The WikiLebanon Files (Part II): March 2005 – Berri, Larsen, And Syrian Withdrawal

Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, meets U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, Saturday, March 12, 2005.  AP

Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, meets U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, Saturday, March 12, 2005. AP

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the March 8 and 14 demonstrations. These two events eventually led to the creation of Lebanon’s two mainstream coalitions, and set the rules of the political game for the next 10 years. This is why this month I will focus on two cables.

The first one is about Speaker Berri telling the U.S. ambassador, on March 9, 5 days before the 14 March rally and only one day after the March 8 rally, that “Syria will redeploy its forces to the Biqa’ Valley, starting possibly as soon as March 9″, and that Hezbollah would eventually fill the vacuum.

The second cable is a conversation between French officials and the U.N. envoy Terje Rod-Larsen (Remember him?). I am publishing it because Larsen mentions that “Syria may seek to sow inter-communal violence by targetting Lebanon’s pro-Syria camp, including a possible Nasrallah assassination.


2005 March 9, 16:43 (Wednesday)
— Not Assigned —
1. (C) Nabih Berri, Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and leader of the Shia Amal Movement, assured the Ambassador that Syrian forces would redeploy to the Biqa’ Valley in short order and complete their withdrawal to Syria within months. Looking on the bright side, Berri claimed that Syria’s departure will give its Lebanese allies more freedom of maneuver. On the other hand, he gloomily conceded that his Amal Movement’s rival for leadership of Lebanon’s Shia community, Hizballah, may well steal the show (as Hizballah did later that same day, March 8, in a huge downtown rally). Berri is emphatically for a strong “national unity government,” and frustrated by the opposition’s lack of interest in joining. Any further delay in forming a government makes a delay of parliamentary elections almost certain, Berri said. End summary.
Syrian withdrawal — they mean it, Berri says
2. (C) Berri was laconic at first when called on by the Ambassador and poloff on March 8 at Berri’s Beirut residence. The Ambassador asked about the March 7 meeting in Damascus between Syrian President Asad and Lebanese President Lahoud, whom Berri accompanied. “Good, no problem,” Berri replied, turning away to stare at a point in space, lips pursed, hands clasped over his knee. Was he confident the Syrians would commit to full withdrawal? “No problem,” Berri repeated, pronouncing the two words slowly and exactly.
3. (C) “I’m sure of one thing,” Berri told the Ambassador. That is that Syria will redeploy its forces to the Biqa’ Valley, starting possibly as soon as March 9. Following that, UN Special Envoy Terje-Roed Larsen would return to the region and arrive at a “more than positive solution” for full Syrian withdrawal.
4. (C) Berri expressed frustration with criticism made by Lebanese oppositionists, among others, of the results of the March 7 Damascus meeting, particularly the fact that it did not announce a timetable for full withdrawal. The plan agreed on by Asad and Lahoud would apply the Ta’if Agreement “exactly,” and “in the way of (UNSCR) 1559” (which Berri admitted he opposed, but “in a democratic way”). All Roed-Larsen had to do was arrange a “marriage” between the Ta’if Agreement and UNSCR 1559, and then he could extract a timetable from the Syrians.
5. (C) Berri expressed certainty not only that Syrian forces would redeploy to the Biqa’ quickly, but also that they would start to withdraw across the Syrian border before April. Full withdrawal would be completed not within a year, but within months. Queried by the Ambassador, Berri said that all Syrian intelligence personnel would be withdrawn as well.
6. (C) Berri insisted that this was not a matter of all talk and no action. President Asad had made clear his intent about complying with UNSCR 1559. The SARG would obey any demands made on it by Roed-Larsen’s forthcoming report. The reason the SARG was so intent on full withdrawal was that it did not want to be responsible for implementation of the other provisions of UNSCR 1559, such as disarmament and disbandment of militias.
7. (C) Berri said that, faced with the disarmament of Hizballah, Asad could say it was “not my business.” Also, the SARG wanted to be able to claim credit for implementing UNSCR 1559. That way, it could make a stronger case for implementation of other Security Council resolutions dealing with the Middle East.
With Syria leaving, it’s Nasrallah’s show
8. (C) Asked by the Ambassador about the massive rally in central Beirut being organized at that moment by Hizballah, Berri gloomily said of his rival for leadership of the Shia community, Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, that “it is his case now.” With the Syrians withdrawing from Lebanon, Nasrallah had “come to the front.” No one could claim that the rally was a “Syrian project,” claimed Berri.
