x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Lebanon's clans broach Syria tensions

Lebanese leaders from across the country's political spectrum sit down together for the first time in 18 months amid growing tensions stemming from the Syria crisis.

BEIRUT // For the first time in 18 months, Lebanese leaders from across the country's political spectrum sat down together yesterday amid growing tensions stemming from the crisis in Syria.

Michel Suleiman, the Lebanese president, convened the meeting and said that the Lebanese people were "depending" on the talks between the rival political factions.

While expectations that the meeting would result in a major political entente were low, there was a hope that it would help defuse tensions in Lebanon which have been aggravated by the fighting in Syria.

"Stability is crucial at this time, after we have spared Lebanon in the recent years from all surrounding considerable political, economic and security crises," Mr Suleiman said during the summit, the National News Agency reported. "The Lebanese people depend on this meeting."

In the end, political leaders from the governing March 8 bloc and the opposition March 14 alliance, agreed on issues including bolstering security to prevent more violence and the need for more control along the border with Syria.

The national dialogue session was not an isolated event, but part of a process that began in 2006 in a bid to bring together Lebanon's disparate political groups.The all-party talks were supposed to be held on a regular basis. However, the last session took place in November 2010, after tensions surrounding the issue of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) - investigating the assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri - prompted Hizbollah and other members of the March 8 coalition to boycott the meeting.

As the crisis in Syria has threatened to destablise Lebanon, talks resumed yesterday as rival political leaders came together for the meeting at the presidential Baabda Palace.

Incidents linked to the crisis in Syria have led to recent bouts of violent clashes in Lebanon - largely along sectarian lines - in which two dozen people have been killed.

While the guns have largely gone silent for now in Tripoli, the security situation remains precarious and there have been growing fears that the country will get caught up in the violence spilling over from Syria.

Lebanon remains largely divided over the 15-month uprising against the regime of Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president.

Meanwhile the government has tried to uphold its policy of "disassociating" from the crisis in an effort to maintain stability.

Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, said there is a "serious fear" among all parties in Lebanon that the violence in Syria may spread across the border.

"I think the sectarian elite leaders, while they are siding on one side of the aisle or the other, don't want the situation to go out of hand," he said.

"They are trying to buffer the impact of Syria tension from spilling over. This dialogue will give breathing room for both sides to test ground for different options to keep the situation under control."

Among the participants at yesterday's meeting was Prime Minister Nejib Mikati, former president Amin Gemayel, a key member of the March 14 bloc, and Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party.

The Free Patriotic Movement - a March 8 ally - was represented by leader Michel Aoun, and Mohammed Raad, a Hizbollah member of parliament was also present.

Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces - part of the March 14 bloc - refused to take part, saying it would not help solve the country's problems.

Saad Hariri, the former prime minister and head of the Future Movement, was also absent.

Mr Hariri has remained outside Lebanon for the past year for what has been described as security reasons, but was represented by Fouad Siniora, a March 14 official.

Mr Suleiman yesterday announced that the next session is scheduled for June 25.