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September 16, 2009 Special Dispatch No. 2520

Pro-Syrian Lebanese Daily: Where Is Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Hiding?

September 16, 2009
Special Dispatch No. 2520

Recent articles in Lebanese newspapers, particularly in the daily Al-Akhbar which is known to be pro-Syrian, have criticized newly appointed Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon 'Ali 'Abd Al-Karim 'Ali for shunning his official duties, contending that this conduct reflects Syrian government policy - i.e. that the establishment of diplomatic relations with Lebanon is no more than a perfunctory gesture. The writers pointed out that 'Ali 'Abd Al-Karim 'Ali spends hardly any time in Lebanon, avoids meeting with Lebanese officials, and plays practically no role in Syria-Lebanon relations, and that these relations are still run by prominent Lebanese figures associated with Syria, foremost among them former Lebanese MP Wiam Wahhab.

Following are excerpts from the articles:

The Syrian Ambassador Doesn't Live in Beirut - And Only Occasionally Sets Foot in the Embassy

Al-Akhbar contributing columnist Nicolas Nassif wrote: "[The March 14 Forces] have expressed discontent with the direction in which the Syrian-Lebanese diplomatic relations are moving. [They contend that] Damascus does not assign sufficient importance to these relations - in contrast to Lebanon, whose position to that effect is anchored in tradition and governed by the accepted norms regulating [all] diplomatic relations, even at the lowest level.

"Thus, after presenting his credentials to [Syrian] President Bashar Al-Assad on May 7, [2009], Lebanese Ambassador to Syria Michel Khouri visited most of Syria's senior officials, including Vice President for Cultural Affairs Dr. Najah Al-Attar, Prime Minister Muhammad Naji Al-'Utri, Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs 'Abdallah Al-Dardari, Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem and his [deputy] Faisal Al-Miqdad, and presidential [political and media] adviser Buthaina Sha'ban. In addition, he has regularly held introduction meetings and other conferences with foreign and Arab ambassadors to Damascus in order to exchange ideas and share information. Furthermore, he has rented an apartment [in Damascus] for his personal use, and is planning to rent new offices for the Embassy. He has also opened a consular department, which has been conducting activities in its many areas of jurisdiction…

"Syrian Ambassador 'Ali 'Abd Al-Karim, on the other hand, does not reside in Beirut permanently, and only occasionally comes to the Embassy premises. There have been no reports in the media of his taking part in any activity, and he has not made any public appearances. There has been no indication that, since presenting his credentials to Lebanese President [Michel Suleiman] on May 29, [2009], he has visited a single senior Lebanese official. Furthermore, he has practically disappeared from the public scene, apart from attending the June 25, 2009 [parliamentary] session which elected Nabih Berri as parliamentary speaker. Neither has he paid a visit to the prime minister's residence - which can be attributed to his government's negative stance vis-à-vis the government of Fuad Al-Siniora.

"'Abd Al-Karim's conduct is unlike that of [other] Arab or foreign ambassadors - while the latter conduct extensive work among [Lebanese] leaders and parties, he has visited neither leaders nor parties, and has not been seen at any official [events]…" [1]

Has Anyone Met Mr. 'Ali 'Abd Al-Karim?

Al-Akhbar editor Khaled Saghieh published an acerbic article asking facetiously if anyone had laid eyes on Syria's ambassador to Lebanon: "Have any of you met Mr. 'Ali 'Abd Al-Karim? To refresh the memory of those who cannot place this name, he is the Syrian ambassador to Beirut. In case anyone forgot, we have a Syrian Embassy in Beirut - which, we are told, is one of the more important results of the March 14 Forces' struggle. Many Western countries have also lauded the establishment of diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Syria. Some have even called the opening of the [Syrian] Embassy [in Lebanon] an iconic moment in our modern history, since it is the ultimate proof that Syria has [finally] recognized Lebanon's independence. But let us ask people in the street: Has any of you met Mr. 'Ali 'Abd Al-Karim?...

