BEIRUT: Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati signaled Thursday that Lebanon might attend the Geneva II peace conference on Syria, a move that is likely to further sharpen political divisions over the conflict in the neighboring country.
Mikati’s declaration comes as a new round of fighting between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad erupted in Tripoli, leaving six people dead and over 50 wounded in the past four days.
Speaking to reporters after attending a meeting chaired by President Michel Sleiman at Baabda Palace to discuss the security situation in Tripoli, Mikati said he had previously consulted with the president on the Geneva II conference aimed at exploring a political settlement to the 31-month conflict in Syria.
“When we get the invitation [for Geneva talks], we will discuss it, but I do not rule out the possibility for Lebanon to be represented and present in the Geneva conference,” Mikati said.
“ Lebanon is strong and effective with its diplomacy and wants to be present in order to outline its position and follow up the [Syria] issue because we are the country most affected by the repercussions of the Syrian crisis,” he said.
“Our firm position is the need to preserve Syria’s unity and security and halting the bloodshed in Syria in tandem with our noninterference in internal Syrian affairs.”
March 14 leaders, who support the uprising against the Assad regime, are expected to oppose Lebanon’s participation in Geneva, especially under a caretaker Cabinet and with the presence of caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour who has been accused of serving the Syrian regime.
Several officials, including Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby, have said they expect Geneva II to convene on Nov. 23, though the U.S., Russia and the United Nations have all said no date has been officially set.
Mikati reiterated his government’s policy to distance Lebanon from the crisis in Syria but noted that the repercussions of the conflict spilled over into the country with the influx of more than 1 million Syrian refugees who fled the war in their country.
“We have disassociated ourselves from what is happening in Syria. But the Syrian crisis did not disassociate itself from Lebanon. We are bearing today the biggest portion of the refugees’ burdens,” he said.
Despite the government’s self-declared disassociation policy, Lebanon remains sharply divided over the conflict in Syria. While the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance strongly supports the Assad regime, the March 14 coalition backs the armed revolt aimed at toppling it. The split has widened following Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria on the side of Assad’s forces.
Meanwhile, the rival factions continued to trade accusations over the Cabinet deadlock, now in its seventh month.
Hezbollah’s deputy head Sheikh Naim Qassem accused the March 14 coalition of seeking to keep Lebanon without a new Cabinet until next year’s presidential elections on orders of a Gulf state pending the outcome of the war in Syria.
“It seems that the March 14 group has raised a slogan leading to the obstruction of the country as a whole until the presidential elections,” Qassem said in a speech during a graduation ceremony for students in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
“They [March 14 parties] do not want a Cabinet in Lebanon even for nearly seven months, not because they are clever ... but because an Arab Gulf state ordered them to freeze the Cabinet formation in Lebanon pending [the results] of developments in Syria.”
Qassem said the Gulf country, which he did not name, was hoping that the military balance in Syria would change in its favor within two or three months.
“Then this country will be able, as it thinks, to form a Cabinet in Lebanon suitable for it,” he said, adding that the situation in Syria would not change in two or more than five months.
“This makes me say that they [March 14] will keep the country without a government until the presidential elections [in May 2014],” Qassem said.
He reiterated Hezbollah’s demand for the formation of a national unity government comprising all sections of the Lebanese society.
“We want a national unity government, but the others [March 14] are obstructing it,” Qassem said.
The Future Movement and its March 14 allies have repeatedly accused Hezbollah of obstructing the formation of a new government with its demand for veto power and its insistence that the tripartite equation, “the Army, the people and the resistance,” be mentioned in the Cabinet’s policy statement.
Loyalty to the Resistance, Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, upheld its demand for the resistance to be mentioned in the next government’s policy statement and criticized the March 14 boycott of Parliament sessions.
The bloc said in a statement that the next Cabinet’s policy statement should be drafted on the basis of the main foundations of national accord.
“The resistance has represented one of the most important mainstays [of national accord] adopted by all the governments since the Taif Accord,” it said.
Speaker Nabih Berri decried the boycott of Parliament sessions, the obstruction of the Cabinet formation, and the absence of dialogue between the rival political factions.
“The problem has two faces: One is that there is no dialogue, and the other is obstruction,” Berri told a ceremony held by the Bar Association to honor attorneys who had served for 50 years.
Noting that countries at odds with each other, including the United States and communist China, are talking to each other, he said:
“In Lebanon, we do not meet just for the sake of not meeting.”
The European Union called on Lebanon’s Parliament to resume its sessions and approve a new electoral law as soon as possible.
“The call conformed with Speaker Nabih Berri’s request to the [parliamentary] Justice and Administration Committee to study an electoral law with the aim of approving it at the earliest possible time,” the EU said in a statement carried by the state-run National News Agency.
Separately, Kataeb MP Nadim Gemayel met in Paris with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, with whom he discussed “the Lebanese and regional political situation,” according to a statement issued by Gemayel’s office.