x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Assad and Sarkozy meet to defuse Hariri situation

French and Syrian leaders meet as part of a continuing diplomatic effort to overcome a crisis in Lebanon.

DAMASCUS //Bashar al Assad, the Syrian president, held talks with his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, in Paris yesterday, as part of a continuing diplomatic effort to overcome a crisis in Lebanon.

"No one wants there to be clashes, fitna (strife within the Muslim community), between Lebanese," Mr Assad said after a luncheon with the French president that appeared to suggest Mr Sarkozy's government has stepped up its role to prevent any outbreak of violence in Lebanon. The country is, once again, facing the prospect of civil strife with members of Hizbollah expected soon to be formally indicted for alleged involvement in the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri.

When asked about the prospects of a Syrian-Saudi political initiative in Lebanon, something the two regional powers have been working towards, Mr Assad said that "the solution can only be Lebanese, it can be neither Syrian, nor Saudi, nor French. We (Syrians) don't want to intervene, we don't want to interfere in an internal Lebanese situation".

Syria and Saudi Arabia, influential regional supporters of rival Lebanese factions, have been co-operating ahead of the possible indictments. However, with the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, sidelined by illness, France appears to have stepped in to help. Paris, like Riyadh, enjoys close relations with pro-western Lebanese factions led by the premier, Sa'ad Hariri, son of Rafik, while Syria is affiliated with their opponents, the Iranian-backed Hizbollah.

Mr Assad's visit to Paris, a week after Mr Hariri made a similar trip, comes as the various groups look for a solution that will prevent another Lebanese meltdown.

Hizbollah, the Islamic militant movement, has taken a hard-line stance against the UN tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Hariri. Denying any involvement, it has warned it will forcibly prevent the arrest of any of its members.

The indictments crisis has already seen Hizbollah suspend involvement in Lebanon's fragile power-sharing coalition government, which was patched together with Syrian, Saudi and French help after a time of similar crisis in 2008.

Mr Hariri, who played a major role in the creation of the UN tribunal whose work has been a slow-burning fuse beneath Lebanon's explosive political mix, has thus far vowed to stand by its investigation into his father's death, once again putting his supporters on a collision course with the heavily armed Hizbollah.

But, as in 2008, when the so-called Doha accords headed off a showdown between the factions, key regional and international players, including Syria and France, again seem intent on avoiding trouble.

"The Lebanese factions cannot sort out this matter themselves so Syria and France need to help them make the big decisions," said a Damascus-based Syrian commentator, on condition of anonymity. "Assad and Sarkozy have the same target, they agree that stability and security in Lebanon are a priority."

The UN tribunal was expected to issue draft indictments as early as this week, although their contents would not be made public until approved by a pre-trial judge. That process will take two months, giving added breathing space to diplomatic efforts. Syria, like Hizbollah, has been highly critical of the UN tribunal, dismissing it as biased and motivated by their enemies. Damascus was once accused of orchestrating the Hariri murder - something it has always denied - before the spotlight fell on Hizbollah.

France was the colonial power that carved Lebanon out of the Levant in 1920, and Paris has since sought to retain influence over the country. Syria, which neighbours Lebanon, has long viewed it as falling under Damascus's sphere of influence and as central to its own security, given the decades-long Arab-Israeli war.



* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse