The political logjam over Lebanon’s vacant presidency was broken Thursday when a leader of the Syrian-backed opposition announced his support for the compromise candidate accepted by the pro-Western alliance. The deal follows Syria’s participation in the American-sponsored Middle East peace conference.
Lebanon has teetered on the edge of factional violence over the question of who would succeed the former president, Emile Lahoud, who was widely considered a tool of Syria.
The country has been without a president for a week; the new agreement over the candidacy of Gen. Michel Suleiman, the army’s chief of staff, is the first major turning point in two years of political clashes between the governing coalition, backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, and the opposition, led by Hezbollah and backed by Iran and Syria.
Suleiman won the support of the opposition Christian leader Michel Aoun, a retired general and a former army chief who was seeking the presidency himself and is backed by Syria.
The breakthrough, first signaled in a series of public pronouncements on Wednesday, came on the heels of Syria’s attendance at the Annapolis conference on the Middle East peace process. Syria, the most important outside influence over Lebanese politics, had hesitated until the last minute over whether to attend the conference.
Immediately after the talks, Syrian allies in Lebanon endorsed the first major political breakthrough. Analysts say the talks could thaw strained relations between Syria and the United States.
“The Syrians did not want to go to Annapolis, and without them the conference would have been a failure and would have weakened the Arabs,” said Talal Atrissi, a political analyst and sociologist at Lebanese University. “The Syrians traded their participation, which did not cost them anything, with a deal on the Lebanese presidency.”
Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, said that Syria won a concession from the United States and France in exchange for its appearance at Annapolis. The Syrian government does not expect real progress on negotiations with Israel over the occupied Golan Heights, Khashan said, but it now expects the United States and France to give Syria more leeway to influence Lebanese affairs.
“Syria is eager to get out of its stranglehold, it is eager to collaborate with the U.S., to end its isolation,” he said.
An agreement over a new president could clear the way for Lebanon to finally face the thorny issues that rose to the surface in 2005 after Syria ended 29 years of occupation — with Hezbollah’s armed militia at the top of the list.
The deal could hit a snag in coming days, politicians and analysts said, but the agreement over Suleiman is the first time that leaders from every major faction have publicly endorsed a candidate. The vote is set for Dec. 7.