"For some time now, day after day, we have been exposed to statements [2] like 'My briefcase is filled with messages [from senior Lebanese officials] requesting meetings with senior Syrian officials,' 'So and so doesn't need a go-between [to communicate with] Syrian leaders,' 'The gates of Syria are open to everyone except a few [individuals],' 'Mr. So and So no longer has a problem with Syria,' 'So and so [in Lebanon] must resolve his dispute with Mr. X [in the Syrian regime] before setting foot in Syria'… The strange thing is that the owner of the briefcase - the one who receives messages and acts as Syria's spokesman in Lebanon - is not [the official Syrian ambassador] Mr. 'Ali 'Abd Al-Karim, but someone else, who to the best of my limited knowledge is not on the staff of the Syrian Embassy in Beirut.

"This raises a number of questions: …What exactly is this embassy's function? What do Lebanese politicians want from the Syrian leadership? In what capacity do they request meetings? If Syrian-Lebanese relations [ultimately] revert to what they used to be [i.e. each group within Lebanon conducting relations with Syria independently and promoting only its own interests] - then what was the point of trying to rectify [the situation by establishing diplomatic relations in the first place]? What will President Michel Suleiman do now? Because shortly after being elected, he visited Syria with the aim, it was thought at the time, of laying a new foundation for Syrian-Lebanese relations. Today, however, it is not at all clear what this foundation is supposed to support…

"We have heard nothing at all about the Syrian citizen 'Ali 'Abd Al-Karim, and we ask anyone with any information regarding his whereabouts to contact Mr. Wiam Wahhab without delay." [3]

Lebanese-Syrian Diplomatic Relations Have Not Advanced Beyond Formalities

The Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal, owned by Sa'd Al-Hariri, also published an article raising questions regarding Wiam Wahhab's tireless efforts in Lebanon on Syria's behalf and wondering whether he should be Syrian ambassador instead of 'Ali 'Abd Al-Karim: "Is there one Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, or two? Is 'Ali 'Abd Al-Karim the ambassador, or has he been replaced by Wiam Wahhab? Political elements monitoring the Syrian-Lebanese diplomatic relations are at a loss to understand what function the Syrian ambassador has fulfilled in Lebanon and what activities he has been engaged in since his appointment. They cannot find a satisfactory answer [to this question] - except that maybe [Syrian Ambassador] 'Ali 'Abd Al-Karim has been banned from performing [his official duties]…

"Former minister [Wiam] Wahhab behaves as if he [and not 'Ali 'Abd Al-Karim] were the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon. He flits from [place to place], examines and analyzes the political scene, and presents media outlets with what passes as messages from the Syrian regime to the Lebanese. But that's not all. Wahhab has set himself up as a guardian of the Lebanese people acting on Syria's behalf, and has been conveying greetings and messages of love to Lebanese leaders from their brothers in Syria. He travels from Dhahiya [Hizbullah's stronghold] to Mt.[Lebanon, populated predominantly by Druze], and from there to Clemenceau [Jumblatt's residence], and to Bikfaya [Amin Gemayel's residence]… conveying the demands of the Syrian regime to the March 14 Forces. He has set himself up as an agent who [arranges] trips to Syria [for all these Lebanese elements]…

"One way or another, Wahhab manages to bypass the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon… Wahhab would not be flitting and hopping [around with such freedom] had he not received a green light from the Syrian regime - especially since he travels to Syria on a regular basis…

"All this harms the core of the Lebanese-Syrian diplomatic relations, which apparently have not advanced beyond formalities. Moreover, Syria's relations with various elements in Lebanon - individuals, parties, or political groups - have so far not assumed diplomatic garb, leaving much to be desired in both form and content.

"The upshot is that the establishment of the Syrian Embassy in Beirut has not ended Damascus' interference in Lebanon's political affairs, nor caused any change in Syria's supercilious attitude towards Lebanon. Accordingly, elements monitoring the Syrian-Lebanese relations believe that the bypassing of the Syrian ambassador's authority by certain elements… may undermine Syrian-Lebanese relations and render them meaningless and empty…" [4]

Endnotes:

[1] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 17, 2009.

[2] These statements were made by Lebanese MP Wiam Wahhab, who is known to be pro-Syrian.

[3] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 12, 2009.

[4] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 19, 2009.

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