Lebanon’s Cabinet Crisis and the Syria Spillover

This is Beirut... #5
Lebanon’s Cabinet Crisis and the Syria Spillover - Marc Sabbagh


As the conflict in Syria enters its fourth year, comparatively little is written about the stalemate the crisis has caused in neighboring Lebanon, where the ramifications of the Syrian Civil War go beyond the refugee crisis and spillover violence. The resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati in March 2013 initiated a ten-month government collapse, paralyzing Lebanon’s political system as the country became further entrenched in Syria’s conflict. Although the Cabinet crisis was resolved in mid-February, Lebanon still faces electoral gridlock and political divisions. Despite formalizing a policy of “disassociation” from the Syrian crisis, the conflict has left Lebanon unable to tackle pressing concerns and fully end the resulting stalemate. This paper will analyze the impact of Syria on Lebanon’s political stalemate, the reasons behind the Cabinet “breakthrough,” and the prospects for ending this prolonged political gridlock.


Lebanon’s domestic policies are inextricably linked to a competition between political groups on issues that go beyond the country’s borders. Since 2005 and the withdrawal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces from Lebanon, the two main political alliances in Lebanon have defined themselves by reference to opposing regional positions: one pro-Assad, pro-Iranian camp and one anti-Assad, pro-Saudi grouping. The posturing of both groups is visible even in their names: the March 14 political bloc is named after the massive rally in Beirut against Assad on March 14, 2005, while the March 8 alliance evokes the massive pro-Syrian rally led by Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah that same year.

Despite formalizing a policy of “disassociation” from the Syrian crisis, Lebanon’s stalemate, which encompasses a Cabinet crisis, the postponing of parliamentary elections, and the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming presidential election is driven by lingering divisions over Syria. Because the Syrian crisis has persisted, Lebanese political instability has not only continued, but been compounded.

Although Lebanon successfully formed a Cabinet in mid-February, the emerging consensus is that the Cabinet effectively guarantees government paralysis. Further, as stipulated by Lebanon’s constitution, the recently formed government will have to resign after Lebanon’s planned presidential elections, making the breakthrough a stopgap measure, not a solution. The country’s ongoing stalemate reveals that, despite the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005, events in Syria retain significant influence over Lebanon.

From Political Disputes to Political Paralysis

In 2012, Lebanon adopted the Baabda Declaration, which endorsed neutrality regarding the Syrian conflict. However, since the agreement, events on the ground have further tied Lebanon to the outcome in Syria. In May 2013, Hezbollah openly announced its military involvement in the Syrian crisis on the side of President Assad, which led the March 14 alliance to protest Hezbollah’s violation of Lebanon’s disassociation policy.

After Prime Minister Mikati resigned – a decision he explicitly tied to the impact of Syria on Lebanon – a hardening of bargaining positions between March 14 and March 8 occurred over Baabda.[1] The disassociation policy served as the main obstacle to Cabinet formation, since the March 14 alliance initially refused to join a Cabinet with Hezbollah unless they withdrew from Syria. As late as December 2013, parliamentary leaders like the head of the Al-Mustaqbal bloc, Fouad Saniora, were still insisting that forming a Cabinet would be impossible in light of Hezbollah’s deep involvement in the Syrian crisis.[2]

The Cabinet formation thus started as an existential fight over control of Lebanon’s position toward Syria and as an attempt to prevent the opposing coalition from defining the agenda of subsequent government policies and elections. The Cabinet in Lebanon is not all-powerful, but the ten-month stalemate and result of the discussions are a useful illustration of the effect of the Syrian crisis on Lebanese politics.  

Underlying Rifts

In a speech in January, Saad Hariri, head of Lebanon’s Future Movement within the March 14 alliance, highlighted the main points of contention between March 14 and March 8 on the Cabinet issue. On the surface, the various disputes regarding Cabinet portfolios and ministries, the distribution of political parties and sects, and the Cabinet’s policy statement and agenda appear to be strictly related to domestic politics. In reality, though, the issues are more closely tied to Syria.

