During his last visit to Beirut on 3 May 2012, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman met with former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, former finance minister Mohamad Chatah, Future Movement leader Nader Hariri, and a number of Future Bloc MPs at Saad Hariri’s residence in Beirut’s city center.
The meeting included discussions on many issues, mostly regarding the way forward in Syria and Lebanon, among others. Al-Akhbar was able to obtain a partial transcript of the meeting’s minutes.
Unidentified speaker : ...There is no stomach for military action and we don't have a stomach for that at all either. We don't think this [military action] is wise because it will play in the hands of the Syrian regime and the Iranian regime and they will be able to bring you their battlefield. Now, aiding the Syrians in providing necessary support, this is something else! (Implying that more can be done). Whether in terms of humanitarian aid or certain equipment – if you want to call it non lethal – I don't know! But you have to be a bit more liberal in the definition of non-lethal and you should talk more to the countries that could put more pressure on the Syrian regime and Iran on one hand and on Russia and China on the other.
With regards to the Chinese, pressure can be exercised either through Arab or Gulf countries, because there are energy need and market needs. So one should continue pressure. I sense that the Chinese are more ready to accept.
Jeffrey Feltman (JF): That's how they [the Chinese] at least posture. Secretary Clinton in there now and Syria is on her agenda. They are not as forceful as the Russians. But what is your advise [sic] on our approach on Russia? They say they don't care about Bashar but rather about their interests. I see we should make Russia part of the solution rather than problem.
Fouad Siniora (FS): I told the Russians that they are the only country in the P5 that can ease Bashar out and the opposition in. I also told them that we have a habit in the region of burning US flags and now we are witnessing a habit of burning Russian flags and that they need to stop this habit! This was 7-8 months ago.
JF: It seems that you are not burning enough [Russian flags].
(Recommended Action Step: It is evident that the Americans would welcome any ideas that we may have with regards to the Russians. This is an area where we can provide some help.)
FS: I am coming from Egypt. I saw Shaikh el Azhar and others. The situation in Egypt is in flux. However, Islamic forces are losing ground.
JF:(In a very shocked tone) Really? Why?
FS: First, because they had pledged they wouldn't run for the presidential seat – they said something and did something else. Also, they ran for more seats than they said they would in Parliament.
JF: (Still in a state of shock)
FS: They are coming out. They are seeing the world.
JF: Two things I find curious: one is the strength with which people, particularly at THE lunch, talk of how this government is enabling a soft coup d'etat by Hizbullah and two, everyone we spoke to were far more worried about the financial state of the country than ever.
FS: I will come to that. You can see how this government is acting with regards to certain issues: they have distanced themselves from the Syrian situation. I don't deny that if I were in their place, I would probably do something similar. But they are applying their magic world of distancing themselves to everything! What is happening is unacceptable.
On the other hand, they found a magic solution to finance the STL for one year and a magic solution to extending the mandate. Other than that, they are doing mistakes left, right and center: whether dealing with the simple issues or degenerating the state. Every minister in this government is acting like a Prime Minister. Every minister is running his own government. There are all sorts of violations. It so happened that this government with this degree of concentration of the Aoun group has really put this government in a very bad situation.
Another [serious] problem with the weakness of the government is the fine line between the executive arm of the government and the legislative arm which is being broken. Berri goes to cyprus to discuss the maritime border and then he calls the PM and tells him I will come March 14. We should benefit from the decline of Aoun's popularity and the changes that are definitely happening within Hizbulla [sic]. Hopefully we won't do mistakes and they will continue to do more.
JF: They present themselves as the opposition in their communication not as the incumbents. They sound as if they are still fighting the battle against the government.
FS: They have done a great fuss regarding the budget and busied people for a year and a half about what had happened since 2005.
JF: Would it help if this government is brought down before the elections?
FS: We know it's not going to happen tomorrow, but this government cannot be entrusted with the responsibility of doing elections. They don't have the neutrality to do so and this situation cannot be sustainable.
JF: Maybe I should tell Najib Mikati, we see him tonight. He sees himself as a political leader and I can't imagine this government is popular in Tripoli.
Mohamad Chatah: It is not and he is trying to present himself as a victim of Aoun.
JF: This place is very very weird. Weirder than when I left.
FS: And the bus I told you about, the passengers are trying to jump out of it.
JF: Can Najib be part of the solution of changing this government rather than part of the problem?
FS: This may be considered if he doesn't want to have a political career or if he changes [his attitude]. I can't see that he is doing a good performance. Look what is happening with the strikes and the reactions of the labor unions. I haven't seen this in my life. All these labor unions are manufactured by the members of the government, all of them, all driven by Amal and Hizbullah.
[US ambassador to Lebanon] Maura Connelly: (With a hint of sarcasm) It is a Hizbullah dominated government and they are moving them.
JF: You can bring down the government if Walid is with you in the parliament or if Najib resigns right? There are the two option?
[Beirut Future MP] Bassem el Shabb: Or through civil disobedience.
FS: I think ultimately. But by convincing, convincing, or convincing Walid. This is something that can be achieved. As long as this government stays, the level of tension is going to rise and not go down. One way to [...]
JF: Maura thinks there seems to be more concern about violence breaking out in Lebanon. There is a sense of nervousness that we hadn't been hearing for a while. By the way, as we were coming down from Hazmieh to here I was on the phone with Bill Burns and he send you his best.
FS: Actually, the incident against Geagea was bad. He showed you the location yes?
JF: It was horrifying.
FS: It was clearly intended to kill. There were probably three snipers, all directed at him and probably because of wind and distance or something of the sort they weren't able to kill him. As we say in Arabic, he is destined to live more. On the other hand, there is a tense feeling among many Lebanese that if and when the Syrian regime will realize that it has lost all possible options, there is a possibility that it might resort to some sort of action [in Lebanon]. They are still in a state of denial.
But it is clear understanding that this [situation in Syria] is a slow process. It will take time and one has to accumulate things until this [toppling of regime] is achieved. But then again, there is complete recognition that there is no way back to the past.