Amin Gemayel to March 14: Keep Out of Syria

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The former president also appears unconvinced that Assad can be easily or speedily deposed. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Nicolas Nassif

Published Sunday, May 13, 2012

The former Lebanese president explains to Al-Akhbar his advocacy of a policy of “positive neutrality” which puts him at odds with his March 14 allies.

Former president Amin Gemayel continues to take issue with his allies in the March 14 coalition, as he has been doing for months, over their approach to developments in Syria.

When they went into the 2005 and 2009 elections together, he shared the slogans they raised at the time-- about the international probe into political assassinations, and later the international tribunal, and about Hezbollah’s weapons. These were Lebanese issues.

But unlike his partners – former premier Saad Hariri, Lebanese Forces (LF) leader Samir Geagea, and also Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) chief Walid Jumblatt – he opposes bringing a foreign issue, which does not concern Lebanon, into the heart of a contest which the Lebanese are running themselves, and in which they do not want outsiders to interfere: the 2013 polls.

Gemayel stands for complete separation between the goal of victory in the 2013 elections and regaining the parliamentary majority, and that of victory against President Bashar Assad in his power-struggle with the opposition in his country.

The former president also appears unconvinced that Assad can be easily or speedily deposed.

He further differs with his partners over the proposed renaming of the March 14 coalition as the Lebanese National Council. Rather, he wants the alliance to revive the so-called “Bristol gathering” framework for coordination between its component groups.

“There’s no agreement on the name Lebanese National Council, and I do not support it,” the former president explains. “We are not a national council, but a political movement, so we shouldn’t claim to be one”.

But he says he does not expect to fall out with his allies over his advocacy of “positive neutrality” toward Syria.

Gemayel first adopted this position some months ago, and elaborated on it at length in a lecture last week at the Issam Fares Center for Lebanon.

A central theme of the former president’s argument is that by adopting a neutral policy toward the revolution and crisis in Syria, and by avoiding interference in its internal affairs, Lebanon can deny Damascus the pretexts it has historically invoked to meddle in Lebanese affairs.

He makes a point, in this regard, of noting the relatively long period in the history of relations between the two countries, from the mid 1950s until the late 1960s, when successive Syria regimes (both before and after the rise of the Baath party) used to fault Lebanon for interfering in Syrian affairs. The country was regularly accused of sponsoring opponents of regimes in Damascus, protecting former coup leaders and providing them with a safe haven against prosecution, and sometimes of actively inciting and facilitating their meetings to plot one coup after another.

He recalls Syria’s reaction, its settling of scores against Lebanon, and how it toyed with the country’s fate and will during the years of tutelage.

He also bears in mind that no Syrian leader – either before or after the spate of military coups, including during the democratic era in the 1940s – has ever taken their eye off Lebanon. All continued insistently to see it as part of Syria. He likens this to the historical view successive Iraqi leaders have held of Kuwait as part of Iraq, culminating in the 1990 invasion.

While citing history and geography in support of his position on Syria, Gemayel draws on his personal experience, both positive and negative, of direct contacts during the years of his presidency with former president Hafez Assad, and of his volatile relationship with the then vice president, Abdel-Halim Khaddam.

He adds that “positive neutrality” is consistent with the long-held views of his Phalange party, and “part of a tradition we have maintained historically.”

For example: “We waged a fierce battle against President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1958. But that did not prevent Nasser from engaging Pierre Gemayel in dialogue the following year. He sent him a formal invitation and held talks with him, and even decorated him the Grand Order of the Nile, after all that happened between the two sides in 1958. Nasser turned the leaf at his own initiative and without any mediation,” he notes.

“It was the same with Yasser Arafat” he adds. “Pierre Gemayel was in constant touch with him even in the bleakest of circumstances. He visited us in our home and we had a long dialogue during the two-year (1975-6) war.”

Likewise, “with Syria, there were shuttle visits. Syrian officials would visit us and we – Pierre Gemayel, myself, Bashir and other Phalangists – would visit there to discuss the crisis and Lebanese-Syrian relations.”

With the Iranians, too, “there has been no break in dialogue between us since the Iranian period in Lebanon began in 1985. We remained in constant touch with the embassy.”

From this perspective, “whatever differences we may have, it is in Lebanon’s interest to adopt a rational rather than emotional approach to all problems that emerge – and especially if these crises are bigger than Lebanon, and are of an international and regional nature,” the former president reasons.

Otherwise, “we would risk turning all of us, as Lebanese, into victims of a conflict between rival alliances. Lebanon is a small county and does not have the military or economic capacity to bear that. Its internal diversity makes its position and options doubly delicate. That is why I called for, and still call for, positive neutrality.”

Gemayel says he fears a protracted period of “anarchy and instability” has begun in Syria. “Someone who arrived from there recently told me that Assad’s regime is in control in the daytime and the opposition is in control at night,” he recounts. “That is a sign that the bloody crisis will be prolonged. It’s as if we are seeing a balance of terror between the two sides, with neither of them capable of resolving it to their advantage against the other. Add to that the fact that the major powers do not want to intervene militarily as they did in Libya.”

He holds the regime primarily to blame for this state of affairs. “The legitimacy of the Syrian regime was established by repression, stifling freedoms, preventing the emergence of political parties, the security regime, and suspending political life,” he states. “It is natural that this should lead to this buildup of anger in the popular revolution we have seen there for more than a year.”

But his principal concern is about the possible impact on Lebanon. “I fear about the repercussions of what is happening against Lebanon, which is strongly affected by Syria, especially in circumstances like these,” he says. “This is due to many reasons, including the presence of hundreds of thousands of Syrian workers who could transfer the conflict to Lebanon, and the sharp divisions between Lebanese supporters and opponents of Assad’s regime. What would happen if this conflict, in all its ferocity, were to be transferred to the Lebanese arena?”

Gemayel recalls that “we experienced something similar in the early 1970s, when the battle was over the Palestinian resistance -- who was with it, and who was against it. Do the Lebanese people really want to repeat that experience? Who would stand to benefit?”

Yet Gemayel sees no contradiction between his stand on Syria and those taken by Hariri, Geagea and Jumblatt. He says none of them have ever raised the issue with him as a bone of contention, “because we all know each other. They know us well. Our alliance is based on everyone knowing the views and attitudes of the other. That enriches March 14...”

He elaborates: “We are all of the view that the regime in Syria must change, that freedom and democracy must be restored to that country after a long absence, and that the policy pursued by the Syrian-Iranian axis is damaging to Lebanon’s interests and stability. The difference between us and our allies lies in details and approach. That which unites us is stronger than that which divides us.”

What Gemayel opposes is for the Syrian crisis and the “downfall of the regime” slogan to be raised in the 2013 election campaign, as Hariri, Jumblatt and Geagea have done.

“I certainly do not support this slogan for the parliamentary elections,” he affirms. “I want a ‘Lebanon first’ slogan and a focus on Lebanese affairs... Can we afford to ignore the longstanding problems of social security, electricity, healthcare, unemployment, wages, education, old age, inflation, the state of the roads, rampant corruption, emigration, and the other innumerable crises? We have more than enough of them to drawn on for our election slogans.”

Moreover, he adds. “as a Christian from Mount Lebanon, slogans about foreign issues do not attract or appeal to me. I am more concerned about domestic affairs than the Iranian nuclear issue and the Syrian revolution. There may be something specific about the Future Movement that prompts it to take a stand in support of the revolution in Syria, and use the slogan to strengthen loyalties. I do not want to get into that. But the Syrian revolution is certainly not a key concern for Christians, nor an issue that matters in the way that the development of their regions does, or stopping their emigration, or ensuring them a safe and decent life.”

He stresses that his opposition to turning Syria into an issue at the 2013 elections also extends to “using the Syrian revolution as a pretext to postpone the elections”. On both counts, “my position is clear. Lebanon must be kept out of the region’s crises and alliances as much as we can.”

But Gemayel declines to spell out his views on the election law under which the polls should be held, and over which his allies are sharply divided. Hariri and Jumblatt both oppose the proposed proportional representation law and want to stick to the 2008 election law. Geagea rejects the 2008 law and demands a different framework.

Gemayel explains: “There needs to be a minimum consensus of support for the election law among the political forces. It must not be tailored to suit one group at the expense of another. That is why we are in constant consultation about it, in the Bkerke committee and outside it, and in meetings with our allies and friends in the Future Movement and PSP. It is important that we are in accord with our allies, and this prompts us to support the Future Movement and the PSP in their rejection of the law. We must search for another solution.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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