Assad ally close to presidency in Lebanon

Saudi Arabia backs deal that would make ally of Bashar al Assad president of Lebanon

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Lebanese Maronite Christian politician and leader of the Marada movement Suleiman Franjieh gestures upon his arrival at the parliament building in Beirut, in this April 23, 2014

A brand new power-sharing plan is currently under spotlight in troubled Lebanon. A plan that recently enjoys the backing of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Sunni regional rival, a plan that would make a family friend of Syrian regime president Bashar al Assad, president of Lebanon.

Maronite Christian politician Suleiman Franjieh is the candidate pushed forward for presidency.

Saudi Arabia voiced its support for the plan that would finally appoint a president for Lebanon, a country crippled with internal division and lately spent over 18 months without a president in office. Saudi Arabia said on Thursday that it hopes the plan would take effect within weeks.

Saad al Hariri, a Saudi backed Lebanese Sunni politician is the one who orchestrated the plan. Hariri, who once was Lebanon’s prime minister, will reprise his past position in the new plan that would make Franjieh president.

Saad Hariri is the son of well renowned and respected Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in February 2005. Hariri has not publicly announced his initiative, but it has been widely discussed by politicians in Lebanon.

"God willing we will see ... this vacuum filled, thanks to good efforts in Lebanon" around the end of this year, said Ali Awad Asiri, the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, addressing the absence of a president in Lebanon.

Lebanon's Kataeb Party leader Sami Gemayel (L) meets with Saudi Arabia ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Asiri in Bikfaya, Mount Lebanon, December 3, 2015.

"We bless this initiative, and we are keen to see this presidential vacuum filled," he said. He was speaking in a televised news conference after meeting officials of one of Lebanon's main Christian parties, the Kataeb.

Sulieman Franjieh, the name that is strongly emerging in frequent instances in the Lebanese political arena, was born in October 1965, and is the grandson of the late Lebanese President Suleiman Franjieh, whose first name he also carries.

The late President Suleiman Franjieh Sr. used to take his grandson Suleiman with him on trips to Damascus to visit his friend, the late Syrian President Hafez al Assad. Young Franjieh developed a close friendship with the Assad family since then, and used to hunt with Bashar al Assad's older brother Bassel, who died in a 1994 car crash.

Franjieh was orphaned in 1978 when a rival Maronite Christian militia attacked his family home in northern Lebanon, killing his father, mother, and three year old sister.

Bashar al Assad regime in Syria have plunged the neighbouring country in a dire conflict, in which 250,000 people died, mostly by the regime, and millions were displaced internally and externally. Cross over of violence was seen in Lebanon since the start of the violence in March 2011.

Franjieh said his candidacy was not yet official but he was waiting for Hariri to formally endorse it.

“My nomination will not become official until the moment Hariri is 100% honest in his support for me and that he is serious in everything he said,” Franjieh said.

Saad Hariri spoke at the Hague, where a tribunal has started hearings into the killing of his father, Rafik. January 2014

"We have an historical opportunity. Whoever has another (plan) for Lebanon, they should present it, but if we miss this chance today, I fear we will go into a worse phase than we're in," said Franjieh to Lebanon's National News Agency.

What makes the plan special

With all the proxy conflicts between the regions largest rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Lebanon poses as a rare instance where both parties can potentially reach an agreement.

In Syria, Saudi Arabia is a staunch critic of Assad regime, whereas Iran has been backing up his brutal regime for over 4 years. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia began a large scale military campaign in March 2015, and led a coalition of the region’s major Sunni powers to limit the authorities of Iranian backed Houthi rebels.

On the other hand in Lebanon, Saudi backed, Hariri’s March 14 coalition plan is slowly gaining acceptance among rival political powers. Sunni led March 14 coalition was always opposed to Syrian influence in Lebanon.

March 14 coalition is traditionally in rivalry with March 8 coalition, which is dominated by the Iranian-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah. And the plan could fulfill something otherwise unprecedented in Lebanon, bring both sides together.

But the possibility of the deal failing altogether still stands, due to local rivalries.

Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil meets with Ali Akbar Velayati (R), Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei top adviser on international affairs, in Beirut December 1, 2015. 

Top adviser to Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati, visited Lebanon this week and said he hoped to see the election of a president "in the immediate future."

How can the plan serve Lebanon

“It is my duty to reassure the other camp if they have concerns and as president, I would work on a law (for parliamentary elections) that would ensure national balance and real representation for all sects,” said Frenjieh after meeting with the head of Lebanon's Maronite Christian community, Patriarch Beshara al Rai.

Although winning over other Maronite politicians who are seeking the presidency is considered a tremendous challenge, politicians like Michel Aoun, who is an ally of Hezbollah, and Samir Geagea, who is still officially a March 14 presidential candidate. Patriarch Beshara al Rai’s meeting with Frenjieh can be considered successful.

"Thank God there is an initiative, and one which has value. The initiative is serious, and so I say that the door is open to all sides that are able to talk responsibly and reach the most fitting solution," said the Maroonite Patriarch, shortly before meeting Franjieh.

Saad Hariri recently spoke in France after a meeting with President Francois Hollande, and said there was "great hope" of ending the current standstill, if rival politicians agree on who should fill the presidency.

Asked whether the Franjieh proposal was still valid given the March 14 movement has other candidates, Hariri said: "There are discussions under way and the climate is positive, God willing, and the coming days will show Lebanon to be in very good shape."

A collectively agreed upon president now in Lebanon can bring life to many paralysed government institutions, stalled as a result of political division and a rapidly growing garbage disposal problem that quickly crippled Beirut.

Water bottles are gathered to be recycled near a statue in Martyrs' Square in Beirut, Lebanon August 25, 2015.

The shutting down in July of the capital's main landfill site Naameh, which only had the capacity to receive 2 million tons of waste but had instead taken in over 15 million tons, caused huge amounts of rubbish to mount across Beirut.

Garbage has since been been piling up in the streets, triggering anti-government protests and raising health concerns. Worries were also growing over contamination should the crisis linger into the upcoming rainy season.

Protests organised by the “You Stink” movement brought thousands from all walks of life onto the streets of Beirut demanding the government solve the problem immediately.

A woman covers her nose as she walks past a temporary dump that was set on fire by unknown culprits on Wednesday in Jounieh, north of Beirut November 26, 2015.


TRTWorld and agencies