After the March 8 alliance dropped their demands for veto power in the Cabinet, Hariri announced he would reciprocate by backing off his position of not joining a Cabinet with Hezbollah and postponing his demand to support the Baabda Declaration. Responding to claims that March 14’s willingness to share power would cover Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria, Hariri said: “We definitely will not cover Hezbollah’s participation in Syria…we are against a blocking third [veto power]. We support the rotation [of ministerial portfolios]. I reject outright the tripartite formula and I will never compromise on this matter.”[3]

The first point of contention Hariri highlighted was the amount of Cabinet seats designated to each political bloc. A majority of ministers from a certain bloc not only provides more avenues for political influence, but also guarantees “veto power” and the potential to initiate a government collapse in protest of policies. The likelihood that this would occur undeniably increases with the added tensions over Syria, which is why distributing the 24 Cabinet seats became a contentious issue. The March 8 alliance pressed for a 9-9-6 Cabinet formula that would grant over a third of the seats to both camps, giving each alliance veto power. The second option, which was adopted after Hezbollah agreed, was an evenly divided 8-8-8 formula split between March 8, March 14 and centrists appointed by the Prime Minister.

Veto power would have increased the likelihood of a government collapse. Hezbollah’s main interest was to have a bargaining tool against any backlash or increased pressure over their role in Syria. After all, in 2011, Lebanon’s government collapsed after Hezbollah’s Cabinet members resigned in opposition to the UN investigation of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

A second point of contention in the formation process was the question of Cabinet minister portfolios. Tammam Salam, Lebanon’s new Prime Minister, opted for a portfolio rotation system, which prevents a sect or party from dominating the agenda of a ministerial portfolio. Hezbollah conceded by granting the March 14 coalition the Justice, Interior and Telecommunications seats, portfolios that influence Lebanon’s security and intelligence sectors. This is important not only because it gives March 14 a greater role in security and bolstering the armed forces, but also because General Ashraf Rifi, who had served as Director General of the internal security forces, was approved as Minister of Justice. Rifi helped prompt Prime Minister Mikati’s resignation after Hezbollah opposed renewing his appointment as director general. Hezbollah also opposed appointing Rifi as minister of the interior given his opposition to Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria, but he was still appointed minister of justice, where his responsibilities will include curtailing growing Sunni extremism in Lebanon.[4]

Finally, the disagreement over the Baabda Declaration extended to the government formation process through the policy statement issued by the Cabinet, which defines government priorities. Less than a month before the Cabinet was formed, the Future parliamentary bloc continued to demand the inclusion of the Baabda Declaration in the ministerial statement as a precursor to joining the Cabinet.[5] March 8, on the other hand, argued that the Cabinet statement should not be discussed until after the Cabinet was formed, shielding Hezbollah from further political pressure. March 8 secured victory on this point, potentially indicating that March 14 will remain quiet on the issue in exchange for Hezbollah’s weakened influence in the Cabinet.

Favorable Outcome or Façade?

The fact that Lebanon has emerged from the longest government collapse in its history despite the crisis in neighboring Syria would seem to indicate that the stalemate facing the country is over. However, this is far from the truth. The fragile Cabinet simply obscures the continuing pressures Lebanon faces from the Syrian crisis. 

For one, the debate over the Baabda Declaration was not resolved and became a point of conflict in the crafting of the ministerial statement. In addition, March 14 pushed for the removal of the “tripartite equation” from the statement. Supported by March 8, the reference to “the Army, the people, and the resistance” is an ode to Hezbollah’s resistance movement against Israel and was part of the previous Cabinet agenda. Hezbollah and its allies likely believed that their acceptance of a “consensus Cabinet” would grant them leverage on both of these issues.[6] In the end, the ministerial statement adopted in early March validated both the Baabda Declaration through its commitment to “disassociation” and removed the tripartite formula in favor of a general mention of the rights of Lebanese citizens to “resist the Israeli occupation and repel its attacks and recover occupied territory.” This compromise undermined both March 14’s insistence that possession of weapons be restricted to the state as well as Hezbollah’s demand for the tripartite formula.[7]

