France and US increase pressure on Syria to leave Lebanon alone

Two senior envoys dispatched by French President Nicolas Sarkozy held talks Sunday with Syrian President Bashar Assad on the political crisis in Lebanon, the French presidency said. Just a day after the US and France chastised Syria over Lebanon, warning it against interfering in the Lebanese presidential election, Sarkozy’s top aide Claude Gueant, the secretary general of the presidency, and National Security Adviser Jean-David Levitte meet with Assad in Damascus.

“These talks took place as part of efforts led by France over the past several months to advance the search for a solution to Lebanon’s current crisis,” said presidential spokesman David Martinon.

“The Lebanese people must have the possibility of choosing their next president freely, without pressure or outside meddling, in a peaceful manner and by strictly respecting the Lebanese constitution,” he added.

In the midst of the international efforts, Ambassador Hisham Youssif, Arab League chief Amr Moussa’s right-hand man, is expected to arrive in Beirut on Tuesday for a “survey” trip of the latest developments in Lebanon.

At the same time, presidential candidate MP Butros Harb declared that a new president could be elected outside Parliament if a session set for November 12 fails to produce a result in Lebanon’s hotly disputed vote.

“All options are being studied, including the possibility [of holding the poll] outside Parliament, if MPs [of the majority] are prevented from electing a president or cannot get there for security reasons,” Harb told reporters on Sunday.

“Among the possibilities raised is that of holding the election in Beiteddin Palace,” said the deputy member of the March 14 camp, referring to the president’s summer residence. “I hope all the international interest over the Lebanese presidential election leads the Lebanese to agree on what is the best for them internally.”

Over the past few months, there has been great support expressed for Lebanon, and at the same time Syria has been repeatedly warned against interfering with the election.

“I made very clear that everybody was watching, that it was expected that Syria was going to adhere to its international obligations not to interfere, to allow Lebanon to continue to have a constitutional process for the selection of a president,” US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters after leaving a conference on Iraq in Istanbul.

Rice had a rare meeting Saturday with her Syrian counterpart, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, on the sidelines of the two-day conference.

“It was also the expectation of everyone that there would be no intimidation and interference,” said Rice.

The Istanbul conference was taken as an opportunity for the attending officials to deliver their message to Syria about Lebanon, with both the US and Syria exchanging warnings over interference in the election.

In response, Moallem said Syria supported Lebanese attempts to elect a new president without foreign interference.

“Any attempt to tailor-make the new president will be considered interference in Lebanon’s domestic affairs,” the official Syrian Arab News Agency quoted Moallem as saying, in apparent reference to Rice’s earlier comments.

In comments carried by  pan-Arab Al-Hayat daily Saturday, Moallem said, “The problem is not in Damascus, but in Washington, which opposes any compromise candidate and any dialogue between the Lebanese.”

A day earlier, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner met with Moallem, and delivered a similar warning.

“I warned Syria of the imperative need to allow the presidential election process to go ahead according to the constitution … without any external interference,” Kouchner said.

In a statement released by the Istanbul ministerial meeting on Saturday, it voiced its strong support for Lebanon,  and said: “Terrorizing or interference in Lebanese presiden-tial elections is not acceptable.”

Meanwhile, Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun said last week’s meetings in Paris between himself and majority leader MP Saad Hariri took place “not due to foreign initiative” but rather to calls for dialogue initiated by him.

“However, we came back and heard US statements that were not very encouraging,” said Aoun, adding: “But I repeat and say that the solution is with us, the Lebanese.”

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