15 October 2004

Initially, the Secretary General report on the implementation of resolution 1559 on Lebanon (and Syria) was received with cautious welcome by all sides. Then, while President Lahoud, Prime Minister Hariri and Deputy Prime Minister Fares kept a proper diplomatic approach, conflicting parties started to criticize it. The most prominent attack came from An-Nahar publisher and dean of Lebanese journalists Ghassan Tueni. The former Permanent Representative to the U.N. headlined his article "A mountain delivers a mouse!" The U.N., the "mountain of international legitimacy," he said, was expected to deliver a much clearer and more courageous report than the "mouse" finally produced by Annan. Those supporting Syrian presence were not satisfied either. Minister of State A.R. Murad who represents the Bakaa region adjacent to Syria thought that the pressure aimed at "destroying our will and we have to unite in order to face what may be coming with 1559 and other possible resolutions. Planning Minister Pekradouni who took the presidency of the Phallauge party to a pro-Syrian position announced that "pressures continue through Kofi Annan's report." The sharpest and most elaborate analysis came from Joseph Samaha, the highly regarded editor of daily Al-Safir. The Lebanese official position, he said, wavered between what was "fair" (and could be implemented) and "bad" (which will have to be diluted). After indicating that the report clarified that foreign troops meant Syrians and militias meant Hezbullah, Annan also stated that no withdrawal was observed, no time table received, and thus could not confirm that any of the requirements by the resolution were implemented. Similarly, Annan reflected the Lebanese and Syrian positions as conveyed to him. There were two concepts, the writer went on, regardless of the report's contents. Annan's concept was that Lebanon has finished its conflict with Israel and therefore had to retrieve its sovereignty, internally from Hezbullah and Syria and externally from Syria. Accordingly, the Lebanese situation was not natural and President Lahoud's extension reflected that unnatural situation. The official Lebanese and Syrian concept was that Lebanon is linked with the crises of the region and thus defined its position through a specific link with Syria. These two different concepts reflected ongoing schisms within Lebanon. The extension for Lahoud diminishes before a wider political difference. While it is clear what the forces behind Beirut and Damascus want, it was not clear whether the Lebanese opposition groups are united behind the Annan concept. Such clarity was important because the opposition will do itself a disfavour if it continued to claim there was a battle between Annan and Lahoud and that there was no problem except the President's extension. It cannot parrot a view that we should not fight with the international organization. Apparently, one difference between Annan and the Lebanese/Syrian position is not on principle but in timing. What Annan seems to seek is to separate Lebanon from the overall crisis of the region in a theatre that extends to Iraq and Iran. Are Lebanese opposition groups supportive of that concept, which may eventually get out of the Secretary General's control into more powerful hands? The writer concluded by suggesting that internal groups had to indicate where they stood, not from the content of the report but from its underlying premise.

In brief, a general comment is that the U.N. press mechanism -- the Spokesman's and DPI -- handled issuing the report effectively. It was quick to have the full report circulated in Lebanon before it was selectively leaked through a news agency. The Secretary General's position was therefore clear. Varied comments on it are part of the process. Only the feedback to Headquarters should be done more accurately. You can't handle a problem if you didn't know it was there.

A tactical error may have been done by a U.N. Press Officer in Beirut when he tried to preempt adverse reactions by offering to be interviewed by LBCTV one day after the report was issued. Against a backdrop of U.N. wallpaper Nejib Friji gave "personal advice" to the Lebanese hinting that he had obtained a favourable Syrian response. Two days later, adverse comments started flowing; and his presumed Syrian source was out of the government. Damascus responded officially by criticizing the report accusing it of raising issues beyond the mandate of the Secretary General's whom, it claimed, was interfering in the internal affairs of two member states. The Lebanese official response was similarly, though cautiously, critical. Incidentally, there is an often photographed Special Representative of the Secretary General in Lebanon. Where did Steffan Demistura disappear?