Additionally, while the Cabinet distribution compromise seems to be aimed at maintaining stability, it has effectively guaranteed government paralysis by denying the quorum needed to pass significant legislation. Further, there have been claims that the Cabinet, which has been publicly portrayed as an 8-8-8 consensus body, actually has a 9-9-6 distribution, with two ministers from the centrist bloc serving as “moles” who could prompt a government collapse by siding with their respective blocs.[8]

Finally, because Saudi Arabia and Iran give approval to the Cabinet, the formation likely signifies a regional decision to shield Lebanon from the crisis in Syria. The influence of these regional rivalries on the Cabinet is surreptitious, but it is speculated that Hezbollah’s acquiescence on several positions was the result of Iranian pressure. Some argue that a “regional entente” between Saudi Arabia and Iran may be a contributing factor to the resolution of the Cabinet crisis, but collaboration is more likely a temporary effort to spare Lebanon from greater instability.[9]

Conclusion: Breaking the Stalemate?

Given these positive developments, one would expect further breakthroughs, particularly on stability and security issues. However, the latest compromise is fragile at best, and the Lebanese government has so far been unable to separate domestic and regional issues in order to address growing instability. If Lebanon is truly locked in a stalemate, why did Cabinet formation succeed?

The answer may be that the moment was ripe for a compromise to take place between March 14 and March 8 and their respective regional patrons, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Mediation literature focuses on “mutually hurting stalemates,” in which parties agree to come to the table because neither thinks it can win without incurring a greater loss.[10] In this case, March 8 and Iran were pressured to compromise due to Hezbollah’s ongoing involvement in Syria, which has created new security challenges and vulnerabilities for Hezbollah and its constituents within Lebanon. Additionally, Hezbollah’s members are increasingly divided on the group’s involvement in Syria, thereby undermining Hezbollah’s, and Iran’s, bargaining position.[11] 

At the same time, March 14 is seeking compromise as Lebanon’s Sunni population becomes increasingly disillusioned with the political bloc and begins to turn to extremist groups to counter Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia, which has all but given up on international military support for the Syrian opposition, understands that Hezbollah and Iran are behind the Assad regime’s staying power. Fearing increased violence by Sunni extremist groups in Lebanon that could further bolster Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia is lending greater support to March 14 to secure its position by working through the system to resolve Lebanon’s political stalemate.[12] Coupled with the deadline imposed by Prime Minister Mikati, the upcoming presidential elections, and the “expiration” of Assad’s presidential term in July, the moment was ripe for compromise.[13]

Constituents of both the March 14 and March 8 alliances have so far scoffed at the concessions their political blocs made, but this signals that each side gave something up for the greater goal of forming a government.[14] Still, the governmental stalemate in Lebanon, which will now be seen in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, will continue as long as the Syrian crisis continues. A few days after the Cabinet was formed, two suicide bombs were detonated by Sunni extremists, targeting Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and adding to Lebanon’s instability. 

Lebanon’s constitution stipulates that the government must resign after a new president is elected, adding another complication to an already complex political situation. And while both Lebanese political blocs have voiced support for holding elections on time without external interference, regional players seem to prefer maintaining a Lebanese stalemate for the time being, ostensibly in order to preserve Lebanon’s stability and security. Fearing further destabilization in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia recently pushed for an extension of the president’s term.[15] Hezbollah and its benefactors, as they showed by their decision to boycott April’s National Dialogue, may prefer stalling until a regional balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran is restored, especially if Assad is able to organize and execute a presidential election in Syria later this year that reasserts his authority.[16]

As former Prime Minister Mikati noted a week before the Cabinet was formed, Lebanon’s fate is “…largely intertwined with the complexity of the situation in Syria.”[17] Therefore, while domestic policy considerations make up part of Lebanon’s contentious politics, external influence remains the decisive factor, with the Syrian crisis playing the leading role. Ultimately, Lebanon’s problems will not be solved until the Syrian Civil War is resolved, an idea far removed from the hopeful ideals of the 2005 protests that ousted Assad’s military from Lebanon. As long as political blocs are determined by their postures toward Syria, Lebanese politics will be defined by Syrian issues. Still, there is some hope – while President Assad was the first to congratulate Lebanon’s newly formed Cabinet in 2011, which was created under his direction and with his approval, this cabinet was formed without direct interference from Damascus.[18]

