Ally of Syria’s Assad tipped to be Lebanon’s next president

BEIRUT (AP) — Under an emerging deal to resolve Lebanon’s 18-month political deadlock, one of the strongest allies and a close personal friend of Syrian President Bashar Assad may become the next Lebanese president.

Sleiman Frangieh, a 50-year old politician and lawmaker who survived a notorious civil war massacre at the age of 13, was not even running for the post of president and up until recently seemed an unlikely candidate.

It’s a choice few anticipated, but then, Lebanon is no stranger to back-door political deals.

The possible breakthrough comes after months of bickering among the Lebanese politicians that has led to near complete paralysis of the state at a time when Lebanon faces multiple challenges — from spillovers of the conflict next door, soaring tensions among the Lebanese divided over sectarian loyalties, to an economy and resources stretched to the limit by the influx of Syrian refugees.

Frangieh became a candidate two week ago when his name was suddenly tossed in the ring by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri after the two men met in Paris.

For a year and a half since President Michel Suleiman stepped down after his six-year-term ended, Lebanon has been without a head of state as lawmakers repeatedly failed to agree on a consensus president.

According to the country’s power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim.

The two main party blocks continued to reject each other’s presidential candidates, despite 32 parliament sessions called for by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to elect a president.

The deadlock and paralysis reached its peak during the summer, when the country was shaken by the largest protests in years over the government’s inability to find a solution to Lebanon’s ongoing trash problem. The demonstrations quickly developed into protests against the entire political establishment.

Last month, twin suicide bombings claimed by the Islamic State group killed more than 40 people in southern Beirut.

The Frangieh bid is likely to be, at least in part, a result of regional cooperation that recently brought together Mideast foes Iran and Saudi Arabia to the table in Vienna in an effort to find a political settlement for Syria.

Lebanon has long been a traditional battleground in the regional proxy war between the two countries, which back opposing political camps in Syria’s war, and also in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s crises are typically solved in behind-the-scenes deals cooked up by greater powers as opposed to the country’s notoriously corrupt and gridlocked political institutions.

“With nearly a million and a half Syrian refugees in the country and jihadis knocking at the door, Lebanon became a time bomb,” said Michael Young, opinion editor for The Daily Star newspaper Thursday.

If that time-bomb exploded, “it would have created a nightmare similar to Syria’s,” he wrote. “For reasons that are self-evident the situation had to be brought to a rapid end.”

Frangieh hails from a well-known political family from northern Lebanon. His grandfather — the man whose name he carries — was a former Lebanese president. When he was 13, his father, Tony Frangieh, was killed along with his mother and sister in an infamous 1978 massacre perpetrated by rival Christian Maronite forces.

He was a close friend of Bassel Assad, the brother of Syria’s president. After Bassel was killed in a car crash in 1994, Frangieh became close to Bashar Assad, whom he calls a “brother” and keeps in touch with to this day.

Frangieh is a staunch supporter of the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah group and once said that the next generation would envy this one for “living in the days of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah,” Hezbollah’s leader.

Under the supposed deal, Hariri, a Sunni leader who has been in self-imposed exile for security concerns, would return to Lebanon as prime minister.

Hariri, an ally of Saudi Arabia, accuses Syria of murdering his father, the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, with a ton of explosives on a Beirut seaside in February 2005.

Hariri hasn’t publicly nominated Frangieh for president. But asked about it by reporters in Paris on Thursday where he met with French President Francois Hollande, Hariri said there is “great hope for Lebanon” to end the presidential vacuum.

On Wednesday, Frangieh visited influential Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt, who lent him his support. Frangieh later said his candidacy is a “historic opportunity that should not be missed,” to salvage the paralyzed country.

There are still hurdles to be overcome.

Ironically, Frangieh’s bid for presidency faces resistance from his own Christian community. Christian leader Michel Aoun, who is himself a candidate for the presidency, has not said whether he would be willing to relinquish his candidacy.

Other Christian groups oppose Frangieh’s bid and are angered that a Muslim politician — Hariri — would end up choosing the head of state.

Young, the analyst, said Frangieh’s election would be a “momentary victory” for Hezbollah and Syria, but said if elected, he will find it impossible to govern against one of the major communities in Lebanon, especially the Sunnis.

If the deal goes through, Frangieh could be elected by Parliament on Dec. 13, when lawmakers gather for the next session to vote.

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