Infighting in Damascus Is Mirrored in Beirut

Lebanese prime minister Omar Karami ruffled some diplomatic feathers this week when he accused U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman and French Ambassador Philippe Lecourtier of “shameful and unacceptable” interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs.

He singled out the US envoy for particularly strong criticism in a growing dispute with Washington over U.N. resolution 1559, which it sponsored with Paris last year, calling on Syria to withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon.

In the opposite camp, former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who sympathizes with the opposition front seeking to end Syria’s power-broker role in Lebanon, is locking horns with the Beirut government. Furthermore, an ice-breaking dialogue between Syria and general Michel Aoun, who has been living in exile for 13 years and wants to “liberate” Lebanon from what he calls Syrian dictatorship, is reported to have moved from Damascus to Washington (See DNW 189, January 14, 2005).

“I feel that my national dignity is offended whenever I meet the U.S. ambassador,” Karami, who has vowed his country would never stab Syria in the back, told Lebanese reporters.

The result: US ambassador Feltman is reportedly boycotting the prime minister, an unprecedented diplomatic snub in Lebanon, according to the Al Liwaa newspaper, which also reported the envoy revealed his intention before leaving Beirut for Washington Saturday.

But Feltman traveled home for more pressing reasons.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources report he brought to Washington a secret draft agreement between Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch, Boutrus Nasrallah Safir, Syrian interior minister Gen. Ghazi Kenaan and Syrian deputy foreign minister Walid Mualam drawing new lines for 26 voting precincts in the country.

Strange as it may seem, in the week of president George W. Bush‘s second inauguration, his administration finds the reshaping of a democratic Lebanon free from Syrian and Hizballah pressures as important, and in many ways more pressing, than the troubles Iraq.

The internal power struggle in Syria, which DNW covered in depth last week, is the key to Washington’s considerations.

“You must understand that it is impossible to separate what is happening in Syria from events in Lebanon,” a senior source involved in Lebanese political moves told one of our Middle Eastern sources. “Every Syrian with any kind of political or economic power base has ‘his own Lebanese,’ who coordinate their moves with him and vice versa. The internal struggle at the top of the Syria regime has an immediate effect on the political situation in Lebanon.”

Kenaan is a case in point. Any move against him in Damascus, where he is the main proponent of US Lebanese policies, raises immediate political tremors in Beirut. This week, a group of top Syrian conservatives led by vice president Halim Khaddam and ousted foreign minister Farouk al-Shara took a decisive anti-Kenaan move. They persuaded Syrian president Bashar Assad to appoint Kenaan’s main rival, Gen. Mahmoud Mansura, head of the “political security department, one of the strongest independent intelligence bodies in Syria. Kenaan held that post before becoming interior minister and Mansura was his deputy. The two fell out and are no longer on speaking terms.

The interior minister made a lightning countermove, opting, as he usually does, for indirect action. A dispute erupted in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Latakia, the Assad clan’s hometown and a stronghold of the ruling Alawite sect, between the city’s governor and a group of residents led by Omar Fawaz al-Assad, the president’s first cousin. The governor, a Kenaan loyalist, requested and received from the interior minister a signed order to arrest Fawaz, who was then taken into custody Monday, January 17 and jailed in Latakia’s main prison.

The news spread like wildfire among the Syrian ruling elite and across the Arab world: never before in modern Arab history had a local governor dared to put a member of a ruling family behind bars. Our Middle Eastern sources note that Kenaan, well aware of the impact of his move, didn’t hesitate for a moment before issuing the arrest order. He was determined to show Assad and other rivals just who was the real boss in Damascus. His message was clear: Don’t mess with me or any of my people. Whoever harms them will be punished.

Nonetheless, Wednesday night, Omar was released from prison against a written undertaking not to offend or take hostile action against the Latakia governor. This was an additional affront to the Assad clan.

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