Syria hits back at France over Lebanon

By Xinhua

Damascus : Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem on Wednesday hit back at France in their row over the political crisis in Lebanon, saying his country has decided to suspend contacts with Paris in this regard.

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“Syria has decided to stop cooperation with France on the Lebanese crisis,” Muallem told reporters at a press conference.

Muallem’s remarks came three days after French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Sunday that Paris will have no more contact with Syria until Damascus shows sincerity in letting Lebanon choose a consensus president.

Sarkozy said during a visit to Cairo that it’s time for Syria to show proof of goodwill and take action instead of paying lip service to help solve the Lebanese crisis.

The Syrian top diplomat expressed astonishment over the statement of Sarkozy, saying that the French were trying to blame Syria and the Damascus-supported Lebanese opposition for the failure of international efforts to resolve the Lebanese crisis.

“We have listened with amazement to the French president in a press conference in Cairo who held Syria and the Lebanese opposition responsible for the failure, despite the efforts by Syria, which are well-known to France, and the flexibility shown by the opposition to facilitate a reconciliatory solution,” said Muallem.

He then held Lebanon’s Western-backed government for the failure of a settlement agreement and accused the United States of obstructing a solution to the deadlock.

The Syrian top diplomat disclosed that just two days before Sarkozy’s comments, Syria and France reached an agreement on a comprehensive settlement in Lebanon, including the election of a consensus president, the formation of a government of national unity in which every faction would be represented according to its political weight, and the drawing up of a fair electoral law.

The framework agreed upon in the first meeting between President Bashar Al-Assad and French envoy Claude Gueant also included neutralizing the U.S. role in Lebanon, the minister said.

But the French later revealed that they could not sell the deal, which had been vetoed by the head of the pro-government bloc in the Lebanese parliament Saad Hariri, and the role of the U.S. administration was not neutralized thus, said Muallem.

He also underlined Syria’s role in concluding a settlement based on accord, coexistence and partnership among all sectors of the Lebanese people in a bid to secure Lebanon’s security and stability.

These efforts stumbled regarding the formation of a national government since the ruling majority rejected an opposition share in the government equal to their share in the parliament, added Muallem.

Muallem continued that Sarkozy’s statements in Cairo revealed that the French efforts with Saad Hariri and other politicians to accept the French project had failed.

“It seems that the French wanted to hold us responsible for their failure to persuade the majority to accept their project,” he complained.

Meanwhile, Muallem said that Syria refused to pressure its allies in the Lebanese opposition, mainly the Shiite movement Hezbollah, to accept a solution it thinks could lead to instability in Lebanon.

“Syria has refused to put pressure on the opposition and the opposition would not accept pressure anyhow,” Muallem said.

It was the second time in two weeks that the Syrian foreign minister made statements on Syrian-French cooperation over the Lebanese crisis.

On Dec. 20, Muallem clarified Syria’s contacts with France at a rare press conference on the position over Lebanese presidential election crisis, saying Sarkozy sent two envoys here in the first place to ask Syria’s cooperation.

“The Syrian-French cooperation started according to a framework, which means that Syrian-French ties are not linked to a third side and that Syria cooperates with France if it is sure the U.S. doesn’t interfere or obstruct the aspired solution,” Muallem said.

Although expressing regret that the French didn’t show commitment to remain away of the U.S. role which he said actually disrupted the Syrian-French approach to find a solution, Muallem still pledged to continue contacts with France to reach a consensus president at that time.

Lebanon has been without a president since Nov. 23 when Emile Lahoud stepped down without a successor. The sharply divided Lebanese parliament has delayed the elections for 11th times without a consensus.

France has been leading efforts to mediate a settlement between the Western-backed governing coalition and the opposition, led by groups with close ties to Damascus.

Syria has been accused of meddling in the internal affairs of Lebanon, which Syria has categorically denied.