Syrian president Bashar Assad had his heart set on an historic, triumphant visit to Beirut before traveling to the Gulf Emirates this week. But, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources, he had to put his plan on hold. His triumph is not quite in the bag.
The visit would have been historic because Damascus has never regarded Lebanon as an independent nation, only as a western province of Syria (in the same way as “Palestine” appears on its maps as “South Syria”). Therefore, Syrian rulers were wont to summon Lebanese leaders to present themselves in Damascus rather than honoring them with state visits.
Assad’s visit now was intended to confer on Lebanon belated recognition as an independent state. In a ceremony at the presidential palace at Baabde just outside Beirut, he was to have stood beside the new Lebanese president, Gen. Michel Sleiman, announced the opening of the first Syrian embassy in the Lebanese capital and named the ambassador.
The Syrian president had his own reasons for taking this step:
1. The Assad-Suleiman photo op at Baabde was to have dramatized the Syrian ruler’s emergence as Lebanon’s leading patron after getting the better of American, French and Saudi efforts to drive him out. He sought the role of the great Arab power bestowing independence on its small neighbor.
2. The Lebanese people were to be shown that their independence depended on accepting Bashar Assad as their suzerain.
3. He planned to show Washington, the UN and Brussels that their efforts to prosecute the suspected assassins of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, including Syrian officials, had nowhere to go. In the new reality, no Lebanese president would dare defy Damascus by signing extradition warrants for suspects to be brought before the international tribunal established by the world body. The trial was no longer viable.
Beirut government still a work in progress
All the same, the Syrian president postponed his grandstand visit at the last minute; he was forewarned by Iran’s supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Lebanese Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah that the new president might not come up to expectations and it was too soon to start collecting laurels.
Most of all, President Sleiman’s motives in choosing the pro-Western prime minister Fouad Siniora to stay on as head of the national unity government were not clear. Was he laying a trap for the anti-Syrian majority bloc to tumble into and mess up, so clearing the way for an anti-Western candidate? Or was he playing the role of national peacemaker, promoting national reconciliation as a bulwark for Lebanese independence?
If he opted for the second course, he would soon find himself in trouble with Damascus and Hizballah.
The Syrian president was given to understand by Khamenei and Nasrallah that the Doha peace accord signed last month had not put Lebanon’s political crisis to rest, only lifted it from one plane to another; Lebanon now had a president, Hizballah had gained veto power over the government, but it was not yet clear who was running the country, the the president, the government, Iran, Syria or Hizballah.
If Siniora had genuinely morphed politically from pro-American to pro-Syrian and would fashion an amenable cabinet, the Iranian-Syrian takeover of Lebanon could go forward without a hitch. But if, on the other hand, he chose to line up a cabinet of pro-independence ministers, Hizballah would exercise its veto powers and stall its decisions. Lebanese politics would then swing back to Square One, to the streets, i.e. the dead-end reached last month when Hizballah seized control of Beirut.
Therefore, instead of a victorious Syrian president landing in Beirut to the clicks of world cameras, the Lebanese president may soon visit Damascus to kick off his inaugural tour of Arab capitals.
As US influence ebbs, Germany cashes in
Washington, Berlin, and Paris closely monitored the situation to see if any pieces could be salvaged of their smashed Lebanon policies.
Saturday, May 31, the White House and Pentagon dispatched undersecretary of defense for policy Eric Edelman to test the water in the Lebanese capital in talks with President Sleiman, prime minister-designate Siniora, caretaker defense minister Elias Murr, acting army chief Maj. Gen. Shawqi al-Masri and parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri.
He assured them they could count on American support as long as the Lebanese government and armed forces safeguarded the “peace, unity and sovereignty” of Lebanon.
He did not spell out Washington’s reaction to a reverse scenario.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources disclose that the US offer was taken with a hefty pinch of salt in the light of Washington’s failure to step in against Hizballah’s forcible takeover of Beirut last month.
The next visitor arrived the next day, Sunday, June 1.
German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier‘s agenda differed from that of his American colleague. Taking Iranian-Syrian’s dominant status in Beirut as a given, he moved on to see about fostering Berlin’s ties with Iran and Hizballah. In no time, he appreciated that Hizballah’s Nasrallah was on the make for international respectability – especially in Washington – as a lead player in government rather than a star on the terrorist firmament. Nasrallah could therefore be useful for opening Berlin’s door for diplomatic and economic ties with Tehran.
French president to dance at two weddings
As a side-product, the German minister tackled the Hizballah leader for a guarantee of safety for the German contingent posted in South Lebanon as part of the UN peacekeeping force mandated to prevent arms smuggling through Syria for Hizballah. Last year, the Spanish and other contingents came under terrorist attack.
Berlin hoped that turning a new page in German-Hizballah ties would pave the way to contacts with the Palestinian Hamas as well.
The next arrival, Saturday, June 7, is Nicolas Sarkozy, the first foreign president to pay a state visit to the new Lebanese president Sleiman. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s diplomatic sources wondered if the French president was on a mission to repair the damage to Western interests wrought by the latest turn of events in Lebanon, or had his own fish to fry in the Lebanese capital.
Clues appeared in Sarkozy’s preparations for the visit. Thursday, May 29, he telephoned Syrian president Assad – officially to discuss “recent political developments in Lebanon and peace negotiations with Israel.”
The French president’s tone was friendly. He recalled his promise to revive high-level contacts with Damascus when tangible progress was made towards solving Lebanon’s political ills. (According to Syrian media, Sakozy hailed Assad’s role in achieving the Doha peace accord.) Sarkozy also said he supported resumed peace talks between Syria and Israel.
Our diplomatic sources concluded that the French president will dance at two weddings, Dividing his visit between the goals of Edelman and Steinmeier, he will endeavor to blunt the blow to French policy objectives rendered by Hizballah’s domination of Beirut; but he will not neglect to explore new channels to Tehran and Damascus.