9. (C) Berri said he was trying hard to keep people “off the streets” and minimize the possibility of violence in the current tense atmosphere. He noted reports of violent incidents following Asad’s March 5 speech, provoked by individuals in vehicles flying flags of Berri’s Amal Movement and driving through pro-opposition neighborhoods. None of the perpetrators were Amal members, he said — in one case, they had been Palestinians. “Many people want to make trouble,” he said. Lebanon was not united, it had too many sects, it was — in a negative metaphor increasingly favored by loyalists — “not Ukraine.”
10. (C) The Ambassador suggested that it was a positive sign that Lebanese, whether opposition or loyalist, were all marching under the same flag, the Lebanese national flag. Their confessional identify was not determining their stance on the question of the Syrian presence. Berri, still gloomy, answered that it was “apparently” good for the Lebanese to be under one flag. The problem was that “everyone sees their own color in the flag.” The Lebanese remained “a divided people.”
11. (C) Perhaps indicative of his bad mood, Berri proceeded to instruct the Ambassador on points that, while arguably true, were irrelevant. If Hariri had not been assassinated, Berri asserted, the Sunni community would not have joined the opposition. If the Syrians are proven innocent of Hariri’s assassination, the Sunnis will “change in one day.” Druze leader Walid Jumblatt subscribes to the Ta’if Agreement but not UNSCR 1559; he is therefore in favor of the Syrians remaining in the Biqa’ Valley (comment: while the first point is true, the second is clearly not).
Politics without Syria
12. (C) With the Syrians gone, Berri claimed, Syria’s Lebanese allies would be more free to do what they want. For example, Berri expected more elements on the loyalist side (Hizballah, President Lahoud) to move closer to his original position on the electoral law. That is, they would support large electoral districts drawn along the lines of the “mohafazah” administrative unit, rather than the smaller “qada.” Berri himself had supported the “qada” plan only because of Syrian pressure to go along with a supposed deal between Damascus and the Maronite Patriarch.
13. (C) Another example: Berri and his Amal Movement could now take full credit from their constituents in return for largesse. Previously, they had often faced constituents suspicious that the real donor of state-funded projects and services was “the ally,” i.e., Damascus, not Berri and Amal. “We (the Amal Movement) paid the price sometimes!”
Forming a new government…
14. (C) Berri told the Ambassador that a strong government, a “national unity government,” was needed in the aftermath of the Karami government’s February 28 resignation. Only a strong government could handle the several “big issues” that any successor to Karami’s government would face: the investigation of Hariri’s assassination, Syrian withdrawal, and the new electoral law. He joked that, in response to opposition demands, he had tried to look up the term “neutral government” in “my dictionary of Lebanese politics.” It didn’t exist.
15. (C) Berri expected ‘Umar Karami to come back as Prime Minister in the next government. The list of viable candidates to fill the post was short: Karami, Salim al-Hoss, Fouad Siniora, and Adnan Kassar. Berri opposed naming an anti-Hariri figure, so that ruled out Hoss. On the other hand, Hariri supporters did not want Siniora or Kassar elevated to the position. That left Karami. Berri believed Karami would be a good choice; if brought back, Karami would “try to make it work.”
16. (C) Berri said he wanted the opposition to join the new cabinet. They were making a serious mistake if they held back. There was a precedent for effective national unity governments in Lebanon, such as the one that brought civil-war-era leaders on both sides of the East Beirut-West Beirut divide into the same cabinet in 1984 (comment: a grim precedent).
17. (C) Berri claimed to be puzzled by the opposition’s demand that seven security service heads be dismissed before the opposition would consider joining a new government. The Ambassador said that the opposition was arguing that there was no sense in joining a cabinet when the real power remained in the hands of unaccountable security chiefs. Based on our conversations with the opposition, however, it seems that the opposition might be willing to bargain to an extent, perhaps agreeing to let the other chiefs remain in place for the time being in return for the immediate dismissal of Internal Security Force Director General Ali al-Hajj. “Why the innocent one and not the guilty one?” Berri asked, without clarification (but presumably in reference to fellow Shia Jamil al-Sayyed, whom Berri detests — and the feeling is mutual).
18. (C) Berri fretted about the confessional complications that would come into play with the dismissal of any or all of the security service chiefs. Anyway, the cabinet would have to name a replacement for any dismissed security service chief — why did the opposition not want to be in the cabinet and influence the decision?
