Tuesday, July 3, 2007

US travel ban a veiled threat to Michel Aoun?

Jay Solomon from The Wall Street Journal reports that the Bush administration's travel ban on Syrian and Lebanese opposition figures may have been a warning targeted at General Aoun. The following is an excerpt from his article, click the link above for the full article:

Of particular focus are Christian politicians who have joined into a formal political alliance with Hezbollah in a bid to unseat Mr. Siniora. Some of them, such as retired Gen. Michel Aoun, have in the past coordinated closely with the U.S. on Lebanon policy, particularly on the need to reduce Syrian influence. They also have presented themselves as potential allies to Washington if any new government is formed in Beirut.

“A lot of people are opposed to Siniora, and might try to bring him down but still want to present themselves as friends with the U.S,” said a senior Bush
administration official working on the Middle East. “We want to convey to them that there’s a price to pay” for their actions…..

Aoun has had a rocky relationship with the US. He depended on their assistance in 1990 when the General decided to launch a hopeless war against the Syrians. US assistance never arrived. Instead, the Americans made an agreement with Damascus, betraying Aoun, and allowed the Syrians to dominate Lebanon in return for their aid against Saddam's Iraq.

However, during his 15 years in exile in France, Aoun worked effortlessly to lobby US officials to pressure Syria to relinquish Lebanon from its grip. Indeed, this period saw a thaw in relations between Michel Aoun and the Americans. The two sides again parted ways when the General withdrew his support for America's Lebanese allies - the March 14 alliance - and forged an alliance of his own with Israel's arch nemesis, the Shi'ite Hizballah. The memorandum of understanding between the two political heavyweights outraged the Bush administration.

Aoun's new political party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), commands the largest Christian backing in the country. As ties between the FPM and Hizballah consolidated, popular support gathered. Analysts viewed it as an Iranian and Syrian-backed Christian-Shi'ite alliance pitched against the US/Saudi/French-backed Sunni-Druze alliance.

Israel's war against Hizballah did nothing to weaken this alliance. To the contrary, it only enhanced its power as the Shia party came out victorious in the conflict. Riding on a wave of momentum and public support, both within Lebanon and throughout the Arab world, Hizballah and the FPM launched a massive campaign to overthrow the pro-American government. Roughly two millions demonstrators poured onto the streets of Beirut on two occasions demanding the resignation of the government. Tents have remained in the city centre since, as the call for resignation has placed the country in a paralysing deadlock.

The Americans are the only power holding the March 14 gathering together. The Israeli loss, and the subsequent mass demonstrations have put the Americans on the back-pedal in Lebanon. The US have blocked every attempt for a compromising negotiation, and are adamant they will defeat Hizballah.

This week, they targeted diplomatic pressure on Lebanon's Christian community via the FPM and Michel Aoun, in a bid to break him from Hizballah. The Bush administration believes it has many financial and political strings attached to the FPM that it can cut. The travel ban on some of the FPM's allies is disguised as a direct warning to it. The Syrians may not care about a travel ban, but the Americans are betting Michel Aoun will if he is added to the list.

Will it force the General to back down? I sincerely doubt it. Momentum is still on the side of the Lebanese Opposition, and I am not sure the Americans will fulfil their threat by imposing travel bans or any other type of sanctions upon the FPM. If the US is hoping to resurrect its chances in the battle for Lebanon, it is going to have to win the support of the Christian community, rather than alienate it.

I suspect any move by Bush to sanction the FPM will backfire and entrench the Christian community further in their partnership with Hizballah.

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