Hizbullah, Sunni elements work to strengthen pro-Syrian front in Lebanon politics
Lebanon's top opposition leaders have recently failed to agree on the fate of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, adjourning the nation's 'National Dialogue' talks until today (May 16.)
Speaker Nabih Berri revealed that discussions in the recent round of talks concentrated exclusively on the issue of the presidency, despite the fact that no agreement was reached ultimately. Leaders decided to discuss for one last time calls by anti-Syrian politicians for Lahoud to step down before moving on to the disputed issue of disarming Hizbullah in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559.
President Lahoud's term was extended by three years in late 2004 with the full backing of Damascus.
In previous rounds, the conferees agreed to normalize relations with Syria. The Syrian issue and related fate of the president have created unique coalitions in terms of the current Lebanese politics. While Sunnis and Shiites remain entrenched in sectarian violence in Iraq, the situation in Lebanon is quite different. There has been increasing cooperation between pro-Syrian elements, namely Shiite Hizbullah movement and former prime minister of Lebanon, Omar Karameh—a Sunni. Hizbullah, which have seen in recent times its status eroded, is making efforts to recruit traditional pro-Syrian loyalists, such as Karameh. The former PM's influence in Lebanese politics has dwindled and he was not even invited to the National Dialogue sessions.
Lebanese analysts claim that close relations between Karameh and the Shiite movement are not surprising, since traditionally, Karameh leads a pro-Syrian line. Karameh, a 72-year-old lawyer from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, is known for his loyal support of Syria. Months before the murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq al Hariri, Karameh was installed by Damascus to serve as a Lebanon's premier. He was forced, however, to quit in February 2005 in the face of fierce domestic pressure sparked by the killing of Hariri. Karameh himself had been a long political rival of Hariri.
These analysts insist such cooperation between the veteran Sunni politician and Hizbullah illustrates how the Shiite movement's role has been changed; From one of the elements which was subjected to strong Syrian influence, it became the leading representative of Syrian interests in Lebanese politics.
Even Fuad Siniora, Lebanon’s prime minister, recently admitted that Damascus supporters are aiming at undermining Lebanon's government. During a visit to London he was quoted as saying, “Groups that used to be on good terms with Syria are disenchanted with the government and are going along with Syrian influence,” adding, “It’s a kind of a show of force.”
According to the Lebanese press, Syria is encouraging its Lebanese supporters, especially Hizbullah, to establish a new political front, which Karameh has suggested will be named the 'Salvation Front'. As an outsider of the National Dialogue talks, Karameh took the liberty recently to attack the pro-Western government for its social failures. "If the government wants to remain a caretaker government and plan for more impoverishment of the people, why should it remain in power?" he was quoted as saying.
His call was obviously backed by Hizbullah and welcomed by the Syrian regime.
As things now stand, it seems that despite Syria's military withdrawal from Lebanon, Damascus continues to be involved in almost every issue presently under debate in Lebanon—whether directly, or through allies such as Hizbullah and Karameh.