|Southwest Asia News Digest
Pope's Historic Visit to Lebanon and Syria Recalled
The visits by Pope John Paul II to Lebanon have been referenced frequently since his death on April 2, as a symbol of unity and peace for the country. He visited the country in 1997, calling for coexistence between Muslims and Christians; and in 2001, during his pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, he went to Syria, where he became the first Pope to visit a mosque (in Damascus).
On April 4, in its coverage of the passing of Pope John Paul II, the Beirut Daily Star reported that at the Vatican residence in Harissa, Lebanon on May 10, 1997, the Pope signed the Apostolic Guidancea 200-word document encompassing his views on Lebanon and urging coexistence in the country. "It is unthinkable that members of the same human community, living on the same soil, could come to distrust each other, to oppose each other, and to exclude each other in the name of their respective religions," he wrote.
During an open-air audience with 10,000 youth, the Pope told them they are the "treasure of Lebanon," and urged them to bridge the sectarian divide. "I ask you to be patient, destroy the barricades, build new bridges of communication among each other, work on sharing a social life and strengthen relations. For the rebuilding of Lebanon needs an essential key, the key of love," he said.
Speaking to reporters after the Pope's departure, then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri stated: "It was very important for Lebanon and the Lebanese. The Christians are relieved he came, and the Muslims are happy too." Asked what he considered the most important aspect of the Pope's visit, he said: "His insistence on coexistence, national unity, and his condemnation of war."
A leader of the Maronite church in Lebanon shared his reflections with EIR on April 5, on what Pope John Paul II had done to set up the firm commitment to national and confessional unity being demonstrated in Lebanon now. He said that the Muslim populationeven more than the Christian populationin their statements on the Pope's passing, have referenced his remarks during his visit to Lebanon in 1997; that Lebanon "is more than a country, but is a message of freedom and an example of East and West building their common home together.
"Almost as soon as the civil war was ended, the Pope called for a Synod for Lebanon. All the other Synods involved whole continents; this was the only one for just one country. All the Catholic sects participated in the Synod in Rome, and also the non-Catholic Christians, the Muslims, and the Druze," he said.
"After the Synod, the Pope wrote an Apostolic Exhortation for Lebanon, which called on us in reality to 'edify a just and equitable social and political system which respects the individuals and all the currents that form Lebanon in order to build their common home together.' The Exhortation was very politically specific and is the outline of our decisions about our plans for government. Yet, his influence was one of principle, and that is what guides us in our defense of unity. He gave us that mission. In his homily at the closing mass of the Synod, he quoted from St. Luke about how those who listened to the Beatitudes of Jesus came 'from the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon,' and added, 'Your ancestors of 2,000 years ago listened to the words of Christ. But were they not spoken for us, for the people of our time, ... for the Lebanon of modern times?' And he ended his homily reading I Corinthians 13, and said, 'We must carefully reflect on the hymn to love if we want to work fruitfully for the reconstruction of Lebanon by contributing to the restoration of the spiritual and moral fabric of a society of such noble and ancient traditions.' So, he helped us discover the principles from which to build a nation based on the dialogue of civilization. His Apostolic Exhortation was called 'Hope for Lebanon.' "
Russia Expanding Economic Cooperation with Syria
Russia and Syria expanded economic cooperation at the third session of the Russian-Syrian committee for trade-economic and scientific-technical cooperation in Damascus on April 3. Minister of Regional Development Vladimir Yakovlev headed the Russian delegation.
A protocol signed by the two sides, envisages close cooperation in development of water resources, irrigation systems, and hydropower engineering. The largest projects will be the construction of the hydropower plant Halabia-Zalabia on the Euphrates, large-scale prospecting works for the upgrading of the irrigation system in Maskanah, and prospecting works for further construction of 20 dams on the Oront in northwestern Syria, and on rivers on the Syrian Mediterranean coast. Russian specialists will participate in the drafting of a plan for the use of Syrian water resources to the year 2030.
Syrian Minister of Trade and Economy Amer Hosni Lutfi called on Russian businessmen to make more investments in Syria. According to the minister, joint projects will be funded as the repayment of Syrian debt to Russia.
An agreement on final debt settlement will be signed during a Damascus visit of Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin at the end of May. Syrian debt to Russia is about $13 billion. During Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's visit to Moscow in January 2005, an agreement was reached to write off 73% of this debt.
UN Mandates Broad Investigative Powers on Hariri Assassination
The UN Security Council Resolution 1595, passed April 7, gives unlimited scope to the investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. This resolution, backed by the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, passed the UN Security Council unanimously (15-0), but it acknowledged that Lebanon is going through a "difficult and sensitive period." The resolution does not specifically mention Syria, which was told in UNSC resolution 1559 that it must withdraw completely from Lebanon. That withdrawal is expected to be completed by April 30, according to statements from Syria.
The new resolution notes that, "the Lebanese investigation process suffers from serious flaws and has neither the capacity nor the commitment to reach a satisfactory and credible conclusion." It asks Lebanon to give access to all files and documents, to permit the UN team to "interview all officials and other persons in Lebanon," to enjoy freedom of movement throughout Lebanon to visit and inspect any site, and so forth. It also "calls on all States and all parties to cooperate fully with the Commission, and in particular to provide any relevant information they may possess to the above-mentioned terrorist act [the Hariri assassination]."
The investigation has a lifespan of three months, which can be extended another three months with a mandate to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to report back on findings to the UN Security Council every two months, or sooner.
While the text of the Resolution does not mention Syria, the official UN press release notes that: "The action, in Security Council Resolution 1595, follows the recommendation of a UN inquiry mission into February's terrorist bombing, which found Lebanon's own probe was seriously flawed and declared Syria, with thousands of troops in its smaller neighbor, primarily responsible for the political tension preceding the assassination."
On April 8, Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud issued a statement indicating that the Lebanese government will cooperate fully with the UN Commission. Hammoud said that it was in "Lebanon's best interests to have the commission's work completed as soon as possible to reveal the truth."
Hezbollah Leader Discusses Conditions for Disarming
The number-two man of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi'ite organization that holds a dozen seats in Parliament, said that the group could disarm if the conditions were right, reported Gulf News on April 8. Hezbollah's Shaikh Naim Qasem said that one alternative could involve Hezbollah's fighters becoming a kind of "reservist army" working with Lebanese authorities. He had floated the idea earlier in an interview with the Lebanese daily An Nahar. Qasem said that no talks could take place while Israel continued to occupy the Shebaa Farms area, a disputed border enclave between Lebanon, Israel, and Syria's Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Lebanon says Shebaa Farms is Lebanese land occupied by Israel, while the United Nations describes it as Israeli-occupied Syrian territory.
"We will discuss [Hezbollah's] arms after Shebaa, but on condition that a credible alternative is found to protect Lebanon," Qasem told the Financial Times. "A reservist army doesn't mean the resistance becomes part of the army but it is a formula of coordination with the army. It is resistance by another name," he said. In a later statement, Hezbollah said that did not mean the guerrilla group would be subject to Lebanese Army orders, though they might coordinate to defend Lebanon. It said the details of any such scheme still had to be negotiated.
There has emerged a consensus, after much discussion, among Lebanese forces, including the opposition, that any steps in the direction of disarming, or redefining Hezbollah, would have to be taken within Lebanon by the Lebanese, not imposed from the outside.