Hug Hezbollah to death if necessary

Turkey’s assessment is that the regime of President Bashar Assad will survive another three months. If that’s true, it may undercut Hezbollah’s strategy in Lebanon, namely to use summer elections in order to gird the party with the legitimacy of state institutions, in that way protecting its weapons. Hezbollah will not disappear, but the party must pursue more modest objectives, or it may lose everything.

Hezbollah has already stated that it seeks a proportional law for the elections, hoping this will bring it a parliamentary majority with its allies, so it can choose a president in 2014. Hezbollah assumes that Saad Hariri would lose more seats than the party under a proportional system. And yet March 14 and Walid Jumblatt’s bloc control the majority of parliamentarians who favor the 1960 law. This assumes that Christian parties in March 14 will accept the law as a basis for elections. If no broad agreement over a new law is reached, the 1960 law will prevail, and Hezbollah in all probability will lose.

So what are Hezbollah’s options? To delay elections and retain the present government? That is possible, but the downside, especially if Assad is ousted before then, is that this would provoke anger in Lebanon, with few people understanding why there are no elections given that the Syrian conflict is over. This would make Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s position untenable, particularly if Jumblatt bolts. So, that path is hard to envisage, and no doubt foreign embassies would urge the government to hold the elections on time.

The 1960 law would surely govern those elections, as there is almost no likelihood of a consensus over an alternative law before summer. Christians don’t like the 1960 law, which is why Geagea needs to show that he’s unhappy with the law, before ultimately agreeing to it. His final approval of the 1960 law he would probably use to push Saad Hariri to place Lebanese Forces candidates on his lists, and in that way secure a substantial bloc. Perhaps Geagea is hoping that this would allow him to claim that he is the principal Christian representative, in the hope that in 2014 it will propel him into the presidency.

Hezbollah will attempt to rally Christians against the law, but this will not be easy. That’s why Geagea has to be careful and not discredit the 1960 law too much. The election law proposal of the Lebanese Forces has zero chance of being approved, and it is useful only as an instrument that Geagea can use to extract concessions from Hariri on behalf of Geagea’s candidates. Beyond that, Geagea must avoid falling into Hezbollah’s trap of becoming a bettering ram against a 1960 law that the party regards as its ticket to defeat.

What the party would ideally like to do in 2014 is use a parliamentary majority to bring a friendly president to office. The assumption is that the party favorite is Jean Kahwagi, the Army commander. However, once Assad goes, Kahwagi will see his electoral chances virtually disappear. He is regarded as someone too close to Hezbollah and Michel Aoun to be reassuring to March 14. In order to improve his chances, Kahwagi may distance the Army from Hezbollah after Assad falls, so that March 14 finds him more palatable.

But even then, Kahwagi would face two sets of problems: Those backing him may be on the defensive, while the political alliance expected to benefit from the collapse of the Assad regime distrusts him. To reverse the latter mood, the commander will have to take steps to satisfy his critics and alienate his supporters. And second, we would have to watch Michel Aoun’s moves. Aoun may present himself as a presidential candidate, putting Hezbollah in a quandary.

Hezbollah’s inability to impede the 1960 law is at the heart of its dilemma. The party’s problem is that Jumblatt cannot possibly accept a proportional law, which would guarantee his political marginalization. That is why Hezbollah must find a system that satisfies Jumblatt and undermines Hariri. That’s no easy task. There is mistrust between Hariri and Jumblatt, but neither sees an interest in breaking ranks over a new law. They intend to be electoral allies and together have a majority to derail any alternative to the 1960 law.

If Hezbollah cannot impose a new law, and cannot block elections, and cannot elect its favored candidate to the presidency, what is the party to do? The assumption in March 14 is that Assad’s downfall will bring the party running to the negotiating table. That’s doubtful. But what the situation may do is make Hezbollah reckless, as it deploys the one thing it still retains, military power, to keep its political foes in line.

However, Sunnis are no longer willing to stand down. Hezbollah’s intimidation is bound to lead to a new civil war, which Hezbollah cannot hope to win, whatever its prowess. Lebanon would be destroyed in the process, with no one emerging a clear victor.

That’s why March 14 must head off Hezbollah’s actions by pursuing the dialogue that it today deems unnecessary. The party has read events in Syria wrong and is reaching a political dead end. Helping it out of this impasse through negotiations, and not through a frontal assault, is the best way to earn concessions from an over-armed organization.

The party’s political strategy, in light of what the removal of the Assads would mean for Lebanon, will fail. Otherwise we may see violence, which March 14, the prospective beneficiary of change in Syria, must avert at all costs. This means divining Hezbollah’s objectives and ensuring they are neutralized. And if it requires hugging Hezbollah to death, so be it. The party will not melt away, even if the future looks increasingly bleak to its officials.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

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