Thursday, June 20, 2013

A crack in the Aoun-Hezbollah alliance?

[Originally posted at NOW]

Analysts say Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria is stirring unease among its Christian allies

In an unusual and perhaps suggestive departure from his party’s typical talking points, caretaker Energy Minister and senior Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) member, Gebran Bassil, launched a bitter attack Tuesday on his staunch political ally Hezbollah, accusing them of having “stabbed us and stabbed democracy.”

The remarks, given in an interview with the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, referred specifically to Hezbollah’s backing of a decision to extend the term of Lebanon’s parliament. However, Bassil further criticized Hezbollah’s military intervention in the neighboring Syrian conflict, saying such a move brought “problems to Lebanon that are not in [Lebanon’s] interests.” He also said the move jeopardized the country’s important economic relations with Gulf Arab states.

Indeed, these latter comments may be the more significant ones. For while Bassil stressed that any disagreements between the FPM and Hezbollah “would not affect the strategic alliance between the two parties,” analysts with whom NOW spoke said there was reason to believe Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has stirred considerable anxiety among the FPM’s Christian base.

“Lebanese Maronites are divided, but despite their differences they have a common vision for Lebanon,” said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “They see Lebanon as a citadel of freedom and they enjoy their Lebanese way of life. They are aware that Hezbollah’s entry into Syria will backfire, and actually has begun to backfire already.”

“What can Hezbollah’s Maronite allies do when wave after wave of Sunni jihadists converge on Lebanon from Syria? They see the threat. [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah and the rest of Hezbollah don’t see it, because they are driven by millenarian aspirations and they cannot say no to the quasi-infallible Supreme Leader of Iran. So while Hezbollah feels it is on the side of the winner, [FPM leader Michel] Aoun and Bassil are beginning to feel that their alliance with Hezbollah may bring about a disaster for Lebanon.”

While not necessarily an accurate indicator of the party mood, posts on the FPM-affiliated ‘Orange Room’ web forum do provide some evidence of this unease. A poll last week, titled, “Was it right of Hezbollah to enter the Syrian war?” yielded a divided response, with 53 percent saying yes and a slightly smaller 47 percent no. Several commenters echoed the points made by Khashan, with one, for example, writing, “By entering the Syrian war, it is my opinion that [Hezbollah] took a bad decision and might have opened the Pandora[‘s] box.” Another said, “We should let the Syrians fix their mess on their own… [Hezbollah’s] involvement will ***** [sic] Lebanon in the end.”

Bassil’s comments about deteriorating ties with Gulf states may also have touched on many FPM members’ concerns. Earlier this month, Saudi media reported that Gulf citizens had been advised by their governments not to travel to “unsafe” Lebanon – a development to which Bassil alluded in the interview, saying, “We say to the [Gulf Arabs] come to Lebanon this summer, because we cannot imagine a summer without their presence among us.”

“That’s another factor, obviously,” said Charles Chartouni, a professor of politics at the Université Saint-Joseph and the Lebanese University. “It’s a question of major financial interests. [Aoun’s] people are not ready to compromise their jobs, their financial interests, for the sake of a political agenda. This is something that is even causing disagreement among the Shiites,” he told NOW.

Khashan agrees, adding that the considerable Lebanese diaspora in the Gulf – and the many FPM voters among them – may be growing increasingly concerned for their financial security. “There are half a million Lebanese in the Gulf, and the percentage of Christians among them is quite high. And Lebanese Christians have excellent positions over there, and Aoun is putting them in the way of harm.”

Ultimately, no analyst NOW spoke to believed the FPM-Hezbollah alliance is under serious threat for the moment. But, in Khashan’s view, it will not last forever.

“I’m not saying the alliance between Hezbollah and the FPM is coming to an end now. But it is an awkward one… between two groups that felt marginalized in Lebanese politics at the time [in 2006]. Two groups coming together for negative reasons are not expected to develop a healthy alliance. It’s an alliance based on contradictions. Needless to say, such an alliance is bound to come to an end at one time or another.”

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