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BBC News - January 13, 2011

by Jim Muir

Announcing the group resignation by the Hezbollah-led opposition's 10 cabinet members, Christian minister Gibran Bassil said they hoped President Michel Suleiman would take the necessary steps towards the rapid formation of a new government.

That is about the last thing that is likely to happen, and everybody knows it.

Assuming the situation cannot be retrieved - and it has gone so far that it is hard to see that happening - Lebanon is clearly in for a lengthy period of political deadlock and tension.

Forming a new government on the debris of Saad Hariri's collapsed national unity cabinet, which lasted barely 14 months and never functioned properly, is going to be anything but rapid.

President Suleiman will no doubt hold the ritual round of consultations with parliamentary blocs to see if they can agree on a replacement to try to form a new administration.

Mr Hariri and his allies, who won a narrow majority in the 2009 elections, will clearly continue to nominate him, and will not endorse anyone else in the absence of a broad entente.

It will not be possible to form a new government without their support.

Hezbollah and its allies could bring the old government down, but they cannot simply replace it on their own.

So there is bound to be a prolonged period of gruelling, angry politicking as a way forward is sought.

Outside influences

As the internal balance of power is fought over, outside players are also bound to pitch in, knowing as they do that the balance in Lebanon reflects wider regional and international currents.

A great deal will depend on how far Syria and Iran, which support Hezbollah and its allies, want to push their advantage.

Up until recently they appeared content to keep the Lebanese situation unresolved but on hold, contained.

Syria was working closely with Saudi Arabia, the regional patron of Mr Hariri and his Sunni community, to find a formula to defuse tensions in advance of indictments which the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is expected to issue within a matter of days, naming some Hezbollah members in connection with the murder of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Both the basic sides in Lebanon were supporting what they called the "S-S" (Saudi-Syrian) initiative, which had reportedly been crystallised into a concrete though highly secret accord.

But on the ground, a dispute appeared to arise over who should take the first steps to implement their obligations. Each was waiting on the other.

There was meanwhile a growing number of reports that the Americans did not want to see a settlement reached which would let Hezbollah off the hook in advance of the STL indictments.

But for Hezbollah, not coming to terms before the indictments constituted a red line.

It has never concealed the strength of its hostility towards the expected indictments, which it sees as an existential slur on its status and appeal as a heroic liberation movement.

As the indictments grew more imminent and inevitable, neither side budged, and Hezbollah and its friends made their move.

President Suleiman is reported to have a made an 11th-hour appeal to his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad to save the government from fragmenting, only to be told that he had no control over events.

Senior figures from Hezbollah and its closest ally Amal - both Shia movements - also reportedly went to Damascus and met President Asad only hours before the drama reached its denouement.

Whether the S-S initiative was blocked by the Americans - as Hezbollah and its allies insisted - or was never solid enough in the first place, it does seem to have nosedived, with so far unclear consequences for Syrian-Saudi relations.

But the consequence for Lebanon is clear.

As Hezbollah intended, the indictments will come out with no empowered prime minister able to give them any kind of credence, even if only tacit.

Hezbollah had demanded that Mr Hariri and his allies renounce the STL and denounce its indictments in advance of their appearance, something he proved unable to do.

Fears have been expressed that the indictments could trigger the kind of sectarian Sunni-Shia tensions which exploded in 2008, when Hezbollah fighters took over West Beirut and crushed pro-Hariri elements.

While friction on the ground cannot be excluded, it is not inevitable.

If Hezbollah is worried about its image, using its arms - supposedly to be employed exclusively against Israel - to bully and punish fellow-Lebanese would compound any damage the indictments might do to its reputation.

It appears to be sensitive to that issue.

It has been careful to avoid the impression of a militant Shia takeover.

Most announcements from the opposition side in the current crisis have been made not by Hezbollah itself but by Christian figures such as Mr Bassil, from the movement headed by the Christian former General Michel Aoun, who is allied to Hezbollah.

Regional repercussions

The coming days will no doubt see intensive efforts by outside parties to try to rescue the situation.

The Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, on a visit to Turkey expressed fears for the local and regional repercussions of a collapse in Lebanon.

Turkey itself shares those concerns. Qatar, which mediated a resolution to the conflict in 2008, has also been in touch.

France is strongly interested too. It recently hosted President Assad of Syria, and Mr Hariri stopped off to consult with President Nicolas Sarkozy - he had broken off his visit to the US to rush home after the opposition pulled the rug from under him as he was meeting President Barack Obama.

But it seems likely that the next substantive act in the drama will be the issuing of the indictments by the STL sometime in the coming days.

The impact may not be immediate and may in any case be mitigated.

Unless there are leaks - not an unlikely eventuality - the identity of the potential accused should not be made known until six to eight weeks later, when the STL's pre-trial judge may endorse the draft indictments and issue warrants.

Hezbollah has also done much to prepare the ground and denigrate the STL's case, which is reportedly based largely on evidence gleaned from telephone records.

The opposition has spent much energy documenting the degree to which Lebanese telecommunications have been penetrated by Israeli intelligence, and numerous alleged Israeli spies have been arrested.

The latest developments mean that any arrest warrants issued by the STL will be even more of a dead letter than they would have been anyway.

The idea of Hezbollah members being dragged off by Lebanese gendarmes to face trial in The Hague has always been far-fetched.

While the STL may be a professional international judicial body, it was conceived in highly politicised conditions at a time when the balance of power in the Middle East had been heavily tilted by the US invasion of Iraq and implied threats to Syria, Iran and other "hostile" powers.

The balance has now shifted in the opposite direction, but the STL is still there, to the discomfiture of some. These include the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who pushed for it at the time but now finds himself threatened by its time-lagged consequences.

Balance of power

The question now is whether Syria and Iran want to see the kind of subservient government installed in Beirut that existed at times in the past, or whether they would entertain a more balanced accommodation.

Either possibility is going to take a long time to reach, as conditions are not yet ripe.

Nor is the regional balance of power - as reflected also in Iraq - yet clearly established and stabilised, especially in terms of the US-Iranian contest.

So the best the Lebanese can hope for is that there will be an implicit understanding to continue keeping the streets quiet for an indefinite period, however acute political differences and invective may become.

It is not going to be an easy time.

And as if all that were not enough, there is Israel on the southern border, ever ready for another attempt to deal a death-blow to a resurgent Hezbollah which declares itself stronger than ever.

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