BEIRUT: Is Michel Aoun Walking Into A Trap?

By Michael Young, opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

Daily Star – Lebanon
Aug 2 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

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.