Many saw it as a repositioning carried out by someone who is considered to be the strong man of Michel Aoun's mandate, in the light of the latest US sanctions against two other former ministers of his coalition, Ali Hassan Khalil (Amal) and Youssef Fenianos (Marada). The fear that future new sanctions might, according to concordant sources, affect personalities in his entourage or even target him personally could explain this change. But is it really a repositioning and how far can it go?
All analysts interviewed agree on one point: the FPM leader is currently in a difficult position. Bassil, who believed his future was secure because of his agreement with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his alliance with Hezbollah – which gave him both Sunni and Shiite cover – has lost significant support after ending his partnership with the leader of the Future Movement.
Furthermore, his bad relations with certain factions of his camp, such as the Amal movement and the Marada, as well as with the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and the majority of other Christian parties, left him isolated today on the internal scene. His isolation was accentuated by the October 17 protest movement, which particularly targeted him. The US sanctions – imposed on personalities close to Hezbollah – further complicated his situation.
A "Solid" Alliance
Does this situation actually threaten Bassil's alliance with Hezbollah? Many believe that the Shiite party understands the difficulties facing its ally and does not take offense at this "distancing," as long as the basis of their political collaboration remains unchanged. "Bassil is facing many internal and external challenges, which explains this new language and position," said Kassem Kassir, a political analyst close to Hezbollah. "However, I believe that Hezbollah understands these difficulties, and I am convinced that the alliance is strong and will continue."
Kassir also considered that after so many years, the Mar Mikhael agreement (named after the church where it was concluded in 2006, signed by now President Aoun and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah) must be reviewed in order to adapt it to all the developments that have taken place since then.
But March 8 Coalition circles do not hesitate to criticize Bassil in the press, even accusing him, of having practically withdrawn from this agreement. "The March 8 Coalition factions have become very diverse, often displaying radically different opinions, and Bassil does not just have friends," Kassir said. "In my opinion, this does not correspond to reality; Mar Mikhael's agreement still holds."
"Objective: Isolate Hezbollah"
"This is not the first time that Bassil distinguishes himself from his allies by his words," said Makram Rabah, a researcher and political analyst. "Usually, he does it for internal purposes, such as to push for the realization of projects that are close to his heart," he noted. "But, this time, he raised more controversial subjects, such as the implementation of UNSC Resolution 1701 or the return of Hezbollah (fighters) from Syria (where the Shiite movement has been involved in the war alongside the Syrian regime for years). The United States is well aware that he has no influence on these matters."
According to Rabah, the legitimate fear of sanctions that may target Bassil - or people around him - would explain this turnaround. A turnaround in words alone, which does not profoundly alter the nature of the alliance between the two parties, he noted. "It is important to know that the Americans are today carrying out their actions with the goal of limiting Hezbollah's influence, independently of the local actors who are all obliged to sit at the same table with it, even if they are hostile to it," Rabah said. "This is all the more the case of Bassil who, for the United States, greatly facilitated Hezbollah's stranglehold on the country." Can the former minister get off the hook by saying something different?
Kassir believes that "the sanctions imposed by the Americans are the echo of their own calculations: their objective is to isolate Hezbollah internally, and the positions taken by Bassil will not change much." Some sources interviewed believe that the FPM leader has in his sights an agreement that would eventually be concluded between the US and Iran.
"The region has changed enormously and, with the peace agreements concluded recently between more than one Arab nation (the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) and Israel, Lebanon's role is marginalized," Rabah said. "Therefore, even if Joe Biden wins the US presidential election, he cannot be expected to pursue the same policy as Barack Obama, especially with regard to Iran. I think they are all trying to buy time, including Mr. Bassil."
(This article was originally published in French in l'Orient-Le Jour on the 17th of September)
Sunday's press conference of Gebran Bassil, the former foreign minister and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), was a real balancing act. He sent messages in several directions, touching on issues on which he seemed to be distancing himself from his main ally, Hezbollah. He criticized the visit of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to Lebanon, saying it "increases the threat to the country's...