BEIRUT — Former US Middle East diplomat David Schenker expects Lebanese Army commander Gen. Joseph Aoun to become the country's next president "in the next three or four months," he told local news outlet Asas Media.
Lebanon has been without a head of state since Nov. 1, when former president Michel Aoun's term ended.
In the interview published Tuesday, Schenker said he bases his expectation on "the course of events in Lebanon and the region."
Free Patriotic Movement leader and unstated presidential contender Gebran Bassil — who has been under US sanctions since Nov. 2020 for reasons related to alleged corruption — has said multiple times that he is opposed to the election of the army commander. Lebanon's presidential candidates face little hope of reaching the post without Bassil's support, according to observers.
For his part, top Hezbollah political official Ibrahim Amin al-Sayed said Monday that the party doesn't have any veto on potential candidates.
Schenker also told Asas Media that Gen. Aoun is capable of balancing his good relations with officials in Washington.
"[Aoun] is keen to not be bothersome or provoke any tension with Hezbollah, which is why we haven't seen any measures taken by the [Lebanese] Army against Hezbollah's actions."
The US diplomat minimized the fact that Bassil might obstruct the election of Gen. Aoun, adding that the election will come "when Hezbollah decides it's the right time."
"Bassil is trying to become president, but he is unpopular in Lebanon and abroad," Schenker said.
If chosen, Gen. Joseph Aoun would not be the first army commander to become president following a period of political deadlock; former commander Michel Sleiman became head of state by a similar route in 2008.
However, such a move would require an amendment to the constitution, as military personnel cannot run for president unless they are retired or their resignation has been accepted six months before the election.
Schenker also commented on the incident last month in which an Irish UNIFIL peacekeeper was killed and others injured when their convoy was targeted by gunfire in a South Lebanon village. Many observers pointed fingers at Hezbollah over the shooting, and Hezbollah turned in a suspect last month.
Schenker said he considered the attack part of an Iranian escalation in the region. "This is the policy of Iran when the internal pressure intensifies," Schenker said, in reference to the popular uprising that has shaken Iran since September.
Hezbollah is funded by Iran and many accuse the party of taking direct orders from it.
The diplomat also said that Hezbollah "might resort to political assassinations. They do that whenever they feel the freedom to move, especially when the Biden administration is seeking a nuclear deal with Iran. We saw how they killed Lokman Slim three weeks after the departure of the Trump administration; they feel they have the freedom to kill in this period."
In Feb. 2021, journalist, director and known Hezbollah opponent Lokman Slim was assassinated in South Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold. Many observers have accused Hezbollah of being responsible for his murder.