Fourteen years after Syria banished him from Beirut, exiled Lebanese General Michel Aoun is suddenly in great demand. Ahead of his homecoming next month, even Syria is joining the ranks of his fans, falling in behind the Americans and the French.
See HOT POINTS below: “Exiled Michel Aoun is US-French-backed Candidate for Lebanese President”).
Indeed the Syrian president Bashar Assad has already opened the horse-trading for his favor. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle Eastern sources report that Syrian envoys hastened to bring Aoun a proposal: Stay away from Lebanon until after the general election and Damascus will twist Lebanese president Emile Lahoud’s arm to cancel all the treason and corruption convictions against you in Lebanese courts.
Aoun, our sources say, turned him down flat.
But the offer reveals Assad as clinging onto Lebanon even as he pulls his troops out.
1. He has no intention of letting go of all the strings he pulls in Beirut – even without a military presence. A wary US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice commented sourly in an interview to AP on Wednesday, April 6: “You always need to be on guard because words and deeds don’t always match with the Syrians.”
2. He is still dabbling in Lebanese politics – albeit from a different angle. The offer the Syrian president made Aoun was designed to torpedo American-French steps to elevate anti-Syrian Lebanese leaders. Had the exiled Lebanese general succumbed to the offer, he would have deprived Washington and Paris of the only Maronite Christian politician in Lebanon capable of drawing support outside his own community. Damascus furthermore hoped to prevent Aoun’s return leading to the release from prison of former Phalange chief Samir Geagea. Back in politics together, the pair would substantially boost anti-Syrian elements in Lebanon.
3. A May election will catch Assad at the lowest ebb of his fortunes in Lebanon. He is therefore working hard through his Lebanese faithful to get the general election postponed for at least a year. The pro-Syrian Christian, Sunni, Hizballah and Amal factions have been advised to publicly clamor for a three-month delay while quietly trying to stretch it out to a year or more
4. Damascus is pushing his supporters in the Lebanese parliament to amend the election laws. According to our sources, an election today would bring anti-Syrian Lebanese opposition parties 68 seats and only 60 for its allies. If the ballot cannot be postponed, Assad is bidding for new laws to gerrymander the result by turning Lebanon’s provinces into voting districts. Pro-Syrian Shiite Muslims hold the majority of the population in the provinces and would therefore substantially outvote the Christian parties.