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For the Kurds, taking the road to Damascus will have a price

Apr 26,2023 - Last updated at Apr 26,2023

In a bid to keep his presidential candidacy alive, Lebanon's Suleiman Frangieh travelled the road to Damascus last week for an informal meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. It was reported that French presidential adviser Patrick Durel sent a message to Lebanon's parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri asking him to call a parliamentary session to elect a president. These moves prompted speculation that the country's political deadlock could come to an end before June, the deadline given by foreign mediators for choosing a president.

Lebanese media also reported that contacts continue among France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, and the United States — the group if five, following their latest meeting in Paris. France might send an envoy to Beirut in coming days. During a recent visit to Paris, Frangieh, who is backed by Hizbollah, provided "guarantees" to Saudi Arabia about his behaviour if he is elected.

If he does indeed become a candidate acceptable to the country's squabbling politicians, Frangieh is expected to ask International Court justice Nawaf Salam to become prime minister. Frangieh would form a technocratic government which would be charged with carrying out measures needed to lift Lebanon of the world's "most severe" economic crisis since 1850, the World Bank estimated.

If this scenario is played as suggested, Lebanon could — maybe — have a new government which could get on with the job of saving Lebanon from the politicians who have wrecked the country. Both men charged with this monumental task belong to well established political dynasties.

Lebanon has had no president since October 31, when Michel Aoun retired. The divided parliament has met 11 times and failed to elect a replacement who could appoint a prime minister to form a fully functioning government. Since last May, Lebanon has had a caretaker cabinet which does not have the authority to enact reforms needed to access $21 billion in international aid.

Although this scenario would seem to offer a way to end Lebanon's deadlock, this week it seems to have been discarded. Lebanon continues along the route of ruination. Its currency has lost 98 per cent if its value, inflation is soaring, 80 per cent of Lebanese live in poverty, and the middle class has to choose between joining the poor or leaving. Nevertheless, in this black comedy Lebanese politicians cannot agree on the simple act of giving one or other candidate enough votes to achieve the majority in parliament to get elected to the presidency.

Meanwhile, across Lebanon's eastern border, another, perhaps more hopeful, scenario is playing out in Damascus. The Saudis and Emiratis seem to be determined to affect Syria's return to the Arab fold ahead of or by May 19th, when the Arab summit convenes in Riyadh. Syria's restoration is key to the pan-Arab drama playing in the region. Everyone — except Israel — is talking to everyone else. Saudis speak to Iranians, Bahrainis to Iranians, and Kuwaitis to Qataris. Arabs are speaking to Turks. No one speaks to Israel which is caught up in its own deep internal divisions and trying to fend off a nascent Palestinian uprising.

Meanwhile, on Syria's internal front, there could be movement which could restore its sovereignty over the 25 per cent of the country's territory and the output of its oil wells which provided fuel for Syria and some crude for export. This vast area in the east is held by the Syrian Kurds. They have put themselves under US protection as Turkey claims Kurdish paramilitaries are allied with Turkey's own rebel Kurds and seeks to create a 30-kilometre wide Kurd-free zone on the Syrian side of the border. Once the Syrian army is deployed in along the frontier in Kurdish-held areas, Turkey would not have a pretext for attacking Syria.

Russia has long promoted talks providing for the return to government control of the Kurdish-held area. The Syrian Kurdish Protection Units initially allied with the US and the Syrian army in the 2017-19 campaign against Daesh and continue to cooperate with 900 US troops deployed in eastern Syria to fight jihadi fugitives who attack Syrian civilians and soldiers.

The foreign minister of the de facto autonomous Syrian Kurdish administration, Badran Kurd, told Al Monitor website that the conflict in Ukraine combined with Arab normalisation with Assad has given momentum to talks between Syrian Kurds and Syria's government. “We want Syrian-to-Syrian dialogue. We want international actors, the White House, Russia to support this initiative that will bring stability and peace to Syria. Any international actor that puts pressure on us to stop this initiative means they are against a solution to the conflict,” Kurd stated.

US Assistant Secretary for regional affairs Barbara Leaf has suggested that if the Kurds are prepared “to engage” with the government, “get something for that”. The Kurds will not get permission from Damascus to continue hosting US troops in eastern Syria. For the Kurds, taking the road to Damascus will have a price.

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