… and holding elections on time
19. (C) Berri told the Ambassador that the consultations for designating a new Prime Minister and forming a cabinet could easily take a week. A genuine “national unity government” could take even longer to form. Then there was the matter of the election law, and parliamentary elections cannot begin less than one month after the law enters into effect. 20. (C) Berri said that, until now, plans to hold elections on schedule in May have remained in the realm of feasibility. Any further delay would put these plans in jeopardy, however. The Ambassador told Berri that a genuinely strong government cannot be formed until after elections, so they need to remain on schedule.
21. (C) The massive demonstration in central Beirut on the afternoon of March 8 appeared to vindicate Berri’s fears about being left behind, coughing in Hizballah’s dust on a post-Syrian Lebanese political landscape. Some of the concerns he tried to raise and link with Syrian withdrawal — Hizballah ascendancy, civil disorder, pro-Syrian elements having an even freer hand — sounded a little disingenuous, given that the Syrians still have yet to leave.
2005 March 16, 18:41 (Wednesday)
— Not Assigned —
— N/A or Blank —
Classified By: Political Minister-Counselor Josiah Rosenblatt, reasons 1.5 (b) and (d).
1. (S) Summary: MFA and Elysee officials are stressing the need for continued insistence on a full Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon before elections, in the wake of UN Special Envoy Larsen’s meetings in Beirut and Aleppo. The GoF views a four to six-month Syrian withdrawal as too long. According to Chirac’s Middle East advisor, Larsen expressed worry to the GoF that Syria may seek to sow inter-communal violence by targetting Lebanon’s pro-Syria camp, including a possible Nasrallah assassination. Larsen also expressed a preference for delaying release of the Fitzgerald report, and criticized the Lebanese opposition for not being more pragmatic on the need for a new government. French officials agree with Larsen that continued delays in forming a new Lebanese government could delay elections and full Syrian withdrawal, and view the “dump Lahoud” demands of the opposition as counter-productive. French officials continue to commend U.S.-GoF cooperation on Lebanon, but suggest that we may eventually part ways on the Hizballah issue or regime change in Syria. MFA officials also report that the GoF has no enthusiasm for an international force in Lebanon, that the EU may soon send election observer trainers to Lebanon, and that FM Barnier may attend the March 22-23 Arab League summit, where he will avoid contact with Lebanese or Syrian officials. End summary.
2. (S) UN Special Envoy for UNSCR 1559 implementation Terje Roed-Larsen visited Paris March 14 and had a working lunch with Presidential Diplomatic Advisor (NSA-equivalent) Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, MFA A/S-equivalent for Near East Jean-Francois Thibault, and MFA IO A/S-equivalent Jean-Maurice Ripert. We received readouts on Larsen’s visit from Presidential Middle East Advisor Dominique Boche March 16 and from MFA DAS-equivalent for the Levant Christian Jouret March 15. Jouret stressed that the GoF opted to receive Larsen with maximum discretion and not at the presidential or ministerial level to avoid feeding perceptions that Larsen is controlled by the GoF and USG. Jouret said the GoF was encouraged by Larsen’s meeting with Bashar and cautiously optimistic that Bashar would follow through on his commitments, but concluded that the lack of a timetable for full withdrawal was insufficient. Jouret described Larsen as optimistic (more so that the GoF) and determined, and convinced that Bashar understood the gravity of the current situation and the accusations against him on Hariri’s assassination. Both Jouret and Boche concurred that the four to six month full withdrawal suggested by Bashar to Larsen (ref b) was “too long.”
3. (S) According to Elysee Advisor Boche, Larsen stressed four additional points to the GoF: 1) the need for the international community to continue to insist upon a full (troops and security services) Syrian withdrawal before elections, to avoid giving the impression of being satisfied by Syrian steps so far; 2) worry that Syria may seek to sow inter-communal violence by assassinating a major figure in the loyalist camp, possibly Hizballah leader Nasrallah; 3) the need to delay release of the Fitzgerald report, to avoid the impression that it is linked to Larsen’s visit; and 4) the need for the Lebanese opposition to be more realistic on the urgency of forming a new Lebanese government, without which full Syrian withdrawal and timely parliamentary elections would not be possible. Boche stressed that the GoF shared the view that a forming a new GOL was imperative, and opined that a neutral, technical government might be a more feasible option than a national unity government, given GOL unwillingness to meet opposition demands to fire GOL security officials. Boche added that the calls by some oppositionists for a Lahoud resignation were counterproductive, as Lahoud’s dismissal would result in a further impasse that would serve Syrian interests.
