LEBANON: Analyst Paul Salem on prospect of Hezbollah election win
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Lebanese voters head to the polls Sunday morning in elections that could determine their nation’s future direction and strategic position in the Middle East.
Paul Salem, Lebanon analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is in the unique position of having access not only to major players in the Lebanese political game, but contacts in Washington that help him understand how Lebanon fits into the geopolitical picture.
Salem recently spoke to The Times about Sunday’s elections, and whether a victory by the Hezbollah-led opposition, called the March 8 alliance, over the pro-U.S. March 14 coalition would have major regional repercussions.
Los Angeles Times: Do you think it’s a foregone conclusion that the opposition will win?
Paul Salem: No, I think it’s still up in the air. There is a good chance it will be a hung parliament and no one will win a majority, there is also a good chance March 8 might win, but March 14 could also still eke out a majority. Obviously the West is more concerned with one of those possibilities, which is March 8 winning.
LAT: What do you think the U.S. reaction will be if March 8 wins?
Salem: I think it will be a bit complex. It won’t be similar to Gaza [controlled by Hamas]. I think things are a bit more nuanced now and the situation is different. In the U.S. there will definitely be a negative reaction from Congress and certain corners of the press but I think the administration will await the formation of the government. I think they are going to express concern but put a lot of emphasis on the formation of the government after the elections. If it’s a coalition government similar to the one we have now, it may be paralytic and weak but it won’t be a radical departure; the government will be able to make a responsible and moderate statement that the West could deal with. There still could be a reduction in economic and military support, but it won’t be a dramatic collapse.
LAT: How much would this reduction really affect Lebanon?
Salem: It’s true that the aid to the Lebanese military is perhaps less than what Lebanon wanted. I think they have delivered $250 million over the past three years with more in the pipeline, but like you said that isn’t a lot.
But what’s important is that the Lebanese army has aligned itself with the West in terms of training and equipment. If this kind of aid is no longer feasible, March 8 could turn to Iran, as [Hezbollah’s Sheik Hassan] Nasrallah has said they would do.
LAT: Could Iran provide more than what the U.S. does currently?
Salem: Iran could definitely provide much more, and they would be happy to do it. The obstacles would be more internal than international, since there is no way the U.S. could stop such a thing from happening.
But no matter who wins the elections, Lebanon is a confessional system, a diverse country, and it would be difficult for them to push that through on their own. And I don’t think Hezbollah really wants to do that. Hezbollah benefits from a Lebanese state that is close to the West and an army that is innocuous against it — it provides protection. And besides, Hezbollah relies on its own weapons, not the state’s ... I think Hezbollah would prefer to form a coalition government, so they don’t want to win by too much because it would make them vulnerable.
LAT: Do you think pro-American Sunni leader Saad Hariri will make good on his promise to boycott the government, and if so, how much of March 14 will go with him?
Salem: I don’t know, but it will certainly be a big part of the discussion that will include the Saudis, the French and the U.S. The French have said they want a coalition government, and the Saudis have not made their position clear. It would certainly be in the U.S. interest to have a coalition government with a blocking third. [Pro-Hezbollah Christian leader Michael] Aoun is expected to be the biggest Christian bloc in parliament.
LAT: How do you think Aoun will behave once his party is finally in power?
Salem: If March 8 takes the majority it will be because Aoun gave it to them. Aoun’s main demand will relate to the presidency, which is a point of great conflict with Amal and Hezbollah who don’t really want to change the president. But the presidency would be Aoun’s main objective that could put him in conflict with his allies. It’s not really definite that Hezbollah wants to win the elections; it’s quite possible that they would be more comfortable with a hung parliament because if they win then they have to deliver to Aoun a lot of things that they don’t really want to. Even if Aoun is the biggest Christian leader in government, I don’t think that’s going to be enough for him.
LAT: If March 8 wins and Hezbollah doesn’t give Aoun the presidency, do you think Aoun will turn against Hezbollah?
Salem: I don’t think so, because Aoun hasn’t got anywhere else to go. He’s burned his bridges with March 14, he’s burned his bridges with the US, if he burns the bridge with Hezbollah, he’s out of bridges.
— Meris Lutz in Beirut
Photo: Paul Salem. Credit: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace