The US, Syria, Saudi Arabia, France; where did Lebanon go?

10 Jan
President Barack Obama walks with French Presi...

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Who is in charge of Lebanon? Anybody who can answer that question knows more than most.  We’re not even talking Suleiman, Hariri or Hezbollah here; it could be Hillary Clinton, or the Saudi King Abdullah; Ban-Ki Moon or Nicolas Sarkozy.  Everyone wants a piece.

Today saw a meeting between US President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy – and, unsurprisingly, the situation in Lebanon was on the dialogue table.  Both America and France have been keen to emphasise their desire for calm in the country.  In fact, so have most of the principal players.  According to a Washington spokesman, the Syrians have promised the US that “their interest lies in a stable Lebanon and that Syria would be the first affected from instability in Lebanon.”  The “first affected” gives it away a little; what about Lebanon?

Each country with an interest in Lebanon is focusing on pointing out to the other influential countries that their aim in and for the region is peace.  They promise one another this even while they suspect the other of lying.  Hezbollah, Syria and Iran (one side) and Hariri, Saudi Arabia and the US (the other side) are all promising one another that their priority is Lebanon’s wellbeing – which means peace.  Unfortunately the lack of trust between sides has left the words ringing hollow.

Saudi Arabia and Syria have for months been involved in talks aimed at calming tension caused by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s investigations into Rafik Hariri’s death.  While the precise clauses of the Saudi-Syrian settlement have not been made public, the impact the agreement has so far had has not been promising.  Both camps, March 14 and March 8, have accused the other of backtracking on their commitments.  So far no progress has been made.

The US and France, meanwhile, took care today to stress their support for the tribunal, saying that it cannot be toppled and that any agreement must not come at the expense of the indictment.  Both Sarkozy and Obama have acknowledged the important regional role played by Saudi Arabia and Syria, as well as the contribution France itself can make.  But the influence of Iran on both Hamas and Hezbollah is also very much on the minds of foreign powers.  According to Kuwaiti daily al-Anbaa, Sarkozy is hoping that a settlement will not strip Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri of his authority and demands.  Neither, though, does he wish for the settlement to compromise Hezbollah or remove the group’s arms.

Al-Anbaa also pointed out that the American administration has not been pleased by Sarkozy’s approach of receiving members of the Lebanese opposition such as Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, a key ally of Hezbollah.

But French sources have warned that “any security shake-up would be useless politically and would lead to dangerous consequences for those who stirred it.”

All of which comes at a time of apparent détente in America’s relationship with Syria.  Obama recently appointed Robert Ford to the position of US Ambassador in Syria.  The West, clearly, sees its role in the Middle East as fundamental.  This article (http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/01/10/2008252/a-good-call-by-obama.html) shows how very much in the US’ interests it is to be seen to have good relations with Middle Eastern powers.

We might call it telling that Hariri’s meeting with Ban-Ki Moon, in which he pleaded with the UN Secretary General to end all violations of Lebanon’s borders, took place in New York.  The Lebanese PM with a South Korean UN head, talking about Israel? Yep, the US is probably in there somewhere.

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