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Mohamad Bazzi: The Challenges of the Lebanese Foreign Policy in the Middle East

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Dr. Mohamad Bazzi is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (New York). He is currently working on a project about Hezbollah and the Shiite community in Lebanon. He is a contributor to numerous prestigious newspapers and magazines such as Newsday, The Nation,, The New York Times. We interviewed Dr Bazzi on the challenges of the Lebanese Foreign Policy in the Middle East. Interview conducted by Aziz Enhaili for ®.

Aziz Enhaili: What are, Dr. Mohamad Bazzi, the principles guiding the Foreign Policy of Lebanon? Is there any doctrine behind it? If not, why?

Mohamad Bazzi: The problem is going to be that this new Lebanese government must balance so many competing interests that it will not be able to agree on any major decisions -- especially decisions that involve external powers -- because taking on a major problem or decision might upset one of the factions in the government, and that could lead to political paralysis. There are so many competing interests in this government that any one party (such as the Kataeb or the Lebanese Forces or the Free Patriotic Movement or Amal or Hezbollah) could obstruct any major decision.

Each Lebanese faction accuses the other of serving external powers, and Lebanon is indeed part of the proxy war in the region; Iran and Syria (which support Hezbollah and its allies) are pitted against the United States and Saudi Arabia (which support the March 14 coalition). But while external players have a hand in the latest political paralysis, they do not deserve all the blame. The Lebanese must find a political settlement of their own, without relying on external powers for everything -- or blaming external powers whenever something goes wrong.

Aziz Enhaili: What are the main challenges facing the Hariri’s government in terms of national security?

Mohamad Bazzi:
The most important issue that will face the new Hariri government is this: The southern border between Lebanon and Israel is the most volatile border in the Middle East today -- and the United States and Europe must ensure that it does not get out of control. Israel has violated UN Resolution 1701 with frequent overflights into Lebanese airspace and by planting surveillance devices on Lebanese territory. At the same time, Hezbollah continues to build up its military capability south and north of the Litani River. Both sides have issued threats about the possibility of war and their readiness to fight a war.

Neither Israel nor Hezbollah has an immediate interest in starting a war. Israel is more concerned about Iran than Hezbollah, and the Netanyahu government is concerned about maintaining good relations with the Obama Administration. On the other side, Hezbollah is absorbed in internal Lebanese politics and it cannot afford to be seen as taking actions that could lead to another war with Israel. (We should also remember that Syria is trying to improve its relations with the United States and its Arab allies, and Damascus would likely frown upon renewed conflict in the region).

Aziz Enhaili: What are the main challenges of Lebanese Foreign Policy in the Middle East?

Mohamad Bazzi: The Syrians and the Saudis exert significant influence on both major factions in Lebanon. The Syrians support Hezbollah and its allies, and the Saudis support Hariri and his March 14 coalition. In early October, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia went to Damascus on a conciliatory state visit to President Bashar al-Assad. King Abdullah was grandly received by Assad, and this was an important moment for Syria, which has been trying to force itself back into the Arab political order after being isolated for several years by the Bush administration and its Arab allies. This visit allowed the Syrians to come back into the "Arab fold" and to improve their relationship with Saudi Arabia (with the hope of improving the Syrian relationship with other Arab powers later on). One of the concrete benefits of this summit between Abdullah and Assad was an agreement to push the two sides in Lebanon to finally create a new government. Syrian-Saudi reconciliation certainly played a role in this bargain in Lebanon over a new government.

Publicly, the Obama Administration has been very supportive of Hariri, and the Administration breathed a sigh of relief that there is finally a government in Lebanon after five months of this political maneuvering. But there is this paradox because Hezbollah has an important voice in this new government, and the Obama Administration wants to do whatever it can to avoid dealing with Hezbollah. Of course, we will see the Obama Administration dealing with Hezbollah's allies, especially Nabih Berri. But eventually, the Obama Administration must make a decision to change its relationship to Hezbollah.

After the June 7 parliamentary elections, a simplistic narrative emerged in the West: because Hezbollah and its allies were defeated at the polls, the Shiite militant group would lose some of its luster and a pro-US political coalition would rule Lebanon. In fact, Hezbollah remains the dominant military and political force: it holds the key to both domestic and external stability, and its actions will determine whether there is another war with Israel, or if Lebanon will once again be wracked by internal conflict.

Aziz Enhaili: Given the fact that Saad Hariri does have no control over Hezbollah’s Foreign agenda, what are his options toward a country like Israel which continues to occupy a small part of lebanese territory? Could he for example sign a peace treaty with the Jewish State?

Mohamad Bazzi: Prime Minister Saad Hariri will share power with Hezbollah and its allies. But Hariri's government will have no influence over Hezbollah's militia and its weapons buildup along Lebanon's southern border with Israel. I do not believe that Hariri has the option of signing a peace treaty with Israel. Given the regional political dynamics, it would be almost impossible for Lebanon to sign a peace treaty with Israel, without an overall agreement between the Arab states and Israel.

The most immediate issue facing Hariri is that Hezbollah sets its own military strategy, and it makes those decisions without the involvement of the Lebanese state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear that he will hold the Lebanese government responsible for Hezbollah's actions. That puts Hariri in an extremely difficult position and it will make him dependent on the Obama Administration to keep Israel under control. But the question becomes: how long can the Obama Administration do that?

The danger of heightened rhetoric and a military buildup is that small incidents along the border could spiral out of control. In recent months, there have been two instances of rocket fire into Israel from southern Lebanon and two weapons cache explosions.

Under the Taif Accord which ended Lebanon's 15-year civil in 1990, all of the country's militias were disarmed. But Hezbollah was allowed to keep its weapons as a "national resistance" against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in May 2000. After the Israelis withdrew, many Lebanese asked why Hezbollah did not give up its weapons and become a strictly political movement. Hezbollah insisted that because Israel was still occupying a small strip of land at the intersection of Israel, Syria, and Lebanon -- called Shebaa Farms -- its mission of resistance was not over. The United Nations later determined that the area is Syrian territory, not Lebanese.

Aziz Enhaili: Thank you very much, Mr. Bazzi.

Interview conducted by Aziz Enhaili for ®.

November 21, 2009

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