4. (C) Jouret told us separately that FM Barnier, during a March 11 meeting with a visiting Lebanese opposition delegation led by Marwan Hamade, urged the group, to no avail, to show more flexibility in forming a national unity government with PM Karami. Jouret described the delegation as unrealistic on its prospects for winning elections; the group expressed confidence that it could win at least 50 percent of the vote if elections were free and fair. Jouret also commented that the group did not appear to have a political plan beyond getting Syria out of Lebanon and clearing the GOL of pro-Syrian elements after their presumed electoral victory. Jouret conceded that the massive March 14 demonstration changed the dynamic in the opposition’s favor since Barnier’s March 11 meeting, and that the degree to which both camps could mobilize numbers in the street would affect the political jockeying now underway.
5. (C) Both Jouret and Boche commended GoF-U.S. cooperation on Lebanon and U.S. willingness to “listen to” French views; at the same time, they both speculated that our common approaches may diverge eventually over Hizballah, once full Syrian withdrawal is achieved. Jouret described Hizballah dismantling as the real problem in UNSCR 1559 implementation, now that Bashar had already caved, in principle, to Larsen on full withdrawal. Jouret asked rhetorically how we could achieve the dismantling of Hizballah, expressing doubt on the Lebanese army’s capacity to do so. He added that the Lebanese opposition, during their meeting with Barnier, stressed the view that Hizballah was a longterm internal question, not an international issue. In the opposition view, dismantling of Hizballah could only come after Hizballah’s full integration as a political player, and not the other way around, as previewed in UNSCR 1559. The GoF, meanwhile, was trying to approach the Hizballah issue on a pragmatic basis, rather than an ideological one, which meant we should not expect a shift on EU Hizballah designation. Boche reiterated the latter point with us, and reiterated that the GoF wanted to avoid alienating Lebanon’s majority Shi’a community, for which Hizballah remained the most credible political force. Boche added that the GoF hoped that a Syrian withdrawal would make Hizballah realize there was no alternative to political integration, however he was not confident this was the case. Syrian withdrawal would make Hizballah more dependent on Iran, whose intentions were unclear, though it had claimed to the GoF that it was playing a moderating influence on Hizballah in the current crisis. Boche opined that the Iranians had the tendency to see themselves as respected internationally only when they are perceived as dangerous.
6. (S) Jouret and Boche also expressed concern on prospects for the fall of Bashar’s regime, an outcome which the GoF was not deliberately seeking. Jouret stressed the need for the U.S. and France to think about the implications of a full Syrian withdrawal and whether it might result in Bashar’s overthrow and replacement by a more hardline leader, a prospect which Boche viewed as entirely possible. Boche described Bashar al-Asad as weak, lacking the experience and intelligence of his father, and losing control over the circle which surrounds him. He cited Larsen’s description of the Syrian leader’s nervousness during the recent Aleppo meeting, and added that the fact that recent pro-SARG demonstrations in Damascus had rallied such low numbers — in the 30,000 range — showed that Bashar was being sabotaged by others within his security services, possibly his powerful brother-in-law, SMI Chief Asif Shawkat. Jouret opined that he still viewed Bashar, despite all his weaknesses, as redeemable, but said the question remained whether the Syrian leader would rid himself of the circle around him, including the negative influence of FM Shara.
7. (C) On next steps, Jouret stressed that the GoF would continue to advise Larsen to issue a tough report in April, and would continue to seek maximum pressure from Arab governments on Syria for full withdrawal. On the latter point, Jouret noted that next week’s Arab League summit did not have Lebanon on the agenda, though the issue might be discussed in a smaller “group of seven” (NFI) within the gathering. Jouret reported that FM Barnier was likely to attend the Arab League summit, at the invitation of Algeria, but that the French FM would studiously avoid any contact with Lebanese or Syrian officials. On further UN action, Jouret said the MFA originally had been favorable to the idea of a PRST to follow the Larsen visit to Syria and Lebanon, but was overruled by the Elysee. Jouret stressed that the GoF was entirely negative on the idea of an international force or expanded UNIFIL filling the void left by a Syrian withdrawal, and cited the French experience of losing troops in Lebanon in the 1980’s as weighing heavily on GoF thinking. On observers for the May elections, Jouret reported that the EU planned to send a small-sized team, to include two French nationals, to Lebanon to train Lebanese election observers in advance of the ballot and would not seek GoL permission to do so; the GoF was also intent on participating in an international observer mission, once the GoL relents on the issue. Boche, meanwhile, stressed to us that the real determinant to whether elections would be free and fair was whether or not Syrian troops and security services fully withdrew prior to the ballot.