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French Version

March 14 leaders doubt Syria is serious about forging new ties

Senior Lebanese politicians voiced mixed reactions Monday to the announcement that Syria and Lebanon have agreed to establish formal diplomatic relations, with some leaders from the March 14 coalition voicing skepticism about Damascus' intentions.

The announcement was made Sunday after a meeting between Lebanese President Michel Sleiman and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad in Paris, where the two leaders were participating in the Mediterranean Union summit. Sleiman is due to return to Beirut on Tuesday, one day ahead of the new cabinet's inaugural meeting which will be headed by the president at the Presidential Palace.

Sleiman attended on Monday France's Bastille Day ceremony along with Assad and the leaders of more than 40 other states that participated in the summit on Sunday.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem is expected to visit Beirut in the coming days to deliver an invitation for Sleiman to visit Damascus.

But Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt said Monday he doubted Syria's seriousness in establishing diplomatic ties with Lebanon.

In his regular commentary to his party's Al-Anbaa weekly, Jumblatt criticized Syria for raising the issue of establishing diplomatic relations with Lebanon as if it were a technical and not a political matter.

Jumblatt also questioned how the Syrian regime would be held accountable if it wasted time and delayed the establishing of diplomatic ties with Lebanon.

The PSP leader also said hoped that the formation of the new government would pave the way to a calm discussion on the issue of agreeing on a defense strategy for Lebanon.

"The most important of all is that all political discussions can now take place within the state's constitutional institutions," he said.

Echoing Jumblatt, Lebanese Forces (LF) leader Samir Geagea said Syria's pledge at the Mediterranean Union summit "lacked seriousness."

"Anyway, we ought to wait and see how things will come about ... we need to see practical measures toward establishing diplomatic ties between Beirut and Damascus," he said.

Geagea was speaking after meeting with the newly appointed LF ministers in the unity Cabinet, Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar and Environment Minister Antoine Karam. Geagea said that the LF's main mission in the new government was to find ways to facilitate the lives of people in Lebanon.

"We all know that the new Cabinet includes different parties that have contradicting political views, but this should not be used as a pretext for not allowing the different ministries to function properly, thus facilitating the lives of people," he said.

The LF boss recommended adopting Sleiman's inaugural address as the ministerial program of the new government.

"The government can adopt Sleiman's speech and add other relevant issues that the president did not mention," he said.

For his part, Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun welcomed the thaw between Lebanon and Syria.

"We were the first to demand such a relationship between Beirut and Damascus ... it took both states a long time to agree on establishing diplomatic relations, but late is better than never," Aoun said after a meeting of his Reform and Change bloc at his residence in Rabieh.

Aoun said he hoped that the performance of the ministers affiliated to the Reform and Change bloc would contribute to improving the performance of the entire cabinet.

He added that he expected that the Cabinet will not face problems drafting its ministerial program. "There will be no disagreements about the ministerial program, particularly regarding the issue of the resistance," he said, referring to the ongoing debate on Hizbullah's weapons.

Aoun also voiced agreement with remarks made by Sleiman, who told reporters in Paris on Sunday that the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms should be liberated militarily if diplomatic means fail to achieve an Israeli withdrawal from the territory,

"Diplomacy is indeed the best way to liberate the Shebaa Farms, but if diplomatic means fail to achieve our desired goal, we should resort to arms," Aoun said, echoing Sleiman's position.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Elias Murr told reporters after visiting Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri on Monday that Lebanon "cannot live at odds with Syria."

Murr praised the meetings between Sleiman and Assad in Paris and said that both Lebanon and Syria were deeply in need of opening a new page of ties.

"What happened in Paris cannot be but in the interest of both Beirut and Damascus," he said.

Also on Monday, the Phalange Party of former President Amine Gemayel issued a statement saying described the meetings between Sleiman and Assad as a positive step toward improving bilateral ties.

For his part, newly appointed Minister of State Nassib Lahoud, leader of the Democratic Renewal Movement, said the Paris meetings were a good step toward "correcting Lebanese-Syrian relations, which should be based on mutual respect for the sovereignty of both states." Separately, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora discussed the "financial situation" with newly appointed Finance Minister Mohammad Shattah.

Siniora also received at the Grand Serail Minister of State for Administrative Development Ibrahim Shamseddine and Minister of State Jean Hogassapian.

The premier also received a phone call from his Kuwaiti counterpart, Sheikh Nasser Mohammad al-Ahmad al-Sabbah, who congratulated him on the formation of the new Cabinet.

Beirut 15-07-2008
The Daily Star

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