BAABDA, Lebanon: If Lebanon can’t put out the fire next door in Syria it should at least make no attempt to stoke the popular uprising there, President Michel Sleiman said Wednesday, while lamenting that domestic political reform and National Dialogue remain largely stalled.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Daily Star, Sleiman lamented the inability to reconvene the National Dialogue process, with the March 14 and March 8 camps “wagering” on developments in the Syria crisis and therefore hesitant to commit themselves.
Sleiman, speaking at his office in Baabda Palace, said Lebanon’s policy of disassociating itself from the Syrian crisis had “earned praise” from a number of countries, and affirmed that no organized campaign of arming the Syrian opposition was under way inside Lebanon.
Commenting on the arrests of suspected arms smugglers in border areas during the course of the Syrian uprising, Sleiman said the incidents were of an “individual” nature and conducted for financial gain, not political objectives.
The president was adamant that despite the recent discovery of a subversive cell that planned to attack Lebanese Army targets, Al-Qaeda as an organization had no solid base of operations in the country.
“Al-Qaeda is an expression of extremist thought,” he said. “There might be a person here or there [influenced by this thought], but there is nothing in terms of a concentrated presence” with actual bases of operations, he said.
The fact that two members of the Army were detained in the case signaled the military’s cohesiveness, and not weakness – the public announcement of its exposure was a healthy sign that worrisome developments were not being covered up, he argued.
Lebanese officials’ paramount concern should be ensuring that their country does not become an arena for “settling scores” related to the Syria unrest.
“Any sane person should be anxious about the repercussions of developments in Syria on Lebanon, but any sane person should know how to protect [his country] ... The best thing would be to extinguish the blaze, but if we can’t, we should at least try to not stoke the flames,” Sleiman said.
“We’re concerned with seeing the situation in Syria stabilize, and transition to democracy. Therefore, this transition should be left to the Syrian people, and no one else,” Sleiman added.
The authorities’ performance in securing the border with Syria should be commended, he said, since no country in the world could boast of a 100-percent-effective record on this score.
As for the thousands of Syrians who have sought refuge in North Lebanon and other areas over the last year, Sleiman affirmed that Lebanon was doing its part to aid Syrians displaced by the crisis, acting in accord with human rights considerations and international law.
Beirut has received no official request to establish refugee camps for Syrians on its territory, according to
the president, who said he opposed such a move because of the possibility of seeing the camps become bases of organized military action against Damascus.
As for an upcoming Arab summit in Baghdad, Sleiman said Lebanon would attend, irrespective of whether Damascus received an invitation.
“Don’t you think it would be better [for Syria] if we do go?” he asked.
Meanwhile, the March 14 and March 8 camps, Sleiman said, “are wagering on [developments in] the Syrian situation, and delaying a return to the National Dialogue table.”
Sleiman reaffirmed his keenness to relaunch the process, to discuss a national defense strategy and the issue of weapons, but not solely those belonging to Hezbollah.
The president said the issue had three aspects: the weapons of the resistance, weapons in the country’s cities, and the earlier, unimplemented decision to remove arms from Palestinian refugee camps.
Asked about the lack of progress on the latter front, Sleiman said the matter required further discussion with Palestinian officials, since Lebanon did not favor using force to disarm Palestinians.
Meanwhile, the performance of the Cabinet of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, the president acknowledged, has “stalled” on various fronts, despite the government’s overall good track record on the security situation.
Sleiman highlighted the relative calm in the south since 2006, and said officials from U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon and the contributing countries to the peacekeeping mission were satisfied with the situation.
Despite a recent wave of kidnappings of civilians in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley, Sleiman stated emphatically that “no one has political cover” and that the culprits were being pursued aggressively by the authorities.
But the government has been beset by infighting on various political, economic and social issues. Sleiman insisted that the delay in moving ahead with civil service appointments was a case of some members of the government being “unconvinced” by the need to modernize and institutionalize the process, which relies on a government committee recommending three candidates and a given minister selecting one to be put to a Cabinet vote for approval.
The top post at the Higher Judicial Council, however, lies outside this mechanism, and remains a point of contention between Sleiman and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun.
A small number of civil service appointments have been made, Sleiman continued, and denied that only non-Christian posts were being filled amid the failure to agree over Christian slots.
“Actually, if you look at the vacancies, it’s 50-50 [Muslim-Christian],” he said.
Sleiman reiterated his stance that the government would show no lenience with individuals involved in trading in spoiled foodstuffs, despite the difficulty with appointing the country’s top judicial official.
“The [lower-level] courts do not have such vacancies,” he said, vowing that harsher fines and terms of imprisonment, and legal reform to tighten loopholes, would help stamp out the problem of illegal goods on the market.
Asked about the possibility of seeing Lebanese women married to foreigners secure the right to pass their nationality on to their children, the president indicated that a constitutional ban on aiding the permanent settlement of Palestinians worked against such a move.
He acknowledged that the majority of people who would be affected by such a move were not Palestinian, but objected to giving Lebanese nationality to any Palestinians before receiving an acknowledgement of their right to return to Palestine.
The possibility of seeing Lebanon institute civil marriage, he said, was also bleak, due to objections by the country’s religious authorities, “from all sides.”
But Sleiman was guardedly optimistic that political factions would manage to iron out an agreement on a new parliamentary election law, while avoiding the much-criticized small district option.
“The probability is about 80 to 90 percent that we won’t be using the 1960 election law” in next year’s scheduled parliamentary polls, he said.