Riyadh urges independent Lebanese cabinet formation
BEIRUT: Saudi officials urged Lebanese political leaders to pursue the process of government formation regardless of regional developments, sources close to the March 14 coalition told The Daily Star on Monday. During a telephone conversation on Monday, the source said that Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri was conducting "intensive deliberations" aimed at reaching a consensus on the upcoming cabinet line-up.
"Saudi officials called on Lebanese politicians not to abandon to foreign forces their right to form a government," a March 14 source said.
Commenting on media reports that implied the cabinet formation process was stalled until a Syrian-Saudi rapprochement could be reached, the source stressed that the formation course was "a strictly Lebanese domestic affair."
"Positive regional developments would facilitate the cabinet formation process; nevertheless Lebanese political groups should not allow negative regional events to affect them," the source added.
The source also said Hariri's visit to Syria was unlikely prior to formation of the next cabinet.
"The premier-designate's visit to Syria should be based on a clear political agenda following the government formation," the source stressed.
On Monday, the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat quoted well-informed Egyptian sources as saying Cairo feels uncomfortable with Syrian attempts to tie the formation of the next national-unity cabinet in Lebanon to a visit to Damascus by Hariri prior to the cabinet's formation.
Concerning Saudi-Syrian dialogue, As-Safir newspaper quoted Syrian sources Monday as saying that the "exchange of ideas" between Riyadh and Damascus was ongoing, "but so far did not reach a level permitting the announcement of a cabinet line-up."
The sources also denied that preparations were under way for a Saudi-Syrian summit to be held in Damascus between King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz and Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Earlier last week, Saudi Prince Abdel-Aziz bin Abdullah, accompanied by the kingdom's Information Minister Abdel-Aziz Khoja, held talks with Assad in preparation for the Syrian-Saudi summit that was expected to take place Monday according to Egypt's official Middle East News Agency (MENA).
Meanwhile, opposition sources told The Daily Star Monday that the March 8 Forces awaited proposals from the premier-designate regarding the Cabinet make-up.
The sources denied tying the government-formation process to Syrian-Saudi talks, adding that the opposition's demand for veto power in the next government "wasn't tackled during discussions with Hariri."
"Premier-designate Hariri expressed his determination to form a national-unity government that grants the opposition real participation; we wait for him to conclude his deliberations and inform us about their result," the source said.
Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun criticized foreign interference in the government formation process, adding that the Lebanese "had no role in the cabinet formation."
Aoun accused Lebanese politicians, "who claimed to defend the country's sovereignty and independence," in reference to the March 14 leaders, of tying the government formation process to inter-Arab entente.
The former general stressed that the upcoming national-unity cabinet should be based on proportional representation "so as to grant the opposition actual participation."
"It's impossible that we take part in a national-unity government if we're not represented in the correct manner," Aoun said.
Hizbullah's number two Naim Qassem said Monday Lebanon benefited from inter-Arab dialogue, adding that the circumstances were "favorable to the formation of a national-unity government."
Saudi Arabia appoints new envoy to Damascus
DAMASCUS: A Saudi diplomat said Monday Riyadh has appointed a new ambassador to Syria, the strongest sign yet of the solidifying reconciliation between the rival nations.
The United States and its Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia, have been working to boost ties with Syria in recent weeks in hopes of pulling it out of the fold of Iran and Islamic resistance groups in the region.
Relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia soured after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri, a close Saudi ally. Syria was widely blamed for his death, but denies any responsibility.
Saudi Arabia subsequently transferred its envoy from Syria to Qatar in 2008, leaving the post vacant.
An official at the Syrian Foreign Ministry said Syria has approved the appointment of a Saudi ambassador, identifying the diplomat as Abdullah al-Eifan. The diplomat at the Saudi Embassy in Damascus said he would assume the post soon.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
Eifan's appointment is a strong indication that a much-talked-about summit meeting between the Saudi king and the Syrian president would be held in Damascus in the coming days or weeks.
Observers have suggested a summit in Damascus was unlikely before the king appoints his envoy to Syria.
Riyadh sent a senior envoy to Damascus on June 28. Assad and Saudi King Abdullah have met twice in recent months in Riyadh and Kuwait, and there has been persistent media speculation that Abdullah will visit Damascus in July to crown the renewed relationship.
The US has also been mending relations with Syria.
Washington has said it will send back its ambassador to Damascus after a four-year break after Hariri's assassination.