December 11, 2009 Special Dispatch No. 2690

Syria's Spokesmen in Lebanon Warn Lebanese President In Advance of His U.S. Visit Next Week

December 11, 2009
Lebanon, Syria | Special Dispatch No. 2690

On the eve of Lebanese President Michel Suleiman's visit to the U.S., set for December 14-15, 2009, and of his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. administration officials, it was reported in Lebanon that Syria was displeased about the visit, and that the visit was significantly exacerbating tension between Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and President Suleiman. According to the reports, the tension had risen to the point where Syria's spokesmen in Lebanon were warning Suleiman that after his visit, Suleiman could find himself in actual confrontation with Syria.

On December 9, 2009, Michel Aoun, senior Lebanese oppositionist and chairman of the Free Patriotic movement, paid a surprise visit to Damascus, as the guest of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad – who sent the presidential plane to Beirut to collect him. During the visit, Syria's statement that "Aoun is the most prominent Christian leader in Lebanon, and his influence extends beyond Lebanon's borders to Arab and Christian public opinion," was taken by some elements in Lebanon as a Syrian challenge to Suleiman, and as an attempt to build up Aoun to Suleiman's detriment.[1]

The following is a review of Lebanon pro-Syrian media attacking Suleiman's upcoming U.S. visit:

Syria's Spokesmen in Lebanon: Suleiman's U.S. Visit Will Harm His Relations with Assad

On December 9, 2009, the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Syria, reported that Syria's spokesmen in Lebanon were not happy about President Suleiman's upcoming visit to the U.S., and that they were assessing that this visit would damage his relations with Assad, "bringing them one step back."[2]

Syria is Strengthening Oppositionist Aoun – At Suleiman's Expense

Also on December 9, Michel Aoun, senior Lebanese oppositionist and chairman of the Free Patriotic Movement chairman, paid a brief and unexpected visit to Syria, arriving in a plane sent for him by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. The Lebanese dailies Al-Safir and Al-Akhbar, which are close to Syria, raised the possibility that this visit was connected to Suleiman's upcoming U.S. visit, and that it was a message from Syria that it sees Aoun – not Suleiman – as Lebanon's most prominent Christian leader.[3] Al-Safir stated that Syria was making great efforts to treat Aoun with great warmth during his visit: Not only was he flown to Damascus and back in Assad's presidential plane, Assad hosted him in the unofficial wing of the presidential palace – an unprecedented and extraordinary move.[4]

Rozana Bu Munsif, columnist for the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, wrote that Aoun's visit was aimed against President Suleiman's upcoming U.S. visit. She said that Syria was trying to set restrictions on the agenda that Suleiman would be discussing in the U.S. – making sure he focused only on refugee resettlement and on the resistance, in Lebanon – topics that his predecessor Emil Lahoud had emphasized all the time.

Bu Munsif added that the Syrian leadership was displeased with some of Suleiman's recent positions, and that his last meeting with Assad, in November 12, 2009, had been an attempt to calm Syria's anger at him.[5]

Al-Akhbar: After Suleiman's U.S. Visit, He Could Find Himself in Confrontation With Syria

On December 11, Ibrahim Al-Amin, chairman of the board of directors of the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, known to be close to Syria, published an article titled "Suleiman And His Dance On the Edge of the Abyss." In it, Al-Amin stated that Suleiman's relations with Syria and with the Lebanese opposition were not good.

Al-Amin wrote that U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeffery Feltman was working with President Suleiman's associates, so that following his U.S. visit, Suleiman would adopt a position opposing Syria's "political bear hug" of Lebanon.

According to Al-Amin, Syria is claiming that Suleiman's visit to the U.S. would be ineffective, and that other, more important matters were at the top of the Arab countries' agenda. Likewise, he said, Syria had already clarified to Suleiman that it supports the Lebanese opposition, and that while it considers him to be Lebanon's president, it sees Michel Aoun as the country's "most prominent Christian leader."

Al-Amin wrote that Syria had also advised Suleiman not to support the position of one single political group in Lebanon (a reference to the March 14 Forces), and reminded him that he had already done so in the past and that it had had negative consequences for him.

Saying that Suleiman had made a mistake by boasting about his relations with the Egyptian regime, Al-Amin said that Suleiman did not understand the gravity of his words, or that "the regime in Egypt does not stick its fingers into a particular place without bringing about its destruction – just as it did in Lebanon, Palestine, Somalia, Iraq, and Sudan – and it is currently trying to meddle in Yemen."

Al-Amin summed up by saying that Suleiman now faced a problem, "because if he decides to please the U.S. [during his visit], he will find himself isolated within Lebanon and facing a real confrontation with Syria. If he angers the U.S., then he will not be invited back to Washington, and he will encounter problems with his requests for meetings in other capitals in Europe and in the world..."[6]

Previous Attempts by Syria to Undermine Suleiman with the Aim of Replacing Him With Aoun

It should be noted that both in 2008 and in 2009, Syria acted against Suleiman, with the aim of replacing him with Aoun.

In December 2009, Syria, angered by some positions taken by Suleiman, worked to undermine his status and to reinforce the status of Michel Aoun. Early that month, Syria hosted Aoun for a state visit that was much more lavish than Suleiman's visit a few months previously, in August 2009. During this visit, Aoun was received warmly, met with high-level Syrian officials, participated in religious ceremonies in his honor, and was cheered by Syrian crowds.

Even at this point, this visit aroused fears in Lebanon, and also outside Lebanon, that Syria was trying to build up Aoun to the detriment of Suleiman – both as a Christian leader and as an ally in Lebanon.[7]

Also, in May 2009, on the eve of the June 2009 Lebanese parliamentary elections, the March 14 Forces warned that after the elections, the Lebanese opposition, which is allied with Syria, would act to remove President Suleiman and to appoint Aoun in his stead.[8]


[1] The Al-Akhbar, daily reported on December 10 that the next day, Aoun would visit Syria because "people who visited the Syrian capital heard there talk about Aoun as the 'most prominent Christian leader in Lebanon who has qualities that make his influence cross the borders of the Lebanese arena and that he has great influence on Arab Christian public opinion." Al-Akhbar, Lebanon, December 10, 2009.

[2] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), December 9, 2009.

[3] Al-Akhbar, Al-Safir (Lebanon), December 10, 2009.

[4] Al-Safir (Lebanon), December 10, 2009.

[5] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), December 10, 2009.

[6] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), December 11, 2009.

[7] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 499, "Syria and the Lebanese Opposition Against Lebanese President Michel Suleiman," February 19, 2009, Syria and the Lebanese Opposition Against Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.

[8] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 520, "On Eve of Lebanon's Parliamentary Elections, Struggle between March 14 Forces, Hizbullah-Headed Opposition Heats Up," June 2, 2009, On Eve of Lebanon's Parliamentary Elections, Struggle between March 14 Forces, Hizbullah-Headed Opposition Heats Up.

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