Endgame: Syrian stooge becomes new Lebanese PM, completing Hezbollah takeover

Thus ends the Cedar Revolution, not quite two weeks after Hezbollah’s ministers brought down the government with an eye to forcing this outcome. The new PM, Najib Miqati, isn’t a member of Hezbollah himself, but realistically he couldn’t be: In Lebanon, the premiership is reserved for Sunnis as part of the country’s sectarian power-sharing agreement. Miqati is their designated Sunni stooge, whose first official act will no doubt be to withdraw Lebanon’s approval from the UN tribunal that’s about to indict Hezbollah and Iran’s supreme leader for the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. This is, in other words, a bloodless coup, aimed at using the evaporating legitimacy of the Lebanese government to formally discredit the findings of the tribunal before the indictments are unsealed. In practice, it’ll presumably achieve the opposite result: Any Sunnis in Lebanon and in the wider region who were disinclined to believe the tribunal in the name of Islamic solidarity with Hezbollah will now have their attention turned to the Shiite takeover of Beirut. Which is why I’ve never fully understood this strategy, but oh well:

After days of political wrangling, the candidate supported by Hezbollah and its allies, Najib Miqati, a billionaire and former prime minister, won 68 seats in Lebanon’s 128-member parliament, enough to name the next government in a country as divided as it is diverse. His elevation was a clear victory for Hezbollah, which has ruled out Mr. Hariri’s return to power, and was the culmination of what was already accepted as a fact of life here: that Hezbollah is the country’s pre-eminent military and political force.

So far, the crisis has played out according to the rules of Lebanon’s parliamentary system, and both Mr. Miqati and Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, went to great lengths to offer a conciliatory message and portray Mr. Miqati as a consensus choice…

“What has happened is virtually a coup d’état, a political coup d’état,” [former PM Saad] Hariri said at his house in downtown Beirut, near the seat of government that he and his team left only days before. “Me and my allies, we will represent the opposition.”…

Hezbollah has seemed to view the tribunal as an almost existential threat, and in his speech Tuesday, Mr. Nasrallah suggested that the issue had forced its hand.

Follow the first link up top and read the piece in full for reports of furious Lebanese Sunnis already out in the streets in Beirut and Tripoli in a “day of rage.” And lest you doubt Hariri’s description of this as a coup, which implies backing by force, note that today’s parliamentary vote was preceded by funny little demonstrations by Hezbollah like … having their operatives suddenly and mysteriously show up all over Beirut with walkie talkies, as if some major operation was about to unfold. So freaked out were Lebanese parents at that display that many drove to their kids’ schools and yanked them out of class for fear of war suddenly erupting. That was the public side of intimidation; the private side apparently involved threatening Lebanese factional leaders with god knows what to get them to support the new government. Case in point: Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community and historically a withering critic of Assad and Syria, shockingly decided last week to side with Hezbollah in its standoff with Saad Hariri and the Sunnis. The most plausible explanation, as Michael Totten notes, was that Jumblatt feared the Druze would be steamrolled if he opposed Hezbollah and they responded by taking Beirut by force.

All that said, I’m actually of two minds about all this. The prospect of a new civil war is horrible, needless to say, but thanks to weak government leadership and an even weaker national military, Hezbollah has effectively owned Lebanon for years. Electing Miqati clarifies things by finally putting their name on the deed. This won’t deter the UN tribunal either: Granted, Lebanon will withdraw its support and denounce the indictments, but Time expects that the UN Security Council will simply amend the tribunal’s charter so that Lebanese consent is no longer required for it to proceed. Above all, and to add to a point I made earlier, having Hezbollah and its patrons in Tehran in direct confrontation with the Sunnis could be a useful way to galvanize wider popular opposition to Iran within the region. Hezbollah typically enjoys major support among Sunni Arabs because it’s the biggest terrorist thorn in Israel’s side, but that sectarian crossover appeal won’t hold up so long as it’s targeting Beirut and Tripoli instead of Tel Aviv. In fact, at the moment Lebanon feels like a microcosm of relations between Iran and the region’s Sunni governments: Pan-Arab worries about Shiite expansionism trump pan-Islamic worries about Israeli “occupation.” Another clarifying aspect on a horrible day.