THE BLOG
11/25/2014 02:45 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Lebanon Needs a President

Lebanon is a dissected country. Religious and ideological divides long ago metastasized into politics and territory. The country has been trudging forward now for six months without a president because the Parliament cannot agree on a candidate. The lack of a central authority in the country means that there is no way to reel in the diverging factions. As more dust collects in the presidential palace, the more power that the Shia paramilitary group Hezbollah is able to consolidate. While the international community's increase in pressure over recent weeks is welcomed, rhetoric alone won't stop Hezbollah from riding out the crisis for as long as it can. The West must continue to support Lebanon's anti-Hezbollah coalition in Lebanon and pressure all parties to accept a consensus candidate for president, a move that will weaken Hezbollah and strengthen allies of democracy around the region.

Lebanon's Parliamentary gridlock, which makes the US Senate look like a fast-moving highway, has paralyzed state institutions, created a massive backlog of administrative affairs, and keeps the country perpetually divided at a time when endless hell stalks their eastern border. The sad truth is that only Hezbollah stands to gain from the continuing presidential crisis. By intentionally keeping the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) weak, they ensure their monopoly of force in the south. It also provides a pretext for armaments; the pitch is that if the government is weak, Hezbollah will be there to protect the people. Last week, they went so far as to announce the opening of their ranks to non-Shia Lebanese to serve in a new home front battalion in the Bekaa valley- a job expressly denoted to the LAF.

The strategies of Western countries have been unsuccessful until now in trying to tip the power balance in the LAF's favor. France signed a massive $3 billion arms deal with the Lebanese government to be financed by Saudi Arabia. Since then, Lebanon still hasn't received shipments of any weapons because of delays in the transfer. While the French government insists that the delays were caused by logistical complications, rumors indicate France's hesitance of transferring weapons stems from the looming presidential crisis and overall instability in Lebanon. Aware of this, Hezbollah is trying to torpedo Lebanon's only hope of gaining serious military edge over neighboring militant groups ISIS and Al Nusra, so it can continue to be the dominate protectorate of the country.

The anti-Hezbollah coalition in the Lebanese parliament, succinctly named the March 14th Movement, is predominantly Sunni and serves as the democratic counterweight to Hezbollah's majority coalition. Since the crisis began they have made many honest attempts to bridge the gap between the two embattled groups. The leader of March 14th, Saad Hariri, recently released a policy statement of willingness for unconditional dialogue with Hezbollah. They went so far as to condone last month's military crackdown in Tripoli where scores of Sunnis were arrested or killed.
The condemnation was praised by Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, but never reciprocated. Just a few days ago, Lebanon's fifteenth attempt to elect a President failed to reach quorum because the parliament members representing Hezbollah boycotted the plenary session. The anti-Hezbollah coalition cannot be bullied into accepting Hezbollah's terms and there are two ways March 14th, with the help of the International community can stop it:

Firstly, as an act of good faith to the West, Beirut should take steps to help moderate anti-Assad forces wherever it can. Allowing refuge, travel, and intelligence to those against Assad would bolster Lebanon's allies' interests and alienate Hezbollah. For example, last weeks release of Abdallah Rifai, a high-ranking Free Syrian Army (FSA) officer recently captured by the LAF served as a dual message to observers: showing the world Beirut is both committed to protecting Western and Saudi interests in the region as well as that they are willing to support Hezbollah's competitors in Syria. To that end, arms deals with France and other benefactors must be acted upon. However, it's important that mechanisms are set up to ensure that these weapons don't wind up in Hezbollah's stockpiles. The aid these countries give should be more focused on training, and medium and heavy arms versus light weapons. Things like anti-tank missiles and small arms, while important, can easily fall into enemy hands and end up being used on Western allies like the FSA or Israel. Heavy weapons like Land Rovers, helicopters, and planes are far more likely to stay in LAF coffers. Secondly, the Western world must put pressure on Iran, Hezbollah's patron, to push the group into a compromise. This could be done in a variety of ways but would be most effective as part of larger framework in the continuing negotiations between the West and Tehran over their nuclear ambitions.

By forcing Hezbollah into accepting a consensus candidate dictated by the March 14th Movement, like current LAF Chief Jean Kahwaji, the rifts developing in the country over the past 6 months can finally begin healing. Lebanon needs the stability and depolarization that only a consensus president can bring.