Hezbollah has followed through on its threat to topple the Lebanese government if PM Sa’ad Hariri refused to convene an emergency cabinet meeting to condemn the UN tribunal that is investigating the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father, then-PM Rafik Hariri. The tribunal is expected to announce indictments of Hezbollah members for the bombing, which also killed twenty-two other people.
Sa’ad Hariri has consistently refused to condemn the tribunal, holding fast even in the face of efforts by the Saudis and the Syrians to strong-arm a capitulation. In response, ten Hezbollah and Hezbollah-supporting ministers (out of a total of 30) walked out of the fragile “unity” government this afternoon, forcing its collapse. An eleventh minister joined them this evening. Hariri was meeting with President Obama at the time of the walkout and was forced to cut short his trip to return to the crisis. (The photo above was taken earlier today.) The White House issued the following statement:
The efforts by the Hizballah-led coalition to collapse the Lebanese government only demonstrate their own fear and determination to block the government’s ability to conduct its business and advance the aspirations of all of the Lebanese people. The President and Prime Minister reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence, implementing all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions, and continuing a wide-ranging and long-term partnership between the United States and Lebanon.
During their meeting, the President stressed the importance of the work of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon as a means to help end the era of political assassinations with impunity in Lebanon. The President and Prime Minister specifically discussed united efforts with France, Saudi Arabia, and other key international and regional actors to maintain calm in Lebanon and ensure that the work of the Tribunal continues unimpeded by third parties. The President and Prime Minister expressed their determination to achieve both stability and justice in Lebanon during this challenging period of government volatility, and agreed that all parties should avoid threats or actions that could cause instability.
Be that as it may, as the New York Times notes, Hariri Jr.’s position is tenuous at best and American support is by no means assured:
In contrast to 2005, Hezbollah’s adversaries — gathered around Mr. Hariri — have fewer options and less support than they once did, emblematic of the vast changes in Lebanon’s political landscape the past few years. While the Bush administration wholeheartedly backed Mr. Hariri and his allies then, President Obama has not pledged the same kind of support. Syria, whose influence was waning in 2005, has re-emerged in Lebanon, and even its detractors here have sought some kind of relationship with it. Most Lebanese also vividly recall the speed at which Hezbollah and its allies vanquished their foes in just a few days of street fighting in Beirut in May 2008.
“Who are your allies these days?” Sateh Noureddine, a columnist with As-Safir newspaper, asked of Mr. Hariri’s camp. “You are going to get beaten on the streets and you will not be able to respond.”
Shiite (i.e., pro-Hezbollah) vs. Sunni (i.e., pro-Hariri) bloodshed is not guaranteed to break out, but if it does, Hezbollah will win. It could then attempt to take full control of Lebanon by force, if that is the will of its Iranian and Syrian patrons. Israel is keeping its head down for the time being, but Sheik Nasrallah has been trying for some time to throw responsibility for the Hariri assassination on us as a deflective measure. That tactic hasn’t gotten him very far, and he is perfectly capable of launching a serious fight with us as a “unifying” measure — indeed, he might calculate that that would be a wiser move than coming out swinging against Lebanese citizens in the streets of Beirut.
Needless to say, I’ll keep you posted.