Monday, September 15, 2008

Lebanon killing a sign that not all are happy

Another politician fell victim to Lebanon's vicious chess game last week. Saleh Aridi was an MP for the pro-Hezbollah, Lebanese Democratic Party (LDP).

The death is a reminder to Lebanon that danger is still around the corner. The many assassinations that have taken place over the past few years have been so fluid that any attempt to find or pinpoint a killer has been fruitless.

Too many protagonists have their hands in the Lebanon pie and many would be seen to have an interest in keeping Lebanon's tensions rolling. One thing is certain, nothing that takes place in Lebanon can be investigated without taking regional circumstances into consideration.

Internal Lebanese rivals would probably carry out a mission against their tribal foes, but not without the approval of their regional patron. Therefore, when any assassination occurs in Lebanon, the prevailing regional situation is where to find the clues.

Period of stability

Relative calm had been brought to Lebanon with the formation of a national unity government and a quietening of tensions in the north. Syria and Israel have entered indirect talks and the Europeans have brought Damascus out of the cold. Hezbollah and Israel negotiated a prisoner exchange, suggesting that a lukewarm ceasefire remains the preference of both parties.

Lebanon's stability tends to depend on the mood in the region's capitals. The internal tribal and sectarian divisions are so easily exploitable that the country's destiny is placed in the hands of those who would exploit it to advance their interests.

Currently, the prime players of Syria and Israel appear content in pursuing talks and maintaining calm. But that is not to suggest that all players are satisfied with the latest round of stability.

Attempt to refuel tension

LDP leader, Talal Arslan, was swift to blame Israel, which is routine for the Lebanese, particularly a Hezbollah ally. But whilst Israel's hands in previous assassinations could be legitimately argued, I see little Israeli interest in killing Aridi.

Israel is only concerned in weakening Hezbollah and/or Syria. Aridi's death is likely to have little impact on both Hezbollah's position in Lebanon and Syria's stance in peace negotiations with the Jewish state.

Iran is one country that has expressed unease towards the Syria-Israel talks and would see a benefit in its collapse, but it is doubtful that a pro-Hezbollah Druze MP would be on their target list.

Saudi Arabia snubbed

Saudi Arabia has felt sidelined by recent events in the country and the region at large. The Doha agreement that brought an end to the Lebanese political standoff only seemed to pass after Syria won all of her demands, notably the Opposition veto in cabinet.

The fact that the agreement was forged under the auspices of Saudi's Gulf rival Qatar added salt to the wound. Since Rafik al-Hariri's death in 2005, Qatar has remained one of Syria's few and closest allies in the Arab world, much to the displeasure of Riyadh.

The Saudis have also steered efforts in the Arab world and lobbied extensively in Washington and Europe to isolate Syria and punish its regime for Hariri's assassination. France's recent overtures to Assad has essentially crushed Saudi Arabia's long struggle to isolate him.

Sarkozy's visit to the Syrian capital, and the subsequent Damascus summit that gathered the leaders of Turkey, Qatar, Syria and France dealt a significant blow to Saudi Arabia's self-perception as the centre of diplomacy in the Middle East.

Competing peace tracks

The current Syria-Israel peace talks is yet another snub of the Saudis. Riyadh had taken driver's seat for the Arabs in trying to forge a peace deal with Israel. Saudi Arabia revived an all but dead Arab peace proposal last year and has since stressed that everlasting peace in the Middle East can only come through a wider agreement with the Arab world, or more to the point, via Riyadh's peace plan.

Whilst Syria has publicly endorsed the Arab peace plan, it has nevertheless continued to pursue direct talks with Israel outside of the Saudi umbrella. Through the mediation of its ally in Turkey, the Syrians have restarted talks with Israel, successfully undermining Saudi diplomacy once again.

Twelve months ago, nothing moved in the Middle East without the acknowledgment of Riyadh. Traditionally a passive country in the Arab world, the oil rich kingdom imposed its leadership on the Arabs following the US invasion of Iraq and the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri.

However, the latest developments in the Middle East suggest that the tide is shifting in a direction that doesn't include the interests of Riyadh. The Saudis need to react, need to find a way to stem the tide.

And as all regional powers do when they find themselves against the wall, they turn to the dangerously divided Lebanon.

RIP Saleh Aridi.

1 comment:

Robert.b said...

Excellent and educated analysis.

Good work always.