06/09/2008, 00.00
LEBANON
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Sarkozy in Beirut, challenges behind a friendly visit

by Fady Noun
The French president expresses his nation’s and Europe’s support for the Doha agreement but also for the international tribunal. Relations with Damascus still top Lebanon’s political agenda.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – It is impossible not to be touched by the expression of sincere feelings of friendship and the values shared by France and Lebanon every time their leaders meet. The visit by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, his Prime Minister, François Filon, France’s Defence and Foreign Affairs Ministers as well as representatives of every French political party, is no exception.

Sincere and strong words were exchanged at Baabda Presidential Palace at a dinner offered last Saturday by Lebanon’s new President, Michel Suleiman, in honour of his French counterpart, attended by representatives of all of Lebanon’s political parties, from both majority and opposition camps. A symbolic gesture among the many was a handshake between the French president and the head of Hizbollah’s parliamentary group, Mohammed Raad.

The meeting is a consequence of the Doha agreement which, for Sarkozy, is “the start of a new era,” inaugurated by Suleiman’s election. For the French leader it is a question of “achieving the complete reconstruction of the state” and for that purpose “the whole of France as well as the European Union” will stand by Lebanon.

For his part, President Suleiman did not hold back from acknowledging France’s part in getting the agreement. “The difficult times we have had are behind us,” he said. “The Doha agreement in which France played a role has regenerated the much awaited political stability.”

In turn the French president saw his visit as a continuation of the political line pursued by his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, a man much disliked by the opposition for his steadfast support for Rafik Hariri.

Although the visit was part of a charm offensive by France it was not done at the expense of principles, especially when it comes to the government’s wish for truth and justice in the murder case of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

“We shall stand by your side so that the death of Rafik Hariri and the long list of attacks which since 2004 have struck down so many of Lebanon’s best children will not go unpunished. This is true sense behind the creation of the international tribunal.”

Undoubtedly the visit is part of a desire to boost Lebanon’s sovereignty and internal unity. It stems from a desire to finally put Lebanon at a safe distance from episodes like those that preceded the Doha agreement which brought the country to the brink of another civil war. We should enjoy this moment but also us be realistic.

Both President Suleiman and his French counterpart know that, once the visit is over, Lebanon’s political life will resume its normal course with its dangers and pitfalls, starting with those that materialised during the first of week of contacts to form the new government of national unity by the Prime Minister-designate, Fuad Siniora.

On Saturday at the Presidential Place statements by representatives from Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and Hizbollah about the formation of the new government signalled a change in tone though. Both sides let it be known that a new government would be formed sooner rather than later, whereas prior to Sarkozy’s visit even the most optimistic observer did not expect it to be on the go before two weeks.

Still in Lebanon everyone knows that words should not be taken at face value. As the French president was arriving in Lebanon, local media were reporting in fact a statement by a majority leader, Boutros Harb, who said in no uncertain terms that the Doha agreement “did not de-link the Lebanese crisis from the regional context.” Thus despite the current lull in the crisis events in Lebanon continue to be shaped by regional influences.

One of the keys to Lebanon’s stabilisation is the relationship the new government will establish with the Syria of Bashar al-Assad.

When, after Suleiman’s election, the French president announced the resumption of high level talks Damascus, emotions began to run high in the ranks of the majority. Was he going too fast, some wondered? In the end the turmoil was replaced by greater confidence when Sarkozy explained that the normalisation of relations between France and Syria was conditional upon the opening of a Syrian embassy in Lebanon and the consolidation of peace in the country. In turn this depends on two complex issues, namely Syria’s unconditional recognition of Lebanon’s independence and its renunciation, first to any form of control over its neighbour, and secondly an end to the use of violence to destabilise Lebanon through its local proxies and the Palestinians.

Some questions about these two issues remain unanswered. In a recent statement, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad multiplied the preconditions for an exchange of ambassadors.

A question mark hangs over a federal-like body, the Lebanon-Syria High Committee, which was created in 1991 when Syrian influence in Lebanon was at its highest, as part of a treaty of friendship, cooperation and coordination signed by the two countries. Will this committee disappear when ambassadors are exchanged?

Violence in Lebanon is no less a thorny issue in the diplomatic relations with Syria because of the support Damascus provides to some armed Palestinian groups, Hizbollah and smaller groups that remain under its influence.

For the Future Movement clashes two weeks ago between Sunnis and Shiites in the Western neighbourhoods of Beirut were more than simple isolated incidents but were instead part of a wider operation. By contrast, Hizbollah continues to justify its “punitive” operations against Sunni neighbourhoods.

Will Lebanon’s army and police be able to impose their rule? Are tensions decreasing in the areas where clashes took place?

Much depends on the answers to these two questions.

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