Syria ends talks with France over Lebanon crisis

Move comes three days after Sarkozy declared France would cut ties with Damascus.

syrian fm moallem 298.88 (photo credit:)
syrian fm moallem 298.88
(photo credit: )
Syria has decided to stop talks with France over finding a solution to end Lebanon's presidential vote deadlock, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Wednesday. The measure - a tit-for-tat by Damascus just three days after French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he was ending talks with Syria over the Lebanese deadlock - not only further dents long-standing ties between France and Syria, but also indicates that Lebanon's crisis is nowhere near a quick resolution. "Syria has decided to stop Syrian-French cooperation to solve the Lebanese crisis," al-Moallem said at a news conference in Damascus. "It seems that the French have wanted to hold us responsible for their failure to convince the (anti-Syrian Lebanese parliamentary) majority to accept a French plan" for a solution. Al-Moallem also accused the United States of obstructing a solution to the deadlock. Lebanon's Western-backed government and pro-Syrian opposition have been unable to break a deadlock over filling the presidential post, left vacant after pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud's term ended on Nov. 23 with no successor chosen. To elect a successor, the Lebanese parliament must convene but the pro-Syria opposition has been boycotting repeatedly scheduled assembly sessions, leaving the parliament short of a two-thirds quorum needed for the vote. Many Western countries and Lebanon's anti-Syrian parliamentary majority have accused Damascus of interfering in the process - a claim Syria denies. Sarkozy, during talks in Cairo on Sunday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said France wouldn't talk with Syria until Damascus showed a willingness to let Lebanon elect a new president. At the time, Mubarak also urged Syria to exert influence on its allies in Lebanon's opposition to facilitate the election of a Lebanese president. France, Lebanon's former colonial ruler, has led the international effort to mediate between feuding Lebanese politicians and has consistently implored the Syrians to cooperate. Sarkozy spoke by telephone with Syrian President Bashar Assad as recently as the beginning of December to urge him to "facilitate" the Lebanese vote. Al-Moallem said Syria and France have agreed from the beginning that a solution in Lebanon should be based on a "consensus" among rival factions - one that includes the election of a "consensus" president, a national unity government, a new electoral law and neutralizing the US role in Lebanon which, he said, "obstructs a national Lebanese reconciliation." Syria was surprised by Sarkozy's statement "despite the efforts Syria has exerted over the past few weeks ... and despite the flexibility shown by the opposition to facilitate reaching a consensus," al-Moallem said. "The American interference in Lebanon is clear-cut, with deep effects," he said. The remark was an allusion to US President George W. Bush's remarks last month that he has lost patience with Assad, who the American leader said was "interfering in Lebanese politics." Bush also for the first time openly urged Lebanon's anti-Syrian lawmakers to push through their own choice for president if necessary, to resolve the long deadlock that has become Lebanon's worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. This likely additionally irked the Syrians. Al-Moallem said Syria was offered political "incentives" - such as a visit by the French president to Damascus - if it exerted pressure on the Lebanese opposition to facilitate the presidential vote. "But Syria refused to pressure the opposition. We know that the (Lebanese) opposition will not accept pressure from anyone," he said. The Syrian minister appealed to rival Lebanese factions to resume dialogue to reach "a consensus solution, away from any foreign interference." Lebanese parliament majority and the opposition have agreed to back Army Commander Gen. Michel Suleiman as a compromise presidential candidate, but the process has doubly been complicated - by the fact that parliament has not convened, despite 11 scheduled sessions since September, and also because the opposition has now come up with new conditions, asking that for them to participate in the parliament vote, the ruling majority must agree to a new unity government that would give opposition veto power over major decisions. Syria effectively controlled Lebanon for almost three decades but was forced to withdraw its troops in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.