Damascus offers more than just falafel - when General Michel Aoun was there two weeks ago, he went for the good ice cream. But Aun wasn't there to lick only ice cream. This was the culmination of the rollercoaster ride the 73-year-old Christian Lebanese general launched the moment he returned to Lebanon in May 2005, after Syrian forces withdrew. At that time, the exiled chief of staff and former prime minister's return was regarded as a personal closing of accounts with Syria.
This account began with the Lebanese Civil War, which raged from 1975 until 1990, when Aoun was forced to surrender by a Syrian attack on his enclave in western Beirut. He sought asylum at the French Embassy, and from there was exiled to Paris. At the time Aoun accused then-U.S. president, the elder George Bush, of having handed over Lebanon to Syria because he needed Damascus' cooperation in the first Gulf War. Now the younger Bush is handling the account with Syria, and Aoun has become its ally.
The moment he arrived in Paris, Aoun started to establish a "command headquarters" for his loyalists and for the opponents of Syria in Lebanon. For Lebanese political activists passing through Paris, Aoun's home was an obligatory stop. Aoun also established an intelligence network inside Lebanon and gained considerable support. In a 1995 Lebanese public opinion poll, Shi'ite respondents said they admired Aoun even more than Shi'ite leader Nabih Beri. Syria considered to regard Aoun as a major enemy and several thousand of his supporters were arrested - as Aoun had expected - by the Syrian security forces.
This was the case until the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. The ensuing protests and international pressure forced Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. Aoun saw this as a historic opportunity not only to return to his country, but also to politics and perhaps the presidency as well. In the town of Rabiya, north of Beirut, he established splendid headquarters with a private army, as is the norm for senior Lebanese politicians, adopted the manner of a senior military commander, inspecting his troops' weapons each morning and parading his military vehicles while making intricate political calculations - which led him into the arms of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah.
This partnership between the Shi'ite militia leader and the Christian general has served them - and Syria - well. It enabled Nasrallah to say he objected to the government of the popular Fouad Siniora not due to sectarian or religious motives - after all, his ally Aoun is Christian. Aoun, for his part, assured himself political support that could lead to the presidency. Syria could not have wished for a more useful partnership. Via Aoun, Syria could undermine the claim that "all" Lebanese Christians oppose Syria, deny its old enemy the Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir the role of exclusive Christian representative, and force the Siniora government to acknowledge that not all Christians supported it.
Aoun, who had been a victim of Syria and the Lebanese Christian pillar of fire against the Syrian invasion, became Syria's front against the Siniora government. When he visited Damascus two weeks ago, with the pomp and circumstance Syria reserves for those it seeks to honor, he was asked whether he considered Syria's hospitality as an apology for its past sins. Aoun replied that Lebanon's citizens should demand an apology from their own government before demanding an apology from Syria.
In Lebanon, his remarks were understood to mean that the Lebanese should apologize for their attitude toward Syria. In any case, the embraces and the kisses in Damascus, the extensive media coverage with President Bashar Assad and Aoun's statements are the first public expressions of next summer's election campaign.
These may be the most important elections in Lebanon's history, because if Hezbollah's predictions are true, they may put Hezbollah and its partners, including Aoun, in charge of the country, and let Syria reclaim Lebanon, its greatest political loss.
Symbol of opposition to Syria
Jubran Tueni was murdered three years ago. He was not the only Lebanese journalist killed in the past three years who had suspected that Syria was responsible for the assassination of Hariri and other Lebanese public figures. Half a year before Tueni was murdered, journalist Sami Kassir was assassinated, and journalist and television presenter May Chidiak lost an arm and a leg in a foiled assassination attempt.
Tueni, however, was a symbol of opposition to Syria. As editor of the important An-Nahar newspaper, he allowed Syrian oppositionists to publish articles harshly critical of the Syrian regime, and ran the first Syrian intellectuals' petition demanding Assad adopt the principles of democracy and allow freedom of speech. Tueni waged a consistent journalistic war not only against the Syrian army's presence in Lebanon, especially after Israel withdrew in May 2000, but also against Hezbollah.
An-Nahar and Al-Mustaqbal, the Hariri family's newspaper and television station, have since then become the anchors of Lebanese opposition to Syria. When it comes to enemies, the Syrian regime makes no distinction between an enemy who wields a weapon and an enemy who wields a pen. Syria acted, and brutally.
This February will mark four years since Hariri's murder, and there is still no international indictment naming the Syrian figures believed responsible for the assassination of Lebanese public figures, and no international court has been established. Apparently, this does not trouble the United Nations officials responsible for the issue.
In Beirut a central square has already been named after Samir Kassir, and the International Association of Journalists awards an annual Jubran Tueni prize for courageous writing.
But these are no substitute for trying suspects, and it is doubtful that a trial will ever be held. When thoughts of dialogue with Iran are stirring, when Syria is an interlocutor of Israel and perhaps soon of the United States as well, and when Lebanese elections are approaching in six months, who feels like trying Bashar's regime?
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