A New Reality on the Ground
In response to the report written by Detlev Mehlis, who puts Syria in the spotlight over Rafik al Hariri’s assassination, Agence France Press referred to the speech given by President Assad at Damascus University as having been “typically long and rambling.” Assad lashed out against the democratically elected Prime Minister Fuoad Siniora by calling him a “slave” and as expected, against the United States' “maneuvers” in the region.
Prime Minister Siniora responded elegantly to Assad's less-than-elegant remarks about him and his government by saying: “We focus on one thing, and that is how we can strengthen relations between us and Syria, so that ties are correct and based on bilateral respect and equality between two independent neighbors.”
The UN investigation team asked President Assad to fully cooperate and to let them interview some ranking Syrian officials including Assef Shawkat (brother in-law of the Syrian president), Maher Assad (brother of the president), Maj. Gen. Bahjat Suleiman, former chief of Syria's internal intelligence, Brig. Gen. Rustum Ghazale (Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon when Rafik al Hariri was killed), Gen. Jameh Jameh (Ghazale's assistant in Beirut), Gen. Abdul Karim Abbas (head of Palestinian section in Syrian intelligence) and Gen. Zafer Youssef (head of intelligence communications and Internet).
Following President Assad's speech, Prime Minister Siniora met with the cabinet to discuss the official response that the Lebanese government should deliver to Syria. The five Shiite ministers affiliated to Amal and Hezbollah chose to leave the meeting. Their excuse was that Hezbollah did not want to criticize the president of a sister country. Concerned that they might fail the expectations of a foreign country and president, Hezbollah and Amal’s ministers instead preferred to walk out on Lebanon’s interests.
Moreover, Mohammad Raad, head of Hezbollah’s bloc in parliament, criticized the cooperation between UN investigators and Lebanon. In an interview with Beirut New TV, Raad voiced Hezbollah’s concerns: “Mehlis has 120 investigators of various nationalities and no one in Lebanon has checked their backgrounds. All files of internal security, communications and intelligence have been opened under the pretext of investigation. We don't know who photocopied these files and to whom they were sent. The security files held by the military establishment in Lebanon have now come into the hands of the Mossad.”
It's a pity that Hezbollah never raised its concerns when the Syrian secret services used to not only know everything that moved in and out Lebanon, but also actually enforced all of Damascus's decisions regarding Lebanon.
Israel's, Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz announced to the Israeli cabinet on the weekend that besides the ongoing terror activities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Israel faces the threat of Iran, where only weeks ago Iranian President Ahmadinejad said he would like to see Israel “wiped off the map.” Hezbollah guerillas are also engaged in new activities in the northern region of Har Dov, along the Lebanese border. Israeli intelligence warned that Hezbollah might carry out a "qualitative" attack on Israel, but Mofaz said that it would not be wise for President Assad to unleash Hezbollah at this point, as Syria is facing a great deal of pressure from the international community.
Despite the Shiite actions, which were described as a "passing event” by the Shiite Speaker, Nabih Berri and regardless of President Assad’s verbal attacks on the Lebanese government, things are slowly but surely moving in the right direction in Lebanon.
Chibli Mallat, a prominent Lebanese lawyer, was the first to announce his candidacy for the presidency at a press conference at the UN Correspondents Association. Mallat said: "Mr. Lahoud has lost all credibility and now that he is under investigation, it is worse. We cannot find a single voice in favor of Mr. Lahoud in Beirut today.” He added: “Let us all compete regionally, internationally, on ideas, on achievement, on standing and then the deputies choose. What I would ask is for democratic governments to support the process, and to support the quick exit of Mr. Lahoud.”
In Lebanon, Christian and Muslim leaders are already conducting consultations to reach a consensus over the choice of a new president. The president, prime minister and speaker of parliament positions are assigned in Lebanon primarily by religion, and then by merit and popularity. Therefore, the president is always a Maronite, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament is a Shiite.
The Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, who is the spiritual leader of the Maronite Christian minority, hesitated to agree on ousting pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. Patriarch Sfeir is not looking to favor Syria at Lebanon’s expense, but he has to move carefully in order to avoid weakening the Christian Maronite community. The man who will stand as the next Lebanese president must not only have the support of the majority of Maronites, but he must also be accepted by the Sunnis and the Shiites. Overall, the mission of the Maronite Patriarch is a difficult one because he has to reconcile the expectations of all Lebanese citizens.
In light of the events that have passed in Lebanon since the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri on February 14, 2005, one of the most important missions of the Lebanese as a whole is to regain political dignity and further democratize the country.