US Congressman Tom Lantos (D-California) was not granted his customary interview with Syrian president Bashar Assad when last he visited Damascus on Thursday, August 19.
“Syria was a major disappointment,” this top Democrat on the House of Representatives' International Relations Committee told reporters after his talks with Assad’s stand-in, foreign minister Farouq al-Shara.
Unsurprised by the absence of a hint of a peace overture toward Israel, Lantos was taken aback by Shara’s hardline position on Lebanon.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle Eastern sources have learned that Shara stated definitely that Assad had no intention of continuing to pull Syrian troops out of Lebanon despite his promises to Washington and Lantos in person. Assad is ready for a showdown with the United States over the controlling hand in Beirut.
As reported by this publication in the past, Washington strongly objects to a Assad’s favorite, Lebanese president Emil Lahoud being allowed to serve a second six-year term. Lantos was shocked to hear that Assad had set a timetable for legislation to enable Lahoud to stay in office. By September 10, Assad – Lebanon’s real ruler – plans to convene the Lebanese parliament into session to approve an amendment to Law No. 49 that limits a president to one term. By September 25, he intends the amendment to be enacted. Lebanon’s lawmakers, ethnic leaders and other community leaders have been summoned to Damascus for instructions to endorse the new legislature.
Assad has been working the phone to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in Riyadh to persuade him to instruct his protege in Beirut, Lahoud's sworn enemy, Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, not to stand against the extension.
Should the Lebanese parliament prove stubborn, Shara made sure Lantos knew that the Syrian president had prepared a backup plan. Our sources report that Suleiman Faranjiyeh, a member of the most pro-Syrian Maronite Christian family in Lebanon, would be recruited.
It was Faranjiyeh’s father, then Lebanon’s president, who invited Syrian forces into the country during the 1976 civil war. The Syrians cautioned Faranjiyeh when he visited Damascus this week not to make any premature overt moves, promising him he would step into the Lebanese presidency if Lahoud was barred from seeking another term.
According to our intelligence sources, Syria’s deputy intelligence chief in Lebanon, General Munir Jaloud, has been the front man in contacts over the issue with Lebanese officials.