BEIRUT: Both Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Rafik Hariri remained silent about their separate discussions with Syrian President Bashar Assad on Thursday as Lebanese factions continued to stake out their positions over a presidential term limit extension.
Hariri, who reportedly met with Assad for 15 minutes, returned to Beirut where he met with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt after a stopover in Anjar, where he met with the chief of the Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon Brigadier General Rustom Ghazaleh. Hariri later left to Faqra, where he held meetings with members of his parliamentary bloc. He will be leaving to Sardinia over the weekend.
Berri's meeting with Assad later in the afternoon was longer and lasted for about two hours.
Following the meetings, the Syrian national news agency, SANA, said only that "Assad asserted Syria's intention to develop a Lebanese national unity and to support it."
It added that Assad finds it "important to continue the Syrian-Lebanese negotiations and protect the interests of both sisterly countries." But sources close to the meetings said Assad explained to his visitors the "regional circumstances" that made Lahoud the "best" president.
Assad's meetings with Hariri and Berri won't be closing, as was anticipated, the chapter of Damascus' negotations with Lebanese officials which started a couple of weeks ago, with Deputy Speaker Issam Fares expected to visit Damascus on Saturday.
Jumblatt, who was supposed to meet Assad on Thursday and to have a dinner with Lahoud in Baabda on the same day, canceled both events on the grounds that he needed more time to discuss the presidential elections matter with his bloc.
Sources close to Damascus however said that Jumblatt's appointment with Assad was canceled by the Syrians because of his position in regard to the presidential issue.
Jumblatt, whose Democratic Gathering parliamentary bloc includes 15 MPs, is opposed to Lahoud's re-election.
The Druze leader, despite earlier opposition, decided he would not deliver any statements on the presidential elections until he concludes negotiating with his bloc.
The Lebanese Cabinet session Thursday was canceled because of the trips to Syria. Observers have speculated that the Cabinet meeting would be an opportunity for Lahoud to propose the amendment of Article 49, which would limit his time in office.
Analysts say Syria will likely wait until after meeting more Lebanese officials to announce its position on the election. Assad has so far met with Health Minister Suleiman Franjieh, Deputy Speaker Elie Ferzli, former Prime Ministers Salim Hoss and Omar Karami and former Speaker Hussein Husseini.
Efforts to extend Lahoud's term has generated friction with the US, which opposes a consitutional amendment.
The US State Department said Wednesday that Lebanon should stand by a constitutional provision and it urged Parliament to elect a new president.
"The US strongly supports a free and fair electoral process in Lebanon," said spokesman Adam Ereli from Washington. "That means one that is conducted according to the established Lebanese Constitution. That Constitution provides for a new president every six years, selected by Parliament."
"No outside country should interfere in the process," Ereli added, presumably in reference to Syria.
Environment Minister Fares Boueiz criticized the amendment of the Constitution Thursday and said that "change" needed to be introduced.
"At a time when the country needs to consolidate and reinforce the Constitution, they want to amend it, and at a time when the country needs to change the government's policies, style, methods and officials, they want to extend the current situation," Boueiz said.
Boueiz spoke from Diman after a visit to Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Butros Sfeir, who spoke out Sunday opposing an amendment of the Constitution and criticized the consultations with Syria as undemocratic.
Exiled former army commander General Michel Aoun said in a statement that Lahoud should understand that his regime is over despite Parliament's "obeisance" to Syria.
He said that if Lahoud stays in power it would mean a catastrophe for him personally.
Other parties supported Lahoud's announcement on Tuesday that he may be willing to accept another term.
Following his visit to Baabda Thursday, Labor Minister Assaad Hardan praised Lahoud's announcement to run for re-election and said such a move follows democratic principles and asserts Lahoud's respect for MPs' will.
"Lahoud wants to place the presidential elections in its normal location, where the representatives of the people make the decision that best suits the country's interests," he said.
"Lahoud's move Tuesday asserts his will to Lebanonize the elections," he added.
CDRL criticizes Lahoud's decision to run again
The Center for Democracy and the Rule of Law (CDRL) expressed its concern over a press release issued on behalf of President Emile Lahoud Tuesday said he was willing to serve a new term in office pursuant to a constitutional amendment.
The center said more urgently needed constitutional reforms should take precedence. These include those designed to introduce provisions ensuring the separation of Church and State, restrict army interference in civilian affairs, guarantee liberty, the rule of law and human rights, introduce voter registration tied to residence not place of birth, and introducing the direct election of the president and prime minister by the people, it said.
"If the above reforms are not possible ... then it makes little or no difference to the people of Lebanon who would be the next president, with or without the reelection of the incumbent," CDRL said.