Across the Bay

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Those Days Are Gone

Earlier today, I posted on the FM Fawzi Salloukh's decision to recall Lebanon's chargé d'affaires at the UN Ibrahim Assaf, presumably under Syrian pressure, for suspicion that he may have been the one who leaked Faysal Mekdad's "dog" remarks about Gebran Tueni.

Well, it's not going to happen. An-Nahar reports that PM Seniora has interfered personally and asked Salloukh to suspend his decision and keep Assaf on in his position, even extend his service by a few months. I also heard that Assaf was even asked not to take his two-week vacation right now so that it would not be interpreted the wrong way.

An-Nahar commented on the oddities surrounding Salloukh's move. For instance, it noted that he personally signed on the request, which is routinely signed by the Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry.

Another somewhat related bit of news is the supposed Egyptian initiative to ease relations between Syria and Lebanon. Earlier today, Al-Balad quoted anonymous Syrian sources who claimed that the Mubarak-Assad talks were positive and will result in an attempt to ease relations. The conditions laid out by the Syrians were that Seniora would go to Damascus for talks. In return, anonymous Arab sources in Damascus said they expected the regime would pressure Amal and HA to return to the cabinet.

The whole thing was a trap and didn't smell right. First of all, Mubarak and Assad did not issue a joint statement after their summit, and no Egyptian official gave any hint about any such agreement. Furthermore, after his own meeting with Mubarak, which preceded Bashar's, Saad Hariri came out with the usual criticism, the refusal to compromise on Rafiq Hariri's murder, and asserted Mubarak's support for Lebanon and its stability. Again, it would seem that Mubarak's initiative (preceded by Amr Moussa's) isn't really working. Besides, the Saudis have seemingly not joined this initiative. Rather, they've been helping in getting the Seniora cabinet back on its feet by mediating with HA. Furthermore, the Saudi Ambassador in Lebanon asserted that there was no Saudi initiative. (Papers are reporting this initiative as being signed on to by the Saudis. I'm not sure I agree. There are signs, some of which I noted here, that point in a different direction.)

In any case, the conditions laid out by those anonymous Syrian sources were met with total rejection by the Hariri bloc, Jumblat's bloc, and the Lebanese Forces. Geagea said that such a move would be disastrous, as it returns us to the days when a foreign party (read Syria) would assemble or dissemble a cabinet. Geagea said he was with an Arab initiative that would ease tensions, but not one that would undermine Lebanese sovereignty and independence. Besides, Geagea expressed skepticism over this particular set of conditions, as no one had actually confirmed it and laid it out, which is what I noted earlier.

Al-Balad itself led its Thursday issue with the headline, "The Cairo settlement has been aborted." This is not to mention Saad Hariri's interview on al-Arabiya, to air Thursday night, where he said that a war was being waged against the Lebanese by a terrorist regime. It's not us who seek to change the regime in Syria, Hariri added. Rather, it is the Syrian regime that seeks to change Lebanon's democratic system. Hariri poured it on saying that the Syrian regime is "all alone in a raging sea." That people had offered it advice before February 14, but they chose to ignore them. Now they must reap what they sowed.

The Syrians are trying to give an impression of a "deal" with both the Arab players as well as the West. I'll come back to that one later. In brief, it's all nonsense. For instance, note the immediate US response: there is no deal, Amb. Scobey is not returning to Syria, relations are still bad, and all these are baseless rumors.

Update: Al-Hayat has more on the Egyptian talks.

Also, readers will want to read this exceptional piece by Michael Young, which touches on the Salloukh-Assaf business, and much more. I will have to come back to it in depth as it touches on really important issues.

Update 2: English versions of most of the stories I linked to in the post are now up at Naharnet, here (Salloukh), here (Geagea), here (Jumblat), here (Hariri), and here (US reaction to "deal" rumors).