- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2005

In his bid to re-enter Lebanese politics, Gen. Michel Aoun came in through the front door, almost like victorious French Gen. Charles de Gaulle returning to the City of Lights as the invaders scurried for the border. But here similarities end.

The country’s anti-Syrian bloc was victorious Sunday following the fourth and final round of parliamentary voting. By all accounts the list run by Saad Hariri, son of the slain former prime minister, seems to have won enough parliamentary seats to secure a majority. The landslide victory Gen. Aoun had expected did not occur. Indeed, his last-minute alliance with pro-Syrian factions backfired.

But in re-establishing himself in the political landscape, the retired Lebanese army general surprised many who supported him during his 14 years of exile in France.

Gen. Aoun’s former hosts, the French, must still be trying to understand how rapidly he dropped his opposition to Syria and allied himself with Syria’s supporters in Lebanon. It was, after all, his disagreement with Syria that led him into exile.

French President Jacques Chirac, a close friend of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was instrumental in convincing Syria to pull its troops out of Lebanon. Paris, along with Washington, co-sponsored U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, calling on Syria to withdraw military and intelligence units from Lebanon.

The general explains, since Syria is no longer involved in Lebanese politics, he sees no reason to hold grudges. But are the Syrians as removed from Lebanon as they and Gen. Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement would like us to think? Not according to a number of sources who say the Syrians are back.

Also surprising was Gen. Aoun’s alliance with Lebanese Shi’ite paramilitary organization, Hezbollah, giving him an instant power base not only in Christian but Shi’ite Muslim areas.

Certainly, one of the general’s most surprised allies has to be Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who lobbied Congress and the Bush administration on his behalf, and who also lobbied the administration to ensure Hezbollah remained on the U.S. terror list.

Shortly after returning to Beirut, Gen. Aoun began talks with Hezbollah. Had Gen. Aoun won, it would have placed him in a favorable position for the presidential elections, most likely to be organized in less than three years, unless the opposition convinces current President Emile Lahoud to step down, something he has said he will not do.

Although the anti-Syrian opposition has won, it is unclear whether it will have a two-thirds majority needed to end Mr. Lahoud’s pro-Syria presidency.

Whether Mr. Lahoud goes or not the question remains of Syrian involvement in Lebanon. Many Lebanese officials believe senior Syrian intelligence agents have returned with money and instructions to influence the parliamentary elections.

Other sources confirm as “basically accurate” Lebanese newspaper reports of at least five Syrian intelligence officers recently entering the country to help Syria’s allies win Lebanese parliamentary seats. U.S. officials said the officers have targeted the anti-Syrian opposition, which includes Saad Hariri.

On June 2, a prominent Lebanese journalist was killed when his car exploded in Beirut. The killing of Samir Kassir, known for his anti-Syrian stance, was attributed to Syria, including pro-Damascus elements in Mr. Lahoud’s office.

Walid Jumblatt, a Druze and prominent anti-Syrian politician, was quoted as saying: “Samir Kassir was assassinated by the remnants of the security agencies that control the country and that is headed by Emile Lahoud.”

U.S. sources said the Syrian officers have operated from both northern and eastern Lebanon. The intelligence officers were said to help Syrian allies in such cities as Baalbek and Tripoli and in the Akkar region.

Samir Franjieh, a leading Syrian opponent, said the Syrians “are helping form pro-Syrian election coalitions to challenge the opposition in northern Lebanon, and have held meetings with a number of Syria’s allies and with ‘key’ electoral brokers.”

One report said Lebanese opposition sources told U.S. officials Syrian officers were “transferring cash and instructions to pro-Syrian candidates as well as providing intelligence on their rivals.” The officers headed a pool of operatives, most of them Lebanese or Palestinians, to carry out orders.

Lebanese newspapers reported Syrian intelligence officers were under the command of Brig. Gen. Mohammad Khallof, who was chief of Syria’s intelligence service in Beirut before the April withdrawal. This was confirmed by Samir Franjieh, an opposition leader, to United Press International.

Mr. Franjieh said Mr. Khallof was in the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli, planning meetings between pro-Syrian groups. Those attending included Suleiman Franjieh, who supports the Syrian presence, Gen. Aoun and former Prime Minister Omar Karame.

A U.S. intelligence source said Mr. Khallof was aided by Nabil Hishmeh, the former Syrian intelligence officer in charge of the Akkar region. Another deputy was Khalil Zogheib, head of the Syrian intelligence service in Tripoli. All three were said to have returned to Lebanon.

It is highly unlikely Gen. Aoun remained ignorant of those facts, which only adds to the puzzle of why he rushed to absolve Syria. Unless as some Lebanese opposition leaders believe, the plan was hatched months ago, while Gen. Aoun was still in Paris.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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