Notes & References

  1. Bilal Y. Saab, “Why Lebanon’s Prime Minister Mikati Resigned,” Foreign Affairs, March 26, 2013,http://www.yalibnan.com/2013/03/26/why-lebanons-pm-mikati-resigned/.
  2. “Saniora: Hizbullah's Involvement in Syria Impedes Cabinet Formation,” Naharnet Newsdeck, December 14, 2013,http://www.naharnet.com/stories/en/109838
  3. Hussein Dakroub, “Hariri: Cabinet initiative aims to safeguard Lebanon,” The Daily Star, January 21, 2014,http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Jan-21/244749-hariri-cabinet-initiative-aims-to-safeguard-lebanon.ashx#axzz2tv5rcgy1.
  4. Nesrine Hatoum, “The Long Road to Lebanon’s New Government,” Al-Arabiya, February 15, 2014,http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/analysis/2014/02/16/The-long-road-to-Lebanon-s-new-government.html
  5. “Future: Hezbollah in Syria disrupting life in Lebanon,” The Daily Star, January 22, 2014,http://dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Jan-22/244913-future-hezbollah-in-syria-disrupting-life-in-lebanon.ashx#ixzz2tWYQmxmQ
  6. Hussein Dakroub, “Cabinet formed, Salam’s real work begins,” The Daily Star, February 17, 2014,http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Feb-17/247577-Cabinet-formed-salams-real-work-begins.ashx#ixzz2tbewFeSQ.
  7. “Lebanese Cabinet Statement in full,” Executive Magazine, March 28, 2014, http://www.executive-magazine.com/economics-policy/lebanese-cabinet-statement-2014.
  8. “Lebanon’s New Government (Feb 15, 2014),” Qifa Nabki, February 15, 2014,http://qifanabki.com/2014/02/15/lebanons-new-government-feb-15-2014/.
  9. Nesrine Hatoum, “The Long Road to Lebanon’s New Government,” Al-Arabiya, February 15, 2014,http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/analysis/2014/02/16/The-long-road-to-Lebanon-s-new-government.html.
  10. I William Zartman, “Timing of Peace Initiatives: Hurting Stalemates and Ripe Moments,” The Global Review of Ethnopolitics 1, no. 1 (2001): 8-18.
  11. “How a Syrian crisis will affect Lebanon,” Stratfor Analysis, March 2012.
  12. “In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s Challenge Grows,” Stratfor Analysis, January 2014.
  13. Aryn Baker, “Syria’s Assad Prepares for Sham Elections Despite Endless War,” TIME, March 26, 2014,http://time.com/38696/syria-assad-elections-war/.
  14. Joyce Karam, “Lebanon’s new cabinet: A modest compromise,” Al Arabiya, February 16, 2014,http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/analysis/2014/02/16/Lebanon-s-new-government-A-compromise-for-stability.html.
  15. “International, regional division over Lebanon presidential elections,” Al-Monitor, March 11, 2014,http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2014/03/lebanon-international-regional-debate-presidential-poll.html.
  16. Hussein Dakroub, “Dialogue precarious after Hezbollah boycott,” The Daily Star, March 31, 2014,http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Mar-31/251771-dialogue-precarious-after-hezbollah-boycott.ashx#axzz2xUaAE8Iz
  17. “Mikati: Lebanon problems ‘intertwined with Syria’,” The Daily Star, February 5, 2014,http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Feb-05/246395-mikati-lebanon-problems-intertwined-with-syria.ashx#ixzz2sxnTThdd.
  18. Laila Bassam and Yara Bayoumy, “Lebanon gets Hezbollah-led cabinet after 5-month lag,” June 13, 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/06/13/us-lebanon-government-idUSTRE75C48K20110613.