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Syria Spillover Adds to Lebanon's Paralysis

Lebanese citizens gather at the site of a car bombing in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Jan. 21, 2014 (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Lebanese citizens gather at the site of a car bombing in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Jan. 21, 2014 (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

The Lebanese have much to preoccupy them—from a string of deadly sectarian car-bombings sparked by the civil war raging next-door in Syria to the flood of nearly a million Syrian refugees that has increased Lebanon’s population by a quarter, staining the country’s resources and adding to sectarian tensions. But above all they are worried by political paralysis gripping their country.

The symbol of that for many residents of Beirut is the odorous trash starting to pile up on their streets following a dispute over a landfill site outside the city that is meant to handle the Lebanese capital’s waste. A private firm contracted to ship the trash has had to suspend operations because locals fed up with overflow from the landfill site at Naameh are blockading it.

For weeks the problem has been brewing but the country’s fragile caretaker government did nothing to preempt a showdown or seek out another dumpsite.

In an editorial the English-language Daily Star warned the country’s divided politicians of the dangers of political drift. “The formation of a new government is the top priority during this critical stage, while all of the political bickering and armchair analyses are luxuries that the country can simply no longer afford.”

The Lebanese were buoyed a few days ago when onetime Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, announced he was prepared to enter a national unity government along with Hezbollah, despite the fact that he blames the Shi’ite movement, along with its longtime patron Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for the 2005 assassination of his father Rafiq Hariri.

That assassination nearly plunged Lebanon into a resumption of the country’s devastating 1975-1990 civil war. But speaking in Paris on Monday Hariri told a French radio station “the interests of Lebanon are more important than my own.”

But since Hariri’s olive branch not much has moved politically. Forming a government that could replace the weak 10-month-old caretaker government is easier said than done in a country divided so sharply between the three main sectarian communities of Shia and Sunni Muslims and Christians. The divisions have become poisonous thanks to the Syrian war that everyday spills into Lebanon and has triggered numerous clashes in the north of the country between Lebanese Shi’ite Muslims supporting Syrian President al-Assad and Sunnis backing the rebels trying to oust him.

Tuesday’s car bomb that ripped through Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Beirut is sure to add to the tensions.

“Poor Lebanon, the Syrian civil war is killing the country,” laments U.S. business consultant Robert MacGregor, who teaches at the Lebanese American University.

Syria is one of the main obstacles to an agreement between the Hezbollah-controlled March 8 alliance of parties and the Sunni-dominated March 14 coalition over a new government.

Hezbollah leaders are refusing to agree a government policy statement demanded by the Sunnis that would reiterate the formal position of the previous administration of neutrality and non-involvement in the Syrian civil war.

In a public statement issued Monday, the Shi’ite movement, whose militiamen have been fighting for Assad in Syria, announced: “We do not want to discuss now the contents and details of the policy statement because our convictions cannot be shaken by thunder.”

Hezbollah’s military role in Syria is aggravating historical divisions between Lebanese Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, according to author and commentator Michael Young. “The fact that today Hezbollah is intervening on the side of the Syrian regime has really only exacerbated a problem that has been there for several years,” he says. But it is an exacerbation that is one of the biggest impediments to the formation of a new government.

Another obstacle to agreement is over the division of cabinet positions. Broadly the three main sects have agreed ministerial positions should be shared equally between them on an 8-8-8 basis but the problem comes with which group gets which ministries.

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman has remained upbeat that a government will be formed by the end of the week, saying the path is clear for agreement. But he has also warned that come what may, there will be a new government, even if it has to be yet another caretaker administration.

Caretaker or not, at this point, Beirut residents can only hope that any new government will move quickly to clean the trash from their city’s streets.

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