blog about future threats to regional stability as a result of Iran’s buildup of foreign militias to fight in Syria and elsewhere. It has become a hot topic in Western capitals as the larger conflict in Syria draws down and even Yemen may be on the cusp of at least discussions around a peace process. As Emily Burchfield, the author, points out, “Iran has spent decades building up these forces, and it will take more than an afterthought from the United States to counter them.”

This was one impetus behind the recent Hezbollah sanctions and expansion of sanctions against Hezbollah leaders in Iraq and Syria. She warns that “Given the Trump administration’s reticence to commit to Syria in terms of troops or funds, the stated goal of removing all Iranian presence and proxies from the country does not match the ways and means available. Rhetoric that promises such an end-state sets the United States up for failure and loss of legitimacy.”

As ATFL has argued in several articles, the absence of US leadership in the region regarding Syria, the refugees, and reconstruction has only strengthened Russia’s hand, and undercuts America’s shared interests with Lebanon and Jordan. The US appears muddled and inconsistent, without a comprehensive strategy for countering Iran in Syria and more broadly in the region. It will be intriguing to see if the US Ambassador-designate to Saudi Arabia, former General John AbiZaid, who is himself Lebanese-American, will bring a determined and credible US vision to the region.