Lebanon's ex-prime minister Saad Hariri returned home to Beirut Friday, Jan. 14, two days after his opponents led by Hizballah toppled his national unity government. He landed in the middle of a hectic race by Hizballah's leader Hassan Nasrallah to negotiate an alternative government to Hariri's pro-West regime in order to fend off indictments against his top officials for the murder of Saad's father six years ago.
Suspense is high in Beirut where the Special Lebanese Tribunal prosecutor Daniel Bellemare is expected momentarily to hand his findings to the pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen for a decision on their publication.
Nasrallah believes he can beat the rap by a bloodless coup through parliament. The anti-West side of the legislature commands 57 seats versus the 54 of Hariri's March 14 bloc; 17 seats are up for grabs including 11 Druze mandates. The Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, after being cajoled and threatened by the Hizballah leader to throw his faction behind Hizballah, arrived in Damascus Saturday, Jan. 15, and was received by Syrian President Bashar Assad.
If Nasrallah succeeds in establishing an anti-Western government in Beirut, its first task would be to pronounce the international Hariri tribunal illegitimate, so saving his henchmen from being brought to justice for the assassination. At the same time, he would hand Tehran control of its first Arab government and achieve a fait accompli for beating back the Obama administration's plan to confront Iran in Lebanon.
The news of his government's fall reached Hariri in conversation with President Barak Obama in Washington Wednesday, Jan. 12. Although he came away from the White House with the president's full backing, they were quickly overtaken by Iranian-backed moves in Beirut.
Hariri, when he stopped over in Paris on his way home as caretaker prime minister, was rebuffed by French president Nicolas Sarkozy whom he asked for support. He got the same treatment in Ankara. Thus far, Syria like Israel has refrained from showing its hand in Lebanon.
Saad Hariri has vowed to stand solidly behind the tribunal and its right to try his father's murderers. But on his return, he said noncommittally that he would cooperate with President Michel Suleiman's efforts to stabilize the situation in Lebanon.
This uneven contest between Washington and Tehran has grabbed the attention of every capital in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.
A Hizballah-dominated cabinet in Beirut would hit Israel with the force of a strategic earthquake. Instead of being 1,200 kilometers away, its archenemy would sit on its borders at point blank range. In Beirut, Tehran would be able to add a Northern Front to the Eastern Front it is establishing in Baghdad. Iranian military steel. Already present in the form of Revolutionary Guards officers, would be on the spot for backing Lebanon's complaints about Israel's gas strikes in the eastern Mediterranean.
The official word from Jerusalem Friday, that there is no sign as yet that Hizballah is about to extend the crisis in Beirut to Lebanon's southern border with Israel, was given out to the media to account for the Netanyahu government's tendency to fall behind Washington's lead – even when passivity prejudices Israel's direct security interests.
Hizballah has made no bones about its plans to extend its "resistance" operations to supporting Hamas on Israel's southwestern border. This only awaits a settlement in Beirut and the completion of the brand-new fortifications Iran's military engineering experts are building for Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The Lebanese constitution assigns the post of prime minister to a Sunni Muslim. Hizballah leader has tagged two pro-Syrian, former premiers as its candidates: Omar Abdul Hamid Karami, strongman of the Tripoli region in the north, and Najib Azmi Mikati, a multimillionaire business tycoon who failed to form a government in 2005.
Nasrallah has every hope of whipping the Druzes in line one way or another as indicated by his comment to Jumblatt: "Do you remember Mysore 2008?"
This was a snide reference to the four-day Hizballah assault of May 2008 on Druze villages in the Chouf Mountains east of Beirut. It ended at Mysore village where the Druzes were defeated in a bloody battle.
In Damascus, the Druze leader asked Assad for guarantees against another Hizballah attack on his villages.
Hariri also tried to line up a guarantee for his safety when he stopped over in Ankara on his way home Thursday, Jan. 13. But like in Paris, he was at the wrong address.
So committed is Turkish premier Recep Erdogan to promoting the anti-West Turkish-Iranian-Syrian alliance, that he was willing last month to become the first Sunni Muslim ever to celebrate the annual Shiite Ashura festival, which commemorates the death of Imam Hussein (for Shiites, the martyrdom) 1,300 years ago. For him, an Iranian Shiite victory in Lebanon means netting a new and important asset for that bloc.