Political and parliamentary sources say that President Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt have decided to decrease coordination with the Syrian leadership.
Previously, there had been weekly phone calls between the two presidents, as well as regular harmonizing on political and security issues.
Sleiman’s changing position on Syria has become clear through several of his actions: His request that Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour protest to Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdel-Karim Ali about Syrian violations of Lebanon’s border; his announcement that he is waiting for a phone call from Syrian President Bashar Assad about Syrian National Security Bureau head Ali Mamlouk’s alleged participation in a terrorist plot with former Minister Michel Samaha; and the fact that he did not meet with Syrian officials during the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran.
As for Mikati’s policy of disassociating Lebanon from events in Syria, these sources say the prime minister showed his lack of commitment to it when he did not object to a decision to suspend Syria’s membership in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation at its recent Mecca Summit.
In addition, sources cite Mikati’s request Monday that Lebanon’s Ambassador to Syria Michel Khoury file a complaint to the Syrian Foreign Ministry as evidence that he is distancing himself from the disassociation path.
He asked Khoury to “address an urgent message to the Syrian Foreign Ministry and inform it of the ongoing violations of Lebanese border villages and the negative consequences that these violations might have on security procedures by the Lebanese Army, [which are] to preserve stability and calm along the border in implementation of the authorities’ decision to protect the Lebanese residing near the border and prevent both human and material losses.”
Sources report that past border violations were resolved either in meetings between Sleiman and the head of the Higher Lebanese-Syrian Council Nasri Khoury, or through phone calls between the two presidents. This shows that Sleiman and Mikati have changed course.
Political and diplomatic information indicates that the relationship between the Syrian and Lebanese leadership will deteriorate, especially if an indictment is issued condemning Samaha and the Syrian officials of plotting terrorism.
The sources do not rule out a Lebanese withdrawal of its ambassador to Syria, which would prompt Syria to withdraw its ambassador from Lebanon and would have serious repercussions on the relationship between the neighbors.
The problems between the countries are tied up with members of the Cabinet. Ministers loyal to Mikati, Sleiman and Jumblatt make up a third of the Cabinet, and thus have veto power against measures from the pro-Syrian regime March 8 or the pro-Syrian rebel March 14.
Sources say March 8’s reaction to the shifting Lebanese-Syrian relationship has thus far been measured, as embodied in the stances of members who express support for the Syrian regime in the media and cooperate with Syria’s ambassador in Beirut.
The available information suggests that the dispute between March 8 and March 14 over the Syrian situation will not go beyond a media battle, since March 8 has decided not to confront the opposition on this issue.
However, if Sleiman approves the request several March 14 MPs are rumored to be preparing calls to expel the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, and rhetoric could spread to action on the ground.
As for cutting ties with Syria, the sources say this would require a highly unlikely Cabinet decision. However, calling the Lebanese ambassador to Syria back would only require agreement between Sleiman, Mikati and the foreign minister.
Such a step would be accompanied by extreme caution as it could have repercussions, including a closure of the countries’ mutual border. This is why sources believe the confrontation between March 8 and 14 will remain a press battle: A border closure is counter to the Syrian regime’s interests as Lebanon remains the major outlet for Syrians loyal to the regime.