A walkout by five Shiite cabinet ministers over the weekend has deepened Lebanon's political crisis and sharpened the divisions in a larger, "cold war" struggle for influence over the Middle East.
The tense power struggle within Lebanon's government is, in fact, a key front in a diplomatic battle that pits the US, which backs the government coalition, against Iran and Syria, which support the powerful Shiite Hizbullah party and militant group.
The resignation of the Shiite ministers in the 24-member government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora came after Lebanon's top leaders reached deadlock in a week-long series of round-table talks to discuss opposition demands for creating an expanded national unity government. The opposition, spearheaded by Hizbullah, is seeking a one-third share of the cabinet, granting it veto power over government decisions.
The walkout threatens to prolong political gridlock in Lebanon and raises the threat of Hizbullah launching street protests to demand early parliamentary elections.
"We are going to witness a peak in this political, media, and popular cold war that we saw in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination, only this time around the consequences are going to be much more profound for Lebanon, the region, and the United States," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East center in Beirut.
Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, was killed in a massive car bomb explosion in February 2005. Monday, the government is due to discuss a draft United Nations resolution on the creation of an international tribunal to try those accused of Mr. Hariri's murder. With Syria widely blamed for the assassination, anti-Syrian Lebanese believe Damascus has mobilized its Lebanese allies to block the government from approving the bill.
"We are sure that Syria does not want to have the possibility of facing the international tribunal, which is why they are trying to [prevent] Lebanon from having an agreement with the UN on the formation of the tribunal," says Boutros Harb, a leading Christian lawmaker.
The tribunal can still be approved by the UN even if the Lebanese government rejects the draft resolution, but its credibility would be tarnished without formal Lebanese support.
Despite unyielding pressure from Washington, the Syrian regime has been strengthened in recent months due to a reinvigorated relationship with Iran, continued influence in Lebanon, and the weakening position of the US in neighboring Iraq. But, analysts say, the conclusion of a UN investigation into Hariri's murder represents a "sword of Damocles" from which Syria's leadership cannot escape.
"Syria and its allies are looking to close off this threat, or to diminish it, or neuter it anyway they can," says Andrew Tabler, a Damascus-based fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs and editor-in-chief of Syria Today magazine. "The unfortunate outcome of the Hariri investigation is that it is internationally supercharged and Hizbullah [and its allies] feel that it's a Western threat – an American and Israeli threat – to the balance of power in Lebanon, and they want to stop it."
Still, there is far more at stake in the intensifying tussle for power in Lebanon than the fate of the international tribunal. Lebanon has once more reverted to its unenviable role as an arena for local, regional, and international interests struggling to dominate and fashion the Middle East in their own respective images.
For the US, Lebanon is seen as the most hopeful prospect for a flourishing pro-Western democracy in the Arab world, giving a boost to the Bush administration's flagging democratization program. Furthermore, Lebanon is a useful tool to maintain pressure on neighboring Syria and to block Iranian influence over the Arab-Israeli conflict through its ally, Hizbullah. By the same token, the anti-Western axis grouping Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, the Palestinian Hamas movement, and others is attempting to thwart Washington's influence in Lebanon which has grown since mass anti-Syrian protests in Beirut led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon 18 months ago.
The result is that Lebanon "has now emerged as the battleground of the new regional cold war and global confrontation," wrote Rami Khouri, a Jordanian political analyst in Lebanon's English-language Daily Star. "What we have here, in fact, is the continuation in political form of the military war that was waged in July-August by Hizbullah and Israel, on behalf of themselves and their respective allies, partners, and weapons suppliers."
The escalating political battle in Lebanon has led to sharp criticism from both camps. A warning two weeks ago by Hizbullah that it would resort to street protests if the anti-Syrian majority in the cabinet refused to accede to an expanded national unity government spurred the White House to accuse the Shiite party of attempting to stage a "coup." On Saturday, White House spokesman Tony Snow described Hizbullah and Iran as a "global nexus of terrorism," adding that Tehran's support for Hizbullah had allowed the group to "perpetuate violence throughout the world."
The struggle between the competing factions in Lebanon looks set to hit the streets in the coming days.
"Going down to the streets is one of the important steps that Hizbullah and its allies will take," Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizbullah's deputy secretary-general, told Reuters Sunday.
In response, Mr. Harb, the anti-Syrian politician, says that the pro-government forces, known as the March 14 bloc, could stage counter demonstrations.
"We are studying what we should do to counterattack," he says, adding that Hizbullah is seeking to create a "chaotic situation in the country."
"We are studying the possibility of using the same [tactics] they are using," he says, referring to street protests. "We are awaiting their first steps."