Lebanese National Dialogue: Toning Down the Opposition
By: Nicolas Nassif
Published Tuesday, June 12, 2012
The 11th round of national dialogue held on Monday ended with an agreement on keeping the Syrian crisis out of Lebanese affairs, despite calls to the contrary by the March 14 forces.
The final statement of the national dialogue roundtable – that President Michel Suleiman insisted on dubbing as “the Baabda declaration” – was the best that could be reached through consensus and agreed upon by the participants.
With only a few minor amendments, the attendees endorsed the draft that Suleiman had worked on last Saturday and Sunday.
The final declaration was received with several contradictory reactions, mostly from those close to March 14. In their view, it did not even reach the minimum expected, neglecting issues such as Hezbollah’s weapons. It did not consider decisions that were taken prior to the dialogue or Palestinian weapons inside and outside the camps.
Nevertheless, the Baabda Declaration leads to several observations.
First, the president’s final draft was inspired by the results of bilateral meetings he held in the last few weeks with the dialogue participants, one by one.
He listened carefully to their concerns and trepidations, especially after the violent clashes that have erupted in the North and the Bekaa, which led to fears that the Syrian crisis could cause a civil war between the Lebanese.
The bilateral meetings focused on two questions proposed by the president. One was about sparing Lebanon from becoming a war zone. The other was about the deterrent role of the Lebanese army. The answers were positive, especially from former MP and opposition figure Fouad Siniora, so the president included them in the draft.
Second, in the first dialogue session since 4 November 2010, Suleiman did not see fit to begin from where the tenth session on 17 June 2010 ended, meaning the national defense strategy.
Since then, several significant and critical developments occurred in Lebanon and the region, tipping internal and regional balances, especially due to the Syrian situation. This caused sharp political and sectarian divisions in Lebanon.
In his 35-minute opening speech, Suleiman hinted at the issue when he spoke about the nation’s foundations being under serious threat for the last year and a half.
Yesterday’s session was limited to re-emphasizing basic national principles and reaching a consensus on them by the participants as a way of returning to the key question on the table – Hezbollah’s weapons and the national defense strategy.
Hezbollah’s arms are considered by the president as part of the national defense strategy, as opposed to the weapons proliferating in the cities and with Palestinians, while March 14 attempts to put them all in the same bundle.
Third, the draft of the final declaration was discussed item by item, with some minor amendments. The participants agreed by consensus as a signal of obligation to the ceiling set by the presidency and of a positive position on its approach to dealing with current internal problems influenced by the Syrian situation.
The most remarkable aspect of the consensus is that the opposition seems resigned to a status quo which contradicts its recent campaign for the ouster of the government. The Najib Mikati government remains, and they sit with its president and parties on the same table, putting the calls for its overthrow behind them.
Fourth, March 14 came out of yesterday’s dialogue after agreeing to reject the creation of a buffer zone in the north, smuggling weapons and fighters, and using Lebanon as a base against Syria. This is in addition to supporting the role of the army in all the country’s regions, including the north, as a deterrent force and not a mere spectator.
Siniora’s presence as the head of the opposition at the dialogue table reduced the significance of Saad Hariri’s absence. His side now shared the burden of agreeing on the final declaration. The absence of the head of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea did not make any difference.
Other than that, March 14 received a commitment to the 1989 Taif agreement and the implementation of its remaining items.
Siniora gave a sharp but unprovocative statement, following the first break, where he elaborated on his criticism of Mikati’s government and Hezbollah’s weapons. But the participants ultimately decided to agree on the president’s draft who had acknowledged Michel Aoun’s consideration towards him.
The agreement, without reservations, on a session to be held on June 25 – limited to starting the discussion with the national defence strategy – shows that the different sides of the dialogue are attempting to breathe life into it, contrary to the positions taken in the last few days. Both sides of the dialogue avoided trade-offs, since they know that strife and instability targets them both.
This was indicated by the president who spoke about an Arab cover for his initiative and several signs from the Saudis to activate the national dialogue. One example is the letter from Saudi king Abdullah to the Lebanese president last month, calling for the dialogue and lauding the government’s policy of disengagement from events in the region and especially Syria.
Another example was the meeting on June 1 in Jeddah between the president and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and Saad Hariri at a lunch held in Suleiman’s honor following his meeting with the king.
In spite of al-Faisal’s hyperbolic calls to arm the Syrian opposition, create a buffer zone, and overthrow Assad’s regime, he did not hesitate to encourage the dialogue in order to shield Lebanon from the events in Syria.
Although he disagreed with Suleiman on the timing of the dialogue and Mikati’s government, Hariri proposed something similar. Both were echoing what the president had heard from the Saudi monarch shortly beforehand.
Fifth is the significance of the final statement. A copy of the Baabda Declaration will be sent to the United Nations and the Arab League as a document of principles agreed upon by all sides.
The president had included this item in the draft prepared on the weekend. He discussed it with his assistants and decided to hold on to the suggestion to be able to produce a formal document approved by consensus and present it to the UN and the Arab League. There was a minor reservation by MP Suleiman Frangieh about sending the document to these two organizations, which he immediately dropped.
The consensus meant that there is an adherence to the Taif agreement as a national pact that the Lebanese abide to and nothing else. The neutrality mentioned in the final statement registered a Lebanese position that was never taken by Mikati’s government, except partially through the policy of disengagement.
But the declaration added the rejection of the buffer zone on the border with Syria and the smuggling of arms and fighters. It is the first time that March 14 comes to terms with such an issue after it took several contradictory positions, not the least of which is supporting the Syrian opposition.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.