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Lebanon's new Cabinet shows strong Syrian influence

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati announces a 30-member Cabinet heavily dominated by the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah and its allies. Analysts say it does not bode well for Lebanese democracy at a time of uprisings across the Arab world.

June 14, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi and Alexandra Sandels, Los Angeles Times
  • Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, left, meets with new Prime Minister Najib Mikati, before announcing the new cabinet.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, left, meets with new Prime Minister… (Dalati Nohra / Associated…)

Reporting from Istanbul, Turkey, and Beirut — After a five-month deadlock that sowed uncertainty in politically fragile Lebanon, the country's prime minister on Monday further inflamed passions by announcing a new government heavily dominated by the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah and its allies.

Analysts described the new Cabinet as a relic from the past, when Syria thoroughly dominated politics in Lebanon, and said it bode ill for Lebanese democracy at a time of uprisings across the Arab world.

"It shows how Lebanon is basically moving in the opposite direction of the 'Arab Spring,' " said Oussama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, a Beirut think tank.

Analysts predicted the Cabinet would win the endorsement of parliament, where the Hezbollah-led coalition holds a slight majority, but may not last long. Already, a Druse politician, Talal Arslan, announced his resignation from the new Cabinet after he was given only a position as minister of State without portfolio.

U.S. officials have warned the cash-strapped nation that it may lose $100 million a year in military aid if its new government moves too far into the orbit of Syria and its primary strategic partner, Iran.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who ascended to the leadership after the demise of the U.S.-backed government of Saad Hariri in January, announced a 30-member Cabinet that includes representatives of all the country's major religious groups. But it was far from the unity government many international observers had called for. And Hezbollah and its Christian ally Michel Aoun control the key ministries of Interior, Justice and Telecommunications.

The government, said another analyst, "has Syrian fingerprints all over it," suggesting that the regime in Syria, now trying to suppress a pro-democracy movement as well as stave off mounting international pressure over the crackdown, was thumbing its nose at the world by sabotaging hopes of resolving Lebanon's long-simmering tensions.

The Cabinet excludes large swaths of the Lebanese political fabric. Gone are Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, a favorite of independents, and Defense Minister Elias Murr, who opposed Syrian interference in Lebanon.

Hezbollah's Al Manar television quoted Syrian President Bashar Assad as congratulating Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, whose post is largely ceremonial under Lebanon's political system.

"Nothing can happen in Lebanon without the encouragement from Syria," said Hilal Khashan, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut. "This is not a national unity Cabinet but a one-sided Cabinet. It's a confrontational Cabinet. It shows the state of the political regime in Syria."

"This Cabinet will further destabilize the situation," he added. "Its life expectancy will be much shorter than the normal."

Opposition lawmaker Nadim Gemayel dismissed the government as "Hezbollah's and Syria's Cabinet," according to Lebanon's official National News Agency.

Hariri's refusal to end Lebanese cooperation with the United Nations-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri — allegedly at the hands of either Hezbollah or Syria — prompted Syria's Lebanese allies to push for his removal and paved the way for the new government.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday, "What's important, in our mind, is that the new Lebanese government abide by the Lebanese Constitution, that it renounce violence, including efforts to extract retribution against former government officials, and lives up to all of its international obligations."

Those obligations include support for the U.N. resolutions, and for the international tribunal looking into the Hariri assassination.

Mikati, in a televised statement, acknowledged that his government's path forward was "not covered with roses." He promised to work with other factions and asked for a chance for his government to prove itself. He said his priorities would be to reduce tensions in a nation that has yet to heal from a civil war that ended 21 years ago, to defend the country's sovereignty and to liberate territories under Israeli control.

"We believe these constants are the basics for preserving Lebanon's independence and safeguarding coexistence," Mikati, a telecommunications tycoon and multibillionaire with a passion for politics, was quoted as saying by the National News Agency.

A highly fractured nation of 4 million perched between the Mediterranean Sea, Israel and Syria, Lebanon has long been a political and military battleground for more powerful regional actors. Its 18 officially recognized religious communities jostle for advantage against one another, often allying themselves with foreign powers, including France, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

The democratic uprising against Assad's rule has further shaken up Lebanese politics, adding yet another layer of uncertainty to a country already riven by sectarian tensions, allegations of espionage and armed militias vying for power against the state.

daragahi@latimes.com

Times staff writer Daragahi reported from Istanbul and special correspondent Sandels from Beirut. Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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