Sleiman showing distance from March 8

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman heads another round of National Dialogue at Beiteddine Palace, Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s policy of dissociation toward Syria does not accurately reflect the diversity of opinions on the political scene, according to parliamentary sources. March 8 continues to support President Bashar Assad’s regime, while March 14 backs the Syrian uprising.

These sources say that political figures now rarely travel the Beirut-Damascus road as they once did during the presidencies of Elias Hrawi and Emile Lahoud. Official visits to Syria – at least public ones – are limited, even though the government is dominated by March 8. The Lebanese presence in Syria has been reduced to scattered visits from politicians who support the regime, as well as some private trips by politicians and journalists.

In addition to this distancing, March 14 has renewed their battle of words with March 8, claiming the Syrian regime is attempting to incite sectarian strife in Lebanon. As evidence, they cite the case of former minister Michel Samaha, who is accused of plotting a terrorist attack, and the alleged involvement of high-ranking Syrian officials in his plans.

In turn, March 8 has accused those who oppose the Syrian regime of trying to establish a logistical supply line for the armed Syrian opposition, and facilitating the smuggling of fighters and weapons to the opposition in Syria.

Meanwhile, shelling and sniping still affect some Lebanese border villages and towns, as do incursions by Syrian regime forces.

In this midst of these stresses on Lebanese-Syrian relations, sources note that some of President Michel Sleiman’s stances do not seem in line with Mikati’s dissociation policy, and apparently have not been coordinated with the prime minister.

They cite Sleiman’s statement last week in Jbeil as evidence. “When any relationship with a foreign entity harms Lebanon, we end it. And when the relationship is again in Lebanon’s interest, we reinstate it,” the president said. Some March 8 politicians have called this comment a violation of the Taif Agreement which establishes a special relationship between Lebanon and Syria, the sources add.

Sources also mentioned Sleiman’s Army Day speech, during which he stressed that “the Army and other legitimate [state] security forces should not have any other partners ... the use of force is exclusive to the state.”

March 14 has interpreted these words as an end to, or at least a weakening of, the “Army, people, resistance” formula.

While the sources placed no importance on Sleiman’s meeting with Internal Security Forces Commander Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi and Information Branch head Brig. Gen. Wissam Hasan after Samaha’s arrest, they focused on Sleiman’s comment that he is awaiting a call from Assad, “hoping that no official Syrian party has a relationship with the explosives and that [the case] is related to individuals who were not acting upon an official decision.”

According to the sources, the words reflect coldness between Baabda and Damascus, and many members of the current majority believe Sleiman is moving closer to the opposition.

But sources close to the president stress that he maintains an equal distance from March 8 and March 14, offering as proof the fact that both groups criticize him, as well as his unchanged relationship with Assad. They mention his call offering condolences to the Syrian president after the Damascus bombing that killed three top Syrian officials.

Other sources add that Sleiman’s path is affecting the spirit of cooperation that once existed between the president and Mikati. Some of Sleiman’s actions appear to show a lack of coordination between the two, such as Sleiman’s summoning of high-ranking officials, and handing out instructions that would require the prime minister or Cabinet’s approval to carry out.

These sources say that as the Syrian crisis plays out, the relationship between Sleiman and March 8 is not what it was when the Cabinet was formed; and despite Baabda’s denial, it is now showing a clear preference for March 14, at the majority’s expense.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 21, 2012, on page 3.




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