Lebanese former President Michel Aoun paid a visit to Damascus on Tuesday for talks with President Bashar al-Assad. The timing of the visit is significant given the ongoing presidential vacuum in Lebanon. Aoun had last visited Damascus in 2009.
Tensions are high in Lebanon over the presidency with Aoun’s son-in-law and head of the Free Patriotic Movement MP Gebran Bassil endorsing the opposition’s presidential candidate, Jiahd Azour.
Azour would face off against the candidate of the Shiite duo of Hezbollah and Amal, Marada movement leader Suleiman Franjieh, who enjoys close ties with Assad.
Bassil is opposed to Franjieh’s run.
Aoun’s visit was only announced by the media after he had crossed the Lebanese-Syrian border. He was accomapnied by former minister Pierre Raffoul.
Sources have doubted that Aoun’s talks with Assad will achieve a breakthrough in the presidential impasse.
Informed sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that Hezbollah and Amal are unlikely to back down from supporting Franjieh if Aoun was actually seeking Assad’s mediation with the duo, who are allied with Damascus.
The duo has made up its mind about nominating Franjieh, they stressed.
Assad will not pressure Hezbollah or Amal movement leader parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to change their stance, they added.
The presidency is a strictly Lebanese affairs and the duo’s allies believe that the issue should be tackled by Lebanon alone, without forign interference or dictates, they went on to say.
Moreover, they noted that Hezbollah’s allies have repeatedly said that they are not interfering in Lebanon’s internal affairs.
Bassil’s siding with the opposition has deepened his rift with Hezbollah, an ally of the FPM. Relations between them have frayed in recent months over their diverging stances on the presidency and other political issues.
Hezbollah MPs have said Azour is unlikely to be elected president. The party, Amal and their allies, who back Franjieh, are weighing a number of options if they sense that the balance is starting to tip in Azour’s favor.
They may resort to boycotting the second round of elections, sources close to the duo told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Berri had called on parliament to convene on June 14 to elect a president. The elections are held over two rounds, with the candidate who garners two-thirds of the votes of the 128-member legislature moving on to the second round.
Franjieh has long boasted of his good relations with Damascus. He had previously said he prioritizes Lebanon’s interests above Syria’s, even though he is “strategically” aligned with Damascus.
Aoun was famously an opponent of Damascus for several years. His stance shifted when Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2005 and he returned from exile in Paris.
The shift was crowned by his visit to the Syrian capital in 2009.
The conflict in Syria would erupt in 2011 and Aoun did not visit Damascus after his election as president in 2016. He restricted his contact with Assad to telephone talks on certain occasions.