December 19, 2006 Special Dispatch No. 1400

Two Versions on One Meeting: Lebanese Government and Pro-Hizbullah/Syrian Papers Reflect on Lebanese Prime Minister Al-Siniora's Meeting With Russian President Putin

December 19, 2006
Syria, Lebanon | Special Dispatch No. 1400

On December 15, 2006, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Al-Siniora met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. In its reporting on the meeting, the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal, which is affiliated with the March 14 Forces and the Lebanese government, claimed that the meeting was favorable to the Lebanese government position, and that Putin was determined to make all efforts to defend an independent, sovereign, and free Lebanon - because Moscow wants points of entry to the Middle East not only through the Syrian gate. Al-Mustaqbal further said that Putin would ask Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who is slated to visit Russia tomorrow, to offer productive help to stabilize Lebanon, and to agree to the international tribunal on the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri.

In its December 18, 2006 editorial, Al-Mustaqbal wrote that the honor accorded to PM Al-Siniora during his visit, and the timing of the visit itself, were a message to Damascus and Tehran. It added that Moscow realizes that Al-Assad is trying to escape the international court by escalating the situation in Lebanon, and that Iran is helping him to do so. The paper also said that the Kremlin was determined to support the creation of an international court and to defend Lebanon's sovereignty, freedom and independence.

A totally contradictory report on the meeting appeared today in the pro-Hizbullah/Syrian Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar. According to this report, President Putin advised PM Al-Siniora not to provoke the Lebanese opposition by approving the creation of an international court in its present version and authorities. The paper said that Putin hadmade it clear to Al-Siniora that the adoption of a resolution for the creation of an international court by the U.N. Security Council under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter would be an "alarm bell [heralding] civil war in Lebanon."

Moreover, according to Al-Akhbar, President Putin advised PM Al-Siniora that the assassination of former PM Al-Hariri "is not the first political assassination in the world."

The following are excerpts from the Al-Akhbar editorial.

Lebanese Opposition in Letter to Putin Prior to Meeting: Al-Siniora is Not PM of Lebanon

"While Prime Minister Fuad Al-Siniora was traveling to Moscow last Friday night, the Chargé d'Affaires of the Russian Embassy in Beirut was receiving a delegation of the [Lebanese] opposition, which presented him with a memorandum on behalf of [various] national parties, forces, and political figures. [The memorandum], addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin and to the Russian government, emphasized that Al-Siniora 'is currently not the Prime Minister of Lebanon, but rather the head of a government which has lost its credibility and constitutional legitimacy, and which represents only the point of view of the March 14 Forces.' The memorandum [further] asked Putin and his government to treat Al-Siniora's government accordingly.

"When [Siniora] arrived in the Russian capital, the [people] in charge of protocol in the Lebanese delegation contacted the protocol department... in the Kremlin, in order to find out the exact time of the meeting between Putin and Siniora. They were told that they would be contacted before noon on the next day, namely Saturday. At 9:00 in the morning on Saturday, Al-Siniora's people called the Kremlin again to ask about the time of the meeting with Putin, and were told that it would be at 16:00 in the afternoon...

"[In the hours before the meeting Al-Siniora arranged meetings with the patriarch of Moscow and Russia, Alexei II, and with the head of the Council of Muftis - first of all in order to pass the time until his meeting at the Kremlin, and secondly in order to inform these two religious personalities of his requests of Putin, on the assumption that they have some influence on Russian policy.]"

President Putin in the Meeting: "The International Court Might Constitute a Precedent That Will Be Repeated in Other Regions Such as Chechnya"

"In the Kremlin, Putin began [the meeting] by bringing up the memorandum of the [Lebanese] opposition. Siniora, in response, asked him to persuade Syria to stop its 'interference' in Lebanon, and to support the establishment of an international tribunal for the assassination of [former Lebanese] prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, as approved by his [Al-Siniora's] government.

"The Russian president advised him to settle the Syrian Lebanese crisis in a bilateral fashion, without relying on outside [forces], because that is in Lebanon's interest, and emphasized his willingness to play an active role in this regard. The Russian president also advised his Lebanese guest not to provoke the opposition by approving the [international] tribunal, explaining that as Russia sees it, this tribunal is not intended to discover the murderers of prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri but is [merely] an American instrument for exerting pressure on Syria and its allies. [Putin also explained] that Russia's call to modify the tribunal's charter is not meant to hinder the approval of the tribunal, but rather to facilitate it - because if [the charter] remains in its present format, [the tribunal] will not achieve the desired result. [Instead,] it will take a direction that is undesirable to Russia, and might constitute a precedent that will be repeated in other regions, such as Chechnya."

The Meeting Did Not Live Up to Al-Siniora's Expectations

"According to a knowledgeable source, the visit 'did not meet Al-Siniora's expectations,' and he consequently decided to return [to Lebanon] early, without stopping in Paris on the way...

"In light of this [unsatisfactory visit], the Lebanese majority decided to 'hold out' until after the holidays - until the new strategy of the American administration takes shape, based on the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Commission...- or until the publication of the results of the municipal elections and the election for the Assembly of Experts in Iran - [results that will] determine [Iran's] political direction in the upcoming stage..."

Accepting the International Tribunal Under Chapter 7 is an "Alarm Signal Heralding a Civil War in Lebanon"

"[The Russians] expected that Al-Siniora's visit, and a subsequent visit by President Assad, would lead to a Russian-sponsored agreement on a tribunal with the minimal [scope of authority] that would render it acceptable to the Lebanese institutions. However... the excessive emphasis [placed by] America and France on the tribunal led the Russians to tell Al-Siniora that Al-Hariri's assassination is not the first political assassination to occur in the world, and that [the resolution of] the conflict in the world in general, and in the region in particular, does not depend on discovering the alleged truth about this assassination. There are other elements in the region [that affect] the conflict - some that were there to begin with and others that are emerging as it unfolds. Therefore, Moscow informed Al-Siniora that it could not base its own position on the assumption that the [entire] conflict hinges on this crime. Instead, it is necessary to consider [all the] Arab, regional, and international interests.

"After [hearing] this Russian position, and after his talks in the Kremlin, Al-Siniora had no problem saying that Moscow 'wants justice to be done in Lebanon, and supports the position of the [Lebanese] majority in this matter.'"

In another report on the same day, Al-Akhbar brought the following quote, attributed to "knowledgeable sources:" "The Russian leadership alerted Al-Siniora to the fact that accepting the international tribunal under Chapter 7 is not guaranteed to produce [the desired] results, and is virtually an early alarm signal [heralding] a civil war in Lebanon."

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