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Lebanon cabinet deal signals Syrian return

New Lebanese cabinet meets (10 November 2009)
The formation of Lebanon's unity government took more than four months

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Beirut

A new joke has been making the rounds in political circles of Beirut: "The birth of Lebanon's new government was so long and painful that in the end, a Caesarean had to be performed."

But it is the punchline that makes some politicians here cringe: "The obstetrician was Syria," it says.

"We are back to the Syrian hegemony," said one pro-Western politician who did not want to be identified.

"Officially, I am supposed to tell you that this is a fresh start, a new era; that this government will work towards the national unity. But, believe me, everyone is very depressed," he added.

In this case "everyone" refers to the allies of Lebanon's new Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, who is backed by the US and Saudi Arabia.

Regional powers

In June, Mr Hariri's 14 March coalition won the parliamentary election, beating the opposition bloc led by the Shia Islamist movement, Hezbollah, which is supported by Syria and Iran.

King Abdullah and Bashar al-Assad in Damascus (7 October 2009)
The rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Syria helped seal the deal

But more recently Hezbollah and its allies managed to win another battle.

After four months of political wrangling over the formation of a national unity government, the two sides finally agreed on the assignment of portfolios two weeks ago. The opposition got the seats and power it wanted.

Many believe that behind the deal to end the deadlock was the recent improvement in relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria.

In October, the two country's leaders held talks in Damascus. Not long after, the rival Lebanese coalitions reached a compromise that many say put the opposition and, by virtue, Syria in a stronger position than before June's election.

Syria was the main player in Lebanon for nearly 30 years until the assassination of Mr Hariri's father, Rafik, a former prime minister, in 2005. Damascus was blamed for the death and eventually forced to withdraw its troops.

'Veto'

Syria's renewed power is weaved carefully into the structure of the new cabinet.

A reallocation of roles to the same players cannot solve our problems
Nadia Natout

Mr Hariri's Sunni Muslim Future movement and its Maronite Christian and Druze allies have 15 ministers in the cabinet.

Hezbollah hold two of the new cabinet posts, one more than in the previous government.

Its allies, the Shia Amal movement and the bloc of the Maronite Christian leader and former general Michel Aoun, have another eight.

The five remaining ministers, including those of interior and defence, were nominated by President Michel Suleiman, who is considered a neutral.

The distribution of portfolios seems fair, and all sides have their share of key portfolios, but some of Mr Hariri's supporters have accused him of giving Hezbollah the power he promised to take away from the group.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses supporters via video link (11 November 2009)
Hezbollah and its allies had demanded veto power in any unity government

Hezbollah, often called "the state within a state", has a military wing called the Islamic Resistance which is far more powerful than the Lebanese army.

In order to protect its forces, the group has long demanded veto power in any unity cabinet, so it can block any major government decisions. The new arrangement will allow them to do that.

Although on paper Hezbollah does not have a veto, Mr Hariri agreed that one of the presidential appointees could be a Shia. He will therefore be likely to vote with the opposition, giving Hezbollah the crucial 16th vote it would need.

Visit to Damascus

For many here, Mr Hariri's concessions, and the active role that Damascus played in sealing the deal, is a sign that Syria's influence is once again on the rise.

It's the end of everything we have been fighting for
Ally of Saad Hariri

The Sunni prime minister's star rose as dramatically as Syria's influence in Lebanon declined in the wake of his father's death, and he built his entire political career on promising to reduce the power of its allies.

But, four years on, the tide may be turning, with Syria no longer an international pariah - even the US is making overtures in a bid to rebuild relations.

And in Lebanon, the man who used to be Syria's number one enemy is said to be preparing for his first trip to Damascus.

"If Saad Hariri wants to govern, he will have to visit Damascus," says Ali Hamdan, the adviser to the speaker of Lebanon's parliament and leader of the Shia Amal movement, Nabih Berri.

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri
Saad Hariri is now said to be preparing for his first trip to Damascus

According to the Syrian newspaper, al-Watan, Mr Hariri's trip will make his rule "strong and stable thanks to the embrace and protection it will receive".

And while there are many Lebanese who welcome Syria's return, plenty of others are disheartened by the news.

"It's the end of everything we have been fighting for," one ally of Mr Hariri says. "It's the end of the anti-Syrian opposition. Once again we have Damascus dictating political decisions here."

In the region where capricious political currents change quickly, fears of anti-Syrian politicians maybe exaggerated.

But as Lebanon heads towards more uncertainty, one thing is clear - while Washington's allies may have won the election, many of them say they have lost a much bigger battle.



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