Two Ss, and a W in Beirut
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS – This year, Nabih Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament, coined a phrase that has apparently entered the Lebanese political dictionary – the influence of "the two Ss", in reference to Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Lebanese politicians have now jokingly altering the phrase to "the two Ss-W" in reference to Washington. Political heavyweights in Beirut, however, are still uncertain how committed United States President Barack Obama is to Lebanon.

Beneath all the supportive rhetoric heard from Washington over the past nine months, they fear that Obama is too concerned with Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan to worry about the tiny Mediterranean country.

One minority camp believes he is as firmly committed as his predecessor, George W Bush, to the March 14 Coalition which is headed by prime minister-designate Saad Hariri. Another camp, however, believes that Lebanon is on the backburner for Obama, who would gladly relinquish his country’s support for March 14 if the Syrians deliver on Iraq.

Word in Beirut is that if Obama wanted Hariri as prime minister, the man would have succeeded in creating a cabinet of national unity by now, nearly 100 days after having been mandated to do so by President Michel Suleiman.

The fact that the US has been silent about the cabinet dilemma in Beirut means that Obama is simply unwilling to immerse himself at a micro-level in Lebanese domestics. Instead, Obama has delegated his two allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to deal with the Lebanon file. It is Egypt rather than Saudi Arabia, and the US that is not too pleased at granting Hezbollah cabinet seats in any Hariri cabinet.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has an old score to settle with Hezbollah, ever since its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, stopped short of calling for a rebellion in Cairo, when Egyptian authorities refused to open the Rafah Crossing during the Israeli war on Gaza last December.

He fears that the more Islamic groups are empowered throughout the region, the more likely that will trigger the ambitions of the Islamic opposition in Cairo. He is also worried that the stronger the relationship between Hezbollah and Hamas, which is based in his own backyard of Gaza, the more likely Iranian influence will spread to the Palestinian-Egyptian border.

Additionally, the Egyptian government has in its custody 22 men charged with plotting attacks for Hezbollah on Egyptian territory. One is a confirmed member of Hezbollah, Mohammad Yusuf Ahmad Mansour, also known as Sami Shehab. Nasrallah said in April that the Egyptians captured him while smuggling arms to the resistance in Gaza.

Mubarak is worried that if Shehab is convicted, Egypt’s relations with Lebanon will be strained. He therefore wants Hariri to avoid making Hezbollah any offer until the case is clarified in Egyptian courts – something that Hariri cannot do since Shehab does not stand trial until October 24.

The Saudis have a more pragmatic approach in dealing with Lebanon, due to a longer history of engagement. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz realizes that turning a blind eye to Hezbollah will make it disappear. And if his proxy, Saad Hariri, has any chance of success at the premiership, then he needs to include Hezbollah and its allies in any cabinet formation.

Talking directly to Hezbollah or granting them concessions, is difficult from a Saudi angle. Therefore, they prefer to mend broken fences with both Hezbollah and Iran, through a trusted third party – Syria. The Syrians and Saudis mended fences in January, right after the war on Gaza.

If giving the Hezbollah-led opposition its requested share in the next cabinet means success for Hariri, then so be it – it is a price Saudi Arabia is willing to pay to guarantee his success. Too much is at stake for the Saudis – financially, politically and emotionally – for them to see Lebanon falter or slip into political chaos.

They have been sending many messages over the past nine months, showing that they want to cooperate with the Syrians at solving the political gridlock in Beirut. A Saudi ambassador was recently sent to Damascus to fill a vacant diplomatic post, and all negative rhetoric in the Saudi press has ceased against Damascus.

Last week, King Abdullah invited President Bashar al-Assad to Saudi Arabia to attend the launch of the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology. The Syrian leader complied, and received a red-carpet welcome by the Saudi king, which outdid – by far – ceremonies given to other leaders, including the king of Jordan and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora.

The Saudis apparently realize that any progress in Beirut must run through Damascus. The Lebanese gave a sigh of relief, hoping that the warmer the relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia the more likely their cabinet will see the light.

While all parties wait to figure out who is getting the upper hand in Lebanon – the Egyptians, the Saudis, the Americans or the Syrians – many have began to question how seriously people are taking Hariri.

In early September, Suleiman invited Hariri and Hezbollah’s ally Michel Aoun to the presidential palace at Baabda. Although protocol says that in his capacity as prime minister-designate, Hariri should be seated on Suleiman’s right, while Aoun – a former prime minister and army commander – should be seated opposite the two men, Hariri was given an equal seating with Aoun, both seated opposite the president.

Then there was a notable visit by the Syrian ambassador to Beirut, Ali Abdul Karim, to the residence of ex-president Emille Lahhoud, a sworn enemy of Hariri and an old friend of Damascus. Instead of finding a residence in Hamra or Quraytem, the famed and flashy districts of Beirut that are swarming with Hariri loyalists, the ambassador chose an elegant residence neighboring Lahhoud.

The Syrian ambassador’s residence symbolically overlooks the presidential palace – visibly perched higher than the home of the American, Egyptian and Saudi ambassadors to Beirut.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine.

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