12/02/2008, 00.00
LEBANON – SYRIA
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Who is giving what to whom, Syria or Aoun?

by Fady Noun
The visit to Damascus by the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement helps Assad overcome Syria’s international isolation. But the international tribunal investigating the Hariri assassination is overshadowing it.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – A new exciting phase in Lebanon’s political life begins with General Michel Aoun’s visit to Syria, which should start within 24 hours, according to reports by media close to the country’s ruling majority. Timing aside local media are already preparing psychologically Syrian public opinion for the visit. 

Daily Teshreen is freely heaping superlatives on the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, the same one who in 1989 launched a “War of Liberation” against Syria, but who is now a “noble adversary,” the leader of “Eastern Christians,” whom Syria welcomes, in what amounts to a transparent attempt by Syria to build an “alliance of minorities”.

General Aoun’s Syrian visit, which ends on Sunday, will include stops in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. It will also touch some important Maronite sites.

Among political circles questions are being raised as to what might be behind the VIP treatment; or more precisely, who is giving what to whom, Syria or Aoun?

In practice the visit is in Syria’s best interests because it helps its efforts to break its diplomatic isolation.

In fact Aoun’s visit closely follows that of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s envoys, Claude Géant and Jean-David Lévitte.

Undoubtedly France is now “satisfied” by the evolution of Syrian-Lebanese relations, which includes Aoun’s visit.

With a good report card from the French, cautious Syria should get the European Union to ratify the co-operation agreement it signed four years ago with the Middle Eastern country.

But France can also be counted on to see free and fair elections take place in Lebanon without any major interference in party list selections or intimidation. One way or another, the Syrian regime got the message.

This deserves attention because, despite positive views in France and perhaps elsewhere, Syria’s regime is still under the dark shadow of the international tribunal for Lebanon, charged with investigating the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and finding those who ordered the crime and those who carried it out.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, whom he met in Doha on the margins of the economic forum, that court staff will move to The Hague early next year even though the tribunal will not sit before 1 March 2009.

In order to demonstrate that Damascus is above the fray Syrian sources quoted two days ago on LBCI TV said that Syria did not consider itself as a party to the international tribunal and that the various visits by the heads of commission of inquiry cannot be seen as some kind of legal summons.

“If any Syrian were involved, they will be tried and sentenced in Syria for high treason,” sources in Syria said. This is a clever way of keeping the Syrian regime out of the loop whilst acknowledging the possibility that Syrian nationals could have been personally involved in the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Even so, a claim like this will be hard to swallow given the highly centralised nature of the country’s political regime.

Compared to General Aoun’s visit to Syria, the prime minister’s trip to Doha and that of the president today to Germany seem mere sideshows. But as the saying goes not all that shines is gold and President Sleiman’s visit to Germany may not be as unassuming as it might seem.

In fact this visit has given Lebanon’s head of state an opportunity to polish his image as a moderate and credible leader, virtues that have been in scarce supply in Lebanon’s legal system and administrative machine throughout the war years and the current crisis.

Indeed as much as the current administration has succeed abroad, the quest for “political consensus” at home—with a difficult balancing act between the country’s various communal groups and leaders—continues to impair the country’s justice system and bureaucracy, preventing the recruitment of strong, competent and relatively independent officials to run them.

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