DEBKAfile Exclusive: By pumping up the Lebanese crisis to explosion level, Tehran and Damascus steal Middle East interest away from Annapolis conference
November 22, 2007, 12:24 PM (GMT+02:00)
Lebanese army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman - in line as Lebanese strongman
After Tehran and Damascus vetoed all six candidates for the presidency to succeed pro-Syrian Emil Lahoud on Nov. 24, candidates have been dropping by the wayside almost daily. The 79-year old former minister Michel Edde was the latest to be disqualified after he took instructions in Damascus for safeguarding Syrian interests in Lebanon.
DEBKAfile’s Middle East sources: Tehran and Damascus have joined hands to bring the Hizballah Shiite to the fore in Beirut and sabotage the Annapolis conference to demonstrate how Tehran & Co. is calling the shots in the Middle East - not Washington.
Our sources outline the worst-case scenario - failing a breakthrough in Beirut on an agreed president in the next 48 hours.
The outgoing pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud president will exit the Baabde palace Saturday, Nov. 24, and transfer his powers to the Lebanese chief of staff Gen. Michel Suleiman, who is considered moderately pro-Syrian and a Hizballah supporter.
The army will then rally behind the general rather than the pro-Western prime minister Fouad Siniora. This will leave Siniora with the option of calling on the backing of the Sunni militias led by majority leader Saad Hariri, Walid Jumblatt’s Druze forces and Samir Geagea’s Christian Phalangists. This bloc will find itself ranged against the bulk of the Lebanese army and Hizballah’s armed forces.
All the ingredients for turmoil and civil strife will then be in place, with the advantage held by the anti-West grouping in terms of numbers, training and weaponry, lavishly supplied by Syria and Iran.
President George W. Bush and every world leader he can rope in have been engaged in frenzied diplomacy in the last 24 hours to fend off this development. A conflagration in Lebanon would jeopardize the US administration’s policies not only there but also in relation to Iran, Syria and the Palestinians. The Washington-Annapolis meeting would become an empty charade.
Russian president Vladimir Putin in particular has lent his weight to Washington’s effort by applying to Bashar Assad and asking him to attend the meeting and work with the US to solve the crisis over the election of a Lebanese president. The Syrian president has not so far responded.
Nicolas Sarkozy also phoned Assad, the first time a French president communicated with the Syrian president in the two years since the Hariri assassination. He too drew no response. Many of France’s foreign policy eggs repose in the Lebanese basket and their loss leaves the relationship Sarkozy hoped to develop with Damascus and Tehran going nowhere.
Another caller to the presidential palace in Damascus was Italian prime minister Roman Prodi.
For Israel, the emergence of Gen. Suleiman as Lebanon’s strongman would add a serious setback to those Israel suffered in its 2006 Lebanon War with Hizballah. The UN peacekeeping force, which is required to cooperate with the Lebanese army, would be paralyzed and the last barrier removed for keeping Hizballah out of South Lebanon and at a distance from the Israeli border.
For the Lebanese Shiite terrorist group, Damascus and Tehran, this development would cap their strategic gains of last year.
Israel’s prime minister would be better occupied dealing with this new security crisis on its borders, Israeli security sources tell DEBKAfile, than posing with Mahmoud Abbas at a photo-op in America.
Arab League foreign ministers, called into session Thursday, Nov. 22 to decide on a delegation to the US-promoted Middle East conference, postponed their Cairo meeting to Friday, for another attempt to solve the Lebanese crisis. The lines between Arab capitals have been humming day and night.
The Middle East special envoy Tony Blair traveled to Riyadh Wednesday but failed to persuade the king to send a minister to Annapolis. The Saudi ambassador to Washington will therefore head his country’s delegation. Syria is not expected to attend.