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World powers work to distance Lebanon from crisis

Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam, right, receives U.S. ambassador to Lebanon David Hale in Beirut, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

There is a political consensus among global powers – particularly France, the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran – that Lebanon should be distanced from the crisis in the region, according to Western diplomatic sources.

Sources told The Daily Star that the Lebanese file – including its political, security and constitutional developments – was the subject of international talks in more than one European country and was the focus of recent meetings at the Vatican during French President Francois Hollande’s visit.

The discussions between the Vatican and French delegations touched on the need to establish an agreement that would neutralize Lebanon with regard to regional conflicts. The sources said Western capitals had prioritized three files that should be worked on quickly and with an internal consensus.

The first one involves the formation of a unified government, the West’s preference, during this exceptional period; second, Lebanon must hold a presidential election on time to prove its compliance with its constitutional duties; third, national stability must be accomplished, including fighting terrorist and takfiri groups, particularly in light of a rise in threats from the Nusra Front in Lebanon and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.

Sources pointed to the latest stance adopted by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss mountain town of Davos, where he said that Hezbollah had acted on its own in sending its fighters to Syria. This shift appears to indicate Iran’s withdrawal of its cover for Hezbollah’s decision to fight alongside the Syrian regime, sources said, calling on it instead to return to Lebanon so as to remove obstacles to the creation of a unified government.

Sources also suggest that top European officials could soon visit Iran, where they would stress that Lebanon’s upcoming presidential election is a major international concern given that a vacuum in the post is highly undesirable for American, Russian, French and other European leaders.

U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale’s meeting with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Paris and his recent visit to Saudi Arabia should also be seen in this context, sources said.

A veteran politician familiar with the diplomatic scene confirmed that the Lebanese government would not be formed unless it adhered to a formula agreed upon by President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam, because this was in line with international support for the proper functioning of constitutional institutions.

According to the politician, leading officials said the March 8 bloc’s obstruction of the formation of a government had absolved Sleiman and Salam from any commitments to Speaker Nabih Berri and head of the Progressive Socialist Movement Walid Jumblatt.

Both had hoped to be given an opportunity for their efforts in forming a unified government after they convinced the president and prime minister-designate to extend the Jan. 7 deadline for forming a neutral Cabinet in order to secure a broader consensus.

Salam is thus faced with two options: Returning to a neutral, technocratic government, in which the March 8 bloc would likely be obliged to offer a vote of confidence if doing the opposite made their group responsible for obstructing the formation of a Cabinet; or forming a unified and balanced government based on the 8-8-8 formula without excluding anyone.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 28, 2014, on page 3.

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Summary

There is a political consensus among global powers – particularly France, the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran – that Lebanon should be distanced from the crisis in the region, according to Western diplomatic sources.

According to the politician, leading officials said the March 8 bloc's obstruction of the formation of a government had absolved Sleiman and Salam from any commitments to Speaker Nabih Berri and head of the Progressive Socialist Movement Walid Jumblatt.

Salam is thus faced with two options: Returning to a neutral, technocratic government, in which the March 8 bloc would likely be obliged to offer a vote of confidence if doing the opposite made their group responsible for obstructing the formation of a Cabinet; or forming a unified and balanced government based on the 8-8-8 formula without excluding anyone.


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