Damascus gave formal notice to the UN Security Council of the withdrawal of all its military and security personnel from Lebanon and the termination of its military and political intervention in that country. Nonetheless, DEBKA–Net-Weekly‘s intelligence report that three senior Syrian intelligence officers were spotted this week in and around the northern town of Tripoli. They were seen interfering in the electioneering leading up to the last of four rounds of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections scheduled for Sunday, June 19.
Our sources name those officers, all from Syrian military intelligence, as General Mohammed Mahlouf, in charge of the Beirut region until early May; Col. Nabil Hamisha, former boss of the Aleppo region; and Col. Halim Zaraiba, who represented Syria’s finger in the Tripoli pie.
Their assignment was to make sure that the North Lebanese slate for the next parliament consisted of pro-Syrian candidates. Damascus stepped into the electoral process there for two primary reasons:
1. Northern Lebanon is heavily laced with Alawi Muslims, members of the same minority sect as the Assads in Damascus. They have strong family ties with the Alawi elite that dominates Syria’s ruling regime. Damascus regards the Tripoli area as part of its strategic orbit and refuses to forego its influence there.
2. To scotch an alliance between the returned anti-Syrian exile, Michel Aoun, and veteran Damascus protege Suleiman Franjieh, interior minister of the Karame government when the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in Beirut last February. Aoun and Franjieh were in mid-negotiation for a joint list to run in the Tripoli district when the Syrian officers arrived, whereupon the latter hastily broke off the talks.
Thursday, June 2, Samir Qaseer, prominent Lebanese journalist and a-Nahar columnist, was assassinated by a bomb planted in his car. It blew up as he started the engine outside his home in the Christian Ashrafiya quarter of Beirut. For years, Qaseer had campaigned for Syria’s expulsion from Lebanon. A French national, he was a former editor of Le Monde Diplomatique and lectured at Beirut’s American University.
His wife, Giselle Khoury, a leading interviewer of the Saudi-Lebanese owned Lebanese Broadcasting TV, recently interviewed President Bush.
Christian Beirut turnout below 5%
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Beirut sources report that the car was booby-trapped by Lebanese contract killers hired by Syrian intelligence agents present under cover in Beirut.
According to the same sources, the main obstacle American policy-makers face in their plans for Lebanon is the spreading Christian tendency to boycott the election to parliament.
Analysis of the turnout figures in the Beirut poll of May 25 showed that Christian participation was even lower than the overall 30% of eligible voters.
In the Christian Ashrafiya district, less than 5% cast votes, which was better than the hardly 1.5% of voters in the Armenian Christian Bourj Hamoud suburb of the capital.
Reports reach this publication from southern Lebanon, which goes to the polls next Sunday, June 5, that Christian candidates are beginning to pull out of the race in the Christian areas. In Jezin, once the largest Christian town in the south, all the Christian candidates have withdrawn, followed by a similar walkout in Marjayoun and Rumeish.
General Ayoun is not running a single list in the south. If Christian voters follow the example of their co-religionists in Beirut, all he can look forward to is a resounding defeat.
The Christian boycott appears to be fueled by a sense of disenchantment.
As one Maronite put it, “America used us to field the mass demonstrations that drove the Syrians out, but then, when elections came around, they dropped us.”
(DEBKA-Net-Weekly 207, May 27, first reported the withdrawal of American sponsorship from Aoun.)
If the Christian boycott also infects central Lebanon, affecting such key towns as Alei and Baabdeh, the pro-Syrian lists supporting Damascus stooge president Emil Lahoud may well carry the day. The Americans can hardly demand the removal of a democratically elected president, even if the vote undoes their Lebanese planning and puts them back to square one.
Awareness of this potential outcome was implicit in the advice the Maronite Archbishop Nasrallah Sfeir offered his flock this week. He said: “Why hurry to vote against Emil Lahoud? Let us temper our campaign for his removal as long as we have no idea who will take his place.”