Wednesday 28 May 2008 (22 Jumada al-Ula 1429)
It was a spectacular event verging on the surreal. The historic session by the Lebanese Parliament to elect the country’s 12th president on Sunday brought together rivals and enemies, friends and allies and not only on the floor of the legislature. Up in the balconies, representatives of countries that had jockeyed for power and influence in Lebanon sat close to each other in the crowded chamber and watched the inauguration of army chief, Gen. Michel Suleiman, as head of state.
The consensual session was the first phase in a reconciliation agreement that was adopted by Lebanese factions in Doha less than a week earlier after days of arduous negotiations behind closed doors. At one point the talks, sponsored by Qatar’s emir, appeared rickety and there was fear that the bloody confrontations that broke out in Beirut and elsewhere few weeks ago were about to erupt again. But then a miraculous consensus was reached and the clouds of despair quickly disappeared.
Describing the negotiations process, Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasem told Al Jazeera that outside parties were calling the shots to serve their own ends and prevent a deal. A Hezbollah representative said in Doha that "the whole world was negotiating with us!" Indeed, the presence of such a highly mixed group of regional and Western officials and representatives underlines the valuable stake that each and everyone have in today’s Lebanon.
The Doha deal may have culminated through international and regional consensus before anything else. Only few weeks ago the same parties that were at loggerhead in Beirut appeared so distanced from each other that dialogue alone could not have provided a way out. The Lebanese crisis, which has been lingering for years, have pitted Arab countries against each other and drew international intervention both overt and covert.
Lebanon became a major divergence point between key Arab capitals and the issue became more complicated as Iran, the United States, France and others backed one side against the other.
For the dilemma to be solved in such a direct way was shocking. For the combatants to reach consensus and quickly begin implementing the Doha accord was surprising. For the whole world to give its blessing to the deal was suspicious!
Theories began to surface as fast as the ink began to dry on the Doha agreement. The success and role of Qatar drew attention. The backing of Iran and Syria to the deal was seen as a diplomatic triumph for both. The fact that the United States lauded the agreement launched regional and international punditry into a heated debate. What does this all mean?
It was probably not an inconspicuous coincidence that Turkey had announced that it was leading indirect peace negotiations between Syria and Israel on the same day that the Doha accord was reached. The timing was incredible and it took place just as Egypt and Israel were putting the final touches on a truce deal between the Jewish state and Hamas in Gaza. That deal stumbled at the last hour.
Syria is the most important common denominator in all three deals. This focused attention on Damascus and in turn to its ties with Tehran, Lebanon and the Hamas leadership in exile. By extension, pundits drew their own conclusions on a US-Syria deal that was being worked out. The most straightforward deduction was that Washington was wooing the Syrian leadership so as to separate it from Iran.
Another plausible conclusion was that the US had lost its political and diplomatic clout in the region. Embroiled in Iraq and unable to pressure the Israelis on a suitable Palestinian deal, Washington had no chips to play in Lebanon, Palestine, Gaza and Syria, leaving others to try their luck.
In the aftermath of Hezbollah’s military stunt in Beirut a couple of weeks ago, pro-Washington Lebanese factions discovered to their chagrin that the US cavalry was not coming to their aid. It was this dramatic change in US policy that prepared the scene for a more sober dialogue among the warring factions.
But it also hinted that the Bush administration had played most of its cards, or, more importantly, was now ready to adopt new strategies. Whether Washington and Tehran were getting close to striking a deal on Iraq and Iran’s nuclear program remains to be seen. But the unveiling of new Syria-Israel negotiations, through Turkey, was an important development that could not be ignored.
It is said that along with America’s allies in Lebanon, other Arab friends, the so-called moderate camp, had suffered a setback. President Bush’s visit to the region and his emotional speech at the Israeli Knesset had left Washington’s Arab allies disgruntled and frustrated.
This may have helped the Qatari initiative take off successfully. The Lebanese Parliament session may have looked like an event reflecting consensus across the board, but it would be naive to believe that everybody present was happy and content.
With few months left for Bush and his team to do anything of value or substance in the Middle East, the parties concerned are showing signs of fatigue and willingness to change gears. Moderates and hard-liners are going through a review stage of strategies and policies.
Some will make a big changeover; it was interesting that the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran met immediately after the swear-in session in Beirut. Others will look to mend fences with traditional rivals and distance themselves from the US orbit. But if anything, the Lebanese front line is quickly getting blurred and, as new alliances and strategies come into play, it will give factions some breathing space and in the process this might pave the way for a solid reconciliation and end Lebanon’s quandary.
— Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist based in Jordan.