x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Lebanon dismisses fears of outside influence in electoral result

Sunday's election in Lebanon will be fairly democratic and free from undue Syrian interference, according to Rami Mortada, a senior Lebanese official in Damascus.

DAMASCUS // Sunday's election in Lebanon will be fairly democratic and free from undue Syrian interference, according to Rami Mortada, a senior Lebanese official in Damascus. "Syria has declared at the highest level that is supports Lebanese sovereignty and the Lebanese people's right to self determination," Mr Mortada, the Lebanese chargé d'affaires said in an interview. "We don't anticipate any outside interference [in the election] from any country.

"Syria has said it will support whatever the Lebanese decide, so the election is up to the Lebanese people. They will decide what's best for the country and the outside states will have to support what the Lebanese agree upon." For three decades until 2005, tens of thousands of Syrian troops were based in Lebanon, there as part of an Arab League plan to stabilise the country and end a long-running civil war.

After the murder of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in February 2005, and under huge international pressure over alleged involvement in the killing, Damascus finally pulled the soldiers out. It was seen as a heavy blow to Syrian regional prestige and, more significantly, to Syria's influence over Lebanese affairs. However, with the pro-Syrian coalition, headed by Hizbollah, in position to do well - possibly even win - the elections, Syria has reasons to feel pleased at how events are shaping up.

Hizbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, continues to fight a campaign of armed resistance against Israel that has earned it street-level respect in the Middle East, and a classification as a terrorist group in the United States and Israel. "Syria is looking for calm and stability in Lebanon and wants the election to happen in a free and democratic way to elect those who really represent the Lebanese people," said Elias Morrad, editor-in- chief of the Baath newspaper, the main mouthpiece of Syria's ruling Baath Party.

"Stability in Lebanon means support for the resistance, it will make the resistance to Israel stronger, which is why Israel does not want a fair election and why Hizbollah does. "We will be happy to see that these powers supporting the resistance have more votes in the coming election; this will help us. We are concerned because this is part of our confrontation with the Zionists and Israel continues to occupy Syrian and Lebanese territory."

Despite Syria's undisguised pleasure at the prospects of a Hizbollah alliance victory, Mr Morrad insisted that Damascus was not trying to exercise influence over the ballot's outcome. "It is well known that we never support anyone with money," he said. "Maybe we have some friends in Lebanon, this is natural, and everyone wants their friends to be successful." Syria's critics insist that Hizbollah is little more than a puppet of its chief backers and that a Hizbollah victory would hand Beirut over to Tehran and Damascus.

In a recent visit to Lebanon, the US vice president, Joe Biden, said millions of dollars of US military aid would be reviewed according to the composition of the next Lebanese government, an indication of White House concerns that Hizbollah, which already has its own powerful military wing, will be put in charge of the Lebanese security services if its alliance wins. The United States supports the March 14 movement, the anti-Syrian Lebanese group that grew in power after the Hariri killing but has since seen its fortunes wane. Mr Biden's comments about reviewing US aid brought sharp rebukes from Hizbollah, which accused the United States of trying to sway voters.

Hizbollah has intimated that if its coalition does win a parliamentary majority, it would seek to establish a national unity government including March 14 figures. psands@thenational.ae