Thursday, August 2, 2007

Is Michel Aoun walking into a trap?

Is Michel Aoun walking into a trap?
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, August 02, 2007

All the signs are that the voting will go ahead in the Metn by-election this coming Sunday. However, partisans of both Michel Aoun and Amin Gemayel should be very careful. An Aoun victory would indeed be a setback for those who oppose Syrian efforts to return to Lebanon; but the election could potentially be a trap for Aoun, its practical outcome the general's political ruin and the destruction of Christian unity.

Whatever one thinks of Aoun, he has been a victim of two cutting blows coming from Damascus, and there is some question as to how we should read them. The first was the publication on a Syrian regime Web site, Champress, of alleged statements Aoun made in Berlin in which the general expressed sympathy for Syria. It turned out that Aoun did not utter the words in question, even if a compilation of his past remarks would show that he has said things not so very different.

The second blow was the announcement on Sunday by Ali Qanso, the head of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, that the party would back Aoun in the election. For anyone who knows the mood in the Metn and the antipathy felt for Syria and its utensils, Qanso's expression of comradeship could only harm Aoun in the eyes of many voters.

What's going on here? One interpretation could be that Syria is trying so maladroitly to appear like it is sinking Aoun, that the general will actually benefit from a contrary reaction of public compassion. That's possible. But another theory seems more credible, namely that Syria is looking to weaken Aoun, just as its main intention is to push the Christians into a destructive internecine crisis. Why? Perhaps to advance an alternative presidential contender at the right time, and to ensure that the Christians are so divided after the Metn election that they will be unable to agree on a different consensus candidate for the presidency.

An obvious question poses itself. If you are Michel Murr and the Tashnaq Party, doesn't recent Syrian behavior send a message that neither bloc will be penalized much for failing to fully support Aoun on Sunday? If Aoun is being set up for a fall, then Murr and the Armenians, by giving the general some votes, but not enough to win, may be there to implement that fall, even as they preserve their own interests. Murr will have saved his good ties with the Gemayels; the Armenians will have avoided a confrontation with March 14 and Saad Hariri, perhaps allowing them to negotiate a return of their candidates in Beirut in the next election; and both will have given Aoun enough votes so that he cannot blame them for his defeat.

Make sense? Let's take the speculation a bit further. If Aoun is to be eliminated, who do the Syrians really have in mind for the presidency? It's difficult to say, but if we go back to 1998, we might recall that Damascus, in turning Emile Lahoud into a president, was also advancing a broader political program: the militarization of the Lebanese regime. Part of the logic was that only the army and the security forces could contain the traditional political class - people like Rafik Hariri, Walid Jumblatt, and others. It's difficult to imagine that the Syrians have given up on that reasoning.

Let's also recall that recently Michel Murr floated the idea of bringing the army commander Michel Suleiman in as interim president for two years. Why would Murr do that, given that he is purportedly an ally of Michel Aoun, who sees Suleiman as a mortal rival? Could it be that Murr sensed something and that Syria's emerging candidate for the presidency is the army commander, now regarded by many Lebanese as something of a national champion? That doesn't mean that Suleiman is Syria's man - he has lost far too many soldiers fighting a Syrian-inspired project in Nahr al-Bared. However, it is defensible to have presidential ambitions, and none of the presidential candidates today, even those of March 14, would seriously contemplate being elected against Syria. The army commander's recent threat to resign if a second government were formed by the opposition suggested he was placing himself above the fray. As for his statement to the troops on Tuesday in Nahr al-Bared that the "salvation of the country will come from you," few things could have been clearer.

So as the Christians fight it out, Syria is figuratively taking us back to 1988, when Amin Gemayel left office. They start out with an unworkable demand - at the time the election of Suleiman Franjieh as president, today Aoun's candidacy. When unhappy Christians rally to block the option, the Syrians offer two other choices just as advantageous to them: Mikhail al-Daher or chaos, to paraphrase what the American envoy Richard Murphy supposedly told the Lebanese in encouraging Daher's election. Very soon, Suleiman will look like a superlative choice amid the ambient discord - both to the Lebanese and to an international community anxious about a vacuum at the top of the state. And if the Christians hinder that project, then what will follow is chaos.

The Metn by-election has already confirmed that Christians are more divided than ever before. In that sense, Aoun made a big mistake by pushing Camille Khoury into the ring in the first place. After all, what advantage was it for the general to highlight Christian differences when he could have affirmed that most Christians supported him on the basis of the 2005 elections? Whether Aoun and Gemayel compromise at the last moment is almost irrelevant at this stage. Avoiding a battle will lessen the damage, but already the Christians are at each other's throats, and the Syrians can only welcome this with their usual sense of humor.

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