Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Bashar forms a government
As everyone by now knows, the Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, resigned yesterday in order to form a new government. If you watched CNN, you might have heard the station mention that this had nothing to do with U.S. pressures on Syria. In fact it had everything to do with it.

According to various sources what will emerge is a "political" or "war cabinet" as the daily Al-Nahar called it. That means it will include a large number of political-communal heavyweights, including several presidential and prime ministerial contenders. Such a government serves several purposes:

First, it allows the Syrians to put several of their more influential allies back in the government and also broaden its base, at a time when there are fears in Damascus that the U.S. might try to sever the Syrian-Lebanese relationship. A broad government looks more legitimate, though it is also true that many of the people whose names are being bandied about are directly dependent on Syria for their influence--not on Hariri or the president, Emile Lahoud.

Second, the Syrians have created a government that will neutralize Lahoud and Hariri, whose disputes have shaped Lebanese politics since at least 2000. Both men aren't especially satisfied with the new makeup, seeing that they will have less influence (and loyal ministers) than they had. As one friend remarked, the possible inclusion of several Maronite presidential hopefuls might signal that Lahoud will not have his mandate extended or renewed in 2004, as he had hoped.

Third, this is a government broad enough to allow Syria several options, including putting a lid on Hizbullah if that becomes imperative, but also covering for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, full or partial, if the Syrians see that as necessary to protect themselves to their east. In light of this one should watch to see what the Syrians will do in the coming weeks, as the U.S. will probably raise the heat on Syria to control Hizbullah and expel militant Palestinian groups based in Damascus.

The upside of the government is that Lebanon is better off with a structure that reflects the various political tendencies in the country, particularly if there is a confrontation with Hizbullah or change in the Syrian order in Lebanon. Under those circumstances, better a government Syria can trust, if only to prevent a backlash bred of mistrust that can harm Lebanon. The downside is that the government is one of stalemate, where everyone will neutralize everyone else. It will very likely last until presidential elections in summer 2004, which means that no economic reform will take place for at least another year, particularly privatization.

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