The Hizbullah-led opposition won key concessions from the Lebanese government and its supporters in the March 14 parliamentary coalition, chiefly winning its long-standing demand to secure a one-third share of Cabinet seats in the next government, thus granting it veto power over unfavorable decisions.
The outcome would suggest a blow to the administration of US President George W. Bush that, throughout the months of crisis, has consistently encouraged its allies in the Lebanese government not to yield to Hizbullah's dictates. Indeed, the United States adopted a curiously ambivalent and muted stance during the recent street battles in Beirut, offering little other than verbal gestures of support for the beleaguered government. Whether this was an indication of the limitations of US influence in Lebanon or hid some broader ulterior agenda it is too soon to tell. Still, few in the Middle East will consider it a coincidence that on the same day the Doha agreement was born, Israel and Syria announced that they had been engaged in secret Turkish-brokered peace talks for over a year.
But Hizbullah's political gains have come at a price. The lightening seizure of western Beirut by Hizbullah fighters has created a potentially dangerous backlash among Lebanon's angry, frightened and humiliated Sunnis. It undermined the moderate Sunni leadership, particularly that of Saad Hariri, the head of the Future Movement, underscoring the military weakness of the community. [Note: The Future Movement, the political child of Hariri Inc., is far from moderate. It has reportedly financed Sunni Salafi militants in Lebanon in a bid to counterbalance the Shi'i parties of AMAL and Hizbu'llah] Sunni supporters of the Future Movement have been clamoring for weapons and training to confront the threat posed by the Shiite Hizbullah, but the leadership remains reluctant to embark on such a fraught course.
A period of stability engendered by the Doha agreement notwithstanding, aggrieved Lebanese Sunnis may shift away from a hesitant moderate leadership in favor of radicalism, finding in Al-Qaeda-inspired groups a source of communal empowerment and protection against Hizbullah.
Hizbullah has expended considerable political capital in the past two years to build alliances with Sunni leaders and groups that share its antipathy to Israel and Western designs on the Middle East. But in the wake of the Beirut battles and the threat posed by a potential mobilization of Al-Qaeda-style groups, Hizbullah will have to work hard to ensure that its existing Sunni allies do not drift away in deference to Sunni hostility toward the Shiite group, while simultaneously reaching out to moderate Sunnis.
Furthermore, Hizbullah's strong-arm tactics in Beirut have delivered a serious blow to the carefully nurtured image of nobility surrounding the "resistance" against Israel. Hizbullah's leaders have always maintained that its military wing was directed against Israel and that its weapons would never be used internally against domestic opponents. True, Hizbullah has also warned repeatedly of a tough response to any attempts to emasculate its military wing, but, for most Lebanese, the sanctity of resistance today rings hollow after watching Hizbullah men battling Sunnis in Beirut and Druze in the Aley district.
The Doha agreement calls for a dialogue on Hizbullah's weapons to be hosted by President Michel Suleiman, who was elected on Sunday. For the March 14 coalition, smarting from the blow inflicted by Hizbullah in Beirut, finding a means of hobbling the Shiite party's ability to employ its weapons tops the political agenda in the coming weeks. But the March 14 bloc has little margin for maneuver before a Hizbullah that resolutely refuses to disarm and has demonstrated in stunning fashion a willingness to use force to protect its resistance
Nonetheless, there is potential for compromises if both sides show a degree of flexibility. A useful first step would be to implement the agreement reached during the 2006 national dialogue sessions to regulate the arms held by Palestinian groups. That would mean shutting down the handful of military bases, mainly in the Bekaa Valley, manned by pro-Damascus groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and Fatah Intifada. Hizbullah would earn itself some valuable good will if it agreed not to block such a move.
Free Patriotic Movement, headed by former General Michel Aoun, a powerful Maronite politician. Member of the March 8 National Opposition coalition.
Syrian Social Nationalist Party. Member of the March 8 National Opposition coalition.
Progressive Socialist Party, the largest and most powerful Druze political party headed by the Hobbit, Walid Jumblatt who is currently anti-Syria. In the past, he has been very much pro-Syrian. Jumblatt is an adept politician and switches alliances frequently. Member of the March 14 pro-government coalition.