Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Shifting of Influence in Lebanon

Interesting analysis on America's declining role in Lebanon. On Monday the US Ambassador was summoned over concerns that she is interfering with internal politics. While the March 14 coalition is often described as largely pro-Western there are always dissenters in any coalition. Also some Lebanese support neither March 14 nor March 8 and many are ultimately critical of both the US and Israel. After the events of last summer they have a new respect for Turkey in this regard.

Furthermore Iran, Qatar and Kuwait each did a fantastic job helping Lebanon reconstruct the vast infrastructure destroyed after the 2006 aggression by Israel. Roads, bridges and villages have all been miraculously rebuilt. Meanwhile Western aid money was allocated for governance initiatives which (rightly or wrongly) have not been seen to serve the Lebanese people...

Lebanon Shows Shift of Influence in Mideast

By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
January 18, 2011

BEIRUT, Lebanon — In Lebanon’s worst crisis in years, whose resolution may determine whether Hezbollah controls a government allied with the United States, American diplomacy has become the butt of jokes here. Once a decisive player here, Saudi Arabia has all but given up. In their stead is Turkey, which has sought to mediate a crisis that, given events on Tuesday in Beirut’s streets, threatens to turn violent before it is resolved.

The confrontation here is the latest sign of a shifting map of the Middle East, where longtime stalwarts like Saudi Arabia and Egypt have further receded in influence, and emerging powers like Turkey, Iran and even the tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar have decisively emerged in just a matter of a few years. It is yet another episode in which the United States has watched — seemingly helplessly — as events in places like Tunisia, Lebanon and even Iraq unfold unexpectedly and beyond its ability to control.

The jockeying might be a glimpse of a post-American Middle East, where the United States’ allies and foes, brought together in the interests of stability, plot foreign policies that intersect in initiatives the United States must grudgingly accept.

“There is a sense that the regional players have gone up as the United States has gone down in terms of its presence, its viability, its role,” said a high-ranking Lebanese official allied with the American-backed side in the crisis, which erupted last week.

In a series of stalemates — from the Arab-Israeli conflict to Lebanon — Turkey has proved the most dynamic, projecting an increasingly assertive and independent foreign policy in an Arab world bereft of any country that matches its stature. Its success is a subtle critique of America’s longstanding policy in the Middle East of trying to isolate and ostracize its enemies. From Hezbollah here to the followers of a populist, anti-American cleric in Iraq, Turkey has managed to forge dialogue with America’s enemies and allies alike.

“Turkey has become, I think, until the contrary is proven, an indispensable state in the reorganizing of this region,” said Sarkis Naoum, an analyst and prominent columnist in Beirut.

So far, the interventions of Turkey and others in the Lebanese crisis are mostly symbolic, ventures into a maddeningly complex political landscape that hews to a formula of “no victor, no vanquished.” But in contrast to past crises, when Turkey was virtually irrelevant, the new effort signals the country’s ascent as a regional superpower.

“Our region could not cope with Lebanon entering a new atmosphere of uncertainty,” Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said Monday before he left for Syria, where he met the leaders of Qatar and Syria. (Over the weekend, he talked with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.) “We want to discuss what we can do to overcome this crisis and what other countries in the region must do for Lebanon’s stability.”

Lebanon’s renewed crisis, cutting across questions of sectarian tension in the Middle East, conflict with Israel and Hezbollah’s power in the country, pits the movement against its foes in a stalemate over an international tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a billionaire and a former prime minister, in February 2005.

The tribunal issued indictments on Monday, and, though the charges remained sealed, Hezbollah has acknowledged that members of the Shiite Muslim movement will be named in the investigation, which it has denounced as an American-Israeli tool. For months, it has sought to undermine the tribunal, questioning its witnesses and evidence, and demanding that the government end its cooperation and denounce the charges. The government led by Mr. Hariri’s son, Saad, refused, and in protest, Hezbollah and its allies withdrew from it, forcing its collapse after a 14-month tenure.

Deadlock has ensued. Many believe that a negotiated solution will eventually end it, but the urgency to find a deal may not come before more strife. In what many saw as a signal by Hezbollah on Tuesday, scores of men dressed in black gathered in various neighborhoods in the capital after dawn. Organized and disciplined, they seemed to move toward Beirut’s downtown and airport, but dispersed within an hour.

“What happened today was just a small message,” said Rafic Nasrallah, an analyst and director of the International Center for Media and Research in Beirut. “The other side should read it very carefully. Until now, the opposition is giving a chance to mediation.”

“But,” he asked, “how long should it wait?”

After the summit meeting in Damascus on Monday, the foreign ministers of Qatar and Turkey visited Beirut on Tuesday, seeing all the parties to the conflict. The trip itself seemed to signal a more intense regional effort that has filled a vacuum left by what some officials describe as an incoherent Saudi policy and an unfocused American approach.

“I wouldn’t call it an aggressive role,” Mohammed Chattah, a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Hariri, said of the American effort here. “I wouldn’t even call it a central role, certainly not at this stage. The regional players are much more visible.”

Even for American allies, like Mr. Hariri, the United States has become such a contentious player, loathed so deeply by one side in the crisis, that a more visible role would only harm its friends. In an embarrassing episode, its ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Ministry for interfering in Lebanon’s affairs after a visit to a minor lawmaker. The meeting was soon skewered by television stations across the spectrum.

Saudi Arabia, long the main Arab backer of Mr. Hariri, has receded since it failed to find a compromise with Syria last week.

Turkey’s entry into the fray follows a pattern of initiatives in the region that do not always line up with American wishes. In May 2008, American officials were taken aback at the announcement of indirect talks, mediated by Turkey, between Syria and Israel. That year, Qatar mediated a deal between Lebanon’s factions that left American officials divided. In both cases, its officials were left in the dark, diplomats say, so as not to undermine a deal.

In Lebanon on Tuesday, Turkey found the rarest of circumstances when Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu arrived here: a welcome from both sides.

“They’re well placed more than any other country in the region,” said Mr. Chattah, the foreign policy adviser to Mr. Hariri.

Ali Hamdan, an aide to Nabih Berri, the Parliament speaker and an ally of Hezbollah, called Turkey “helpful.” He added, “Their international relations will help market any deal they can reach.”

Nada Bakri and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.

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