Now that the Lebanese and Iraqi elections are over and the countries’ political parties brace for the implications of whatever internal power-sharing arrangements emerge, the long shadow of Israel makes itself felt in Beirut and Baghdad. Both countries have critical internal issues to address as well as keeping an eye on regional concerns that could undo whatever domestic progress is possible.
Lebanon cannot ignore its neighbors – an ascendant Assad regime in Syria that is close to achieving control over most of its urban areas; an Israel that continues to issue hostile statements regarding Lebanon’s internal political arrangements that allow Hezbollah key political and security roles; and as yet unfinished business on defining its borders with Israel. And then there is a very long domestic agenda that is made more challenging by the need to satisfy so many entitlements claimed by the competing parties.
Iraq’s struggles are even more complex. A coalition government that can be formed in a reasonable period of time will buy the leadership some space to address multiple internal security, economic, and social issues. And there is much more: what to do with Iran’s military, political, and economic presence that has only deepened with the success of its militias and proxies in combating ISIS and other militants; how to bring some sense of security on its border with Syria where US and coalition forces are working to eliminate terrorist threats in the area; how to manage relations with Erdogan’s Turkey and the restive Kurds; and an Israel government that is suspicious of Iraqi intentions under perceived Iranian influence and outright military muscle.
There is no escaping the reality that conditions are ripe for a significant rise in hostilities. Analysts warn that although none of the parties seem intent on ratcheting up tensions at this time, there is broad agreement that a miscalculation by any of the potential combatants can unleash a firestorm. With Israel toughening its redlines concerning Hezbollah’s activities in Lebanon and Syria, Iran’s deepening presence in Syria, the likely movement of Syrian and allied forces into areas close to Israel’s border, and Russia’s reluctance to take on a more proactive role in defusing tensions, opportunities for a flame-up are multiplying…and this is not even including what the UAE and Saudi Arabia are intending.
As an article in Foreign Affairs noted, “Another war between Israel and Hezbollah is almost inevitable. Although neither side wants a conflict now, the shifting balance of power in the Levant and shrinking areas of contestation are indicators of a looming showdown. The real questions are how and where—not if—the impending conflagration will occur.”
So the question is, how are the governments-to-be in Lebanon and Iraq to demonstrate wisdom in forming governments to avoid as much as possible the tipping points that undermine their countries’ stability? Can the leadership rise above sectarian and community identity politics and agree on a statement of principles and policies that diminish prospects for being dragged into regional conflicts? Will the new governments, based on broad consensus, be able to withstand external pressures on their internal politics?
It is interesting that Muqtada al-Sadr’s coalition won the largest number of seats in the elections running a populist, even Trump-like campaign, wanting to drain the swamp in Baghdad, fight corruption, and return government to the people. Sunnis were drawn to his lists as they were to Haider al-Abadi’s lists, challenging age-old sectarian divides.
But the wild card of the standoff between Iran and Israel casts a pall on the government formation process in both countries. Unspoken in Lebanon but obviously on the agenda is what can be done to diminish Hezbollah’s ties to Iran and its antagonism towards Israel? With Israel intent on brandishing its “privilege” of US guarantees of military dominance in the region, and its anti-Iran campaign in sync with many US political leaders, its power cannot be overlooked in formulating scenarios and discussing policy options. Similarly, Iraq, still facing ISIS and the remnants of the ISIS caliphate, wants to be able to manage its own affairs, a goal that may not be possible without alienating some military, political, and religious factions in Iran.
It will be a long, hot summer.