Sectarian power play could tip Lebanon's balance

The Lebanese Forces leader Geagea not only picked a fight over Christian influence, he has picked one he cannot afford to lose, otherwise he may find himself alone if his enemies win.

Lately, attention in Lebanon has been focused on the tribunal established to uncover the assassins of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. However, this past weekend saw an important, if still symbolic, step in a related but less-discussed matter: domination of the Christian, particularly the Maronite Christian, community, and the implications for Lebanon.

On Saturday, the Lebanese Forces, once the leading Christian militia and now a political party, held its annual mass in honour of combatants killed during the 1975-1990 civil war. The party's leader Samir Geagea delivered a speech in which he observed that Lebanon was on the verge of a coup, a reference to Hizbollah, which has threatened dire consequences if the government of Saad Hariri continues to cooperate with the special tribunal. Mr Geagea positioned himself as a supporter of the tribunal, then, revealingly, issued a call to rank-and-file partisans of his Maronite rival Michel Aoun to rejoin with the Lebanese Forces in defence of common political principles. Mr Aoun, once a foe of Hizbollah, has since become its partner.

Mr Geagea's address was a gamble. On the one hand he was making a bold bid to become Lebanon's leading Maronite figure. Although Mr Aoun commands a sizable following, his credibility has suffered in the past year. Among Aounists, an old guard is disgruntled that Mr Aoun is transforming his movement into a family affair. Within the broader Christian community there is unease about his ties to Hizbollah and Syria (where Mr Aoun was visiting on the day of the Lebanese Forces ceremony). Mr Geagea feels that once Mr Aoun, who is in his mid-70s, passes from the scene, the Aounists will fragment so now is the time to start attracting a portion to his side.

On the other hand, even as Mr Geagea presented himself as the embodiment of the Christians' mindset and defiance, he knew that his comments about averting a Hizbollah coup once again made him a leading target for the party and Syria. Indeed, the Lebanese Forces have been relentless in their hostility to both, earning Mr Geagea an 11-year prison sentence during the years of the Syrian military presence. In other words, Mr Geagea not only picked a fight over Christian influence, he picked one he cannot afford to lose, otherwise he may find himself alone if his enemies win.

Mr Geagea has taken on a risky role in what remains of the anti-Syrian coalition known as March 14. In the years after Rafiq Hariri's murder, his son Saad had headed the opposition to Syria, the leading suspect in the crime. This lasted until the reconciliation last year between Saudi Arabia, Mr Hariri's political sponsor, and Syria, which compelled the Lebanese prime minister to make peace with the Syrian president Bashar Assad. Since then, the Syrians and their allies have sought to break Mr Hariri away from Mr Geagea, both to divide the remnants of March 14 and to isolate Mr Geagea. It has long been a Syrian priority to weaken the Maronites, usually through a divide-and-rule strategy, for being a stalwart bastion of anti-Syrian sentiment.

There is something else. Mr Geagea has the reflexes of a military commander. A son of the hardscrabble mountain town of Bisharri in the north, the Lebanese Forces leader runs his movement in a centralised way. A natural organiser, Mr Geagea has rebuilt his party into a major political force despite his long incarceration. To Hizbollah, as obsessed and guarded as he on matters of security, Mr Geagea is a potential military rival. To Syria, he represents an eventual rallying point for an independent-minded Christian community that Syria mistrusts.

For example, Damascus doesn't appreciate that Mr Geagea and Mr Hariri maintain close ties, with the Lebanese Forces leader providing the prime minister with manoeuvring room on his right. Ironically, many Sunnis who loathed Mr Geagea during the civil war now regard him with some respect for standing against Hizbollah. The Christian population has declined in Lebanon, so that the country is now largely shaped by Sunni-Shiite dynamics. However, that does not mean that the Christians have become marginal. Mr Aoun's rapprochement with Hizbollah decisively crippled the anti-Syrian coalition led by Mr Hariri between 2005 and 2009; while Mr Geagea's tough line today concerns Hizbollah and Syria for creating political space from which the Sunnis, too, can challenge their dictates. Mr Geagea has been especially irritating for forcefully supporting the special tribunal.

With Hizbollah and Syria re-imposing their hegemony over Lebanon, can Mr Geagea survive, politically or otherwise? One will hear that the Lebanese Forces leader is a "red line" for the Americans, who will not allow him to be harmed; but such assurances mean little after Rafiq Hariri's killing. Mr Geagea has money, a key source of patronage and political influence. Above all, Mr Geagea knows that if he is attacked, particularly if he is attacked militarily in the Christian heartland, his undecided co-religionists might rally to his side.

It might be too much to affirm that Lebanon's fate is tied into that of Mr Geagea. However, what happens to the Christians will undoubtedly affect the balance between the Sunnis and Shiites, which in turn will determine how powerful a role Syria can play. Lebanon is an intricate country and much is decided between the sectarian cracks, where one might otherwise not bother to look.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of the recently published book The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle.