A US diplomatic source revealed to Al-Nahar that Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman’s visit to Beirut [in early May] was supposed to send a message to Christians in Lebanon — and in the region — that the United States cares about their concerns regarding the Arab Spring. According to the source, Washington would like to show that it is paying attention to events that have been escalating since the beginning of developments in Egypt. This topic was the subject of a phone call that took place two days prior to Feltman’s arrival between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Michel Suleiman. In the conversation, Clinton praised Suleiman’s speech at the Arab League summit in Baghdad, where he called for respecting pluralism and democracy in the region, especially as he is the only Christian president of an Arab state.
The source revealed that this issue was an essential part of Feltman’s agenda. US Ambassador Maura Connelly, who was in Washington last March, is following up on the issue. Many may be surprised by the attention the US has paid to this issue, especially given that the timing of Feltman’s visit is being linked to the Iranian delegation’s concurrent visit.
Washington desired to express its support because “Lebanon's Christian communities have the profile that allows the US to deliver a message of reassurance [to the region] through them.” Although the US has always maintained contact with the people that Feltman met during his visit, this contact has in the past been exclusively political. This time, however, the dialogue between the two parties took on another dimension. Feltman visited Beirut's Maronite Bishop Boulos Matar, Orthodox Bishop Elias Audi, father Mansour Labaki’s foundation — all of the Christian figures in the March 14 coalition. Feltman also spoke with President Michel Suleiman.
According to the source, the main purpose of these meetings was to express that the US was aware of the concerns of the region’s Christians. It was also to ensure that this topic is made part of the human, civil and political rights of the region’s peoples against a backdrop of protecting pluralism and democracy. Washington also wanted to reassure them that it is communicating to the emerging governments in the region that if the local Christian communities do not feel safe and are not confident about their future, then the Arab Spring would not have been a good thing for the region. The US is trying to better understand these concerns, saying that they are with the Christians and that the Christians in Lebanon have a role to play in this regard.
This message was the priority of Feltman’s visit, which coincided with Sen. Joe Lieberman’s visit to Lebanon during his regional tour over the Syrian issue.
The source did not mind linking Feltman’s visit to that of the Iranian delegation, especially since the US visit was given more attention than the 100-person Iranian delegation. The US visit occurred at this time because there was an opportunity to do so. However, the source also said that the US did not feel the need to compete with Iran or Iran’s alleged readiness to assist in Lebanon’s education infrastructure or other related areas. This is because the US is already satisfied about its aid to Lebanon on all levels. The Lebanese educational sector is receiving $75 million over five years from the US, and the military establishment is receiving an excess of $77 million per year. Beyond these two sectors, additional assistance is being given.
With regard to the added pressure on the Lebanese banking sector, the source said, “There is a lingering issue between the Central Bank of Lebanon and the US Treasury Department with regard to the Lebanese Canadian Bank. It would be wrong to call this a crisis between Washington and the Lebanese Central Bank’s director, but Washington is still vigilant because we know the importance that the banking sector plays within the Lebanese economy. The Lebanese banking sector supervises itself, and part of the dialogue with Lebanon is to emphasize that point.”
As for the parliamentary elections, the source did not hide the fact that everybody discussed it with Feltman because they know its importance. But that subject was not the goal of Feltman’s visit. “We have no specific position on the electoral law in spite of the clarifications we sought regarding the proportionality principle and its benefits. Regardless of our understanding, the elections must happen on time,” the source said. It added, “There is an ongoing fear that the Syrian crisis will spread to Lebanon at the security level. Feltman stressed that the US supports Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence and stability in light of the situation in Syria, which is not changing. The displaced Syrians constitute a challenge to Lebanon and Feltman told the [Lebanese] officials that Washington understands the sensitivity of the situation.”
With regard to the US position on the Syrian regime, the source said that “Washington is maintaining its position and has not backed down. It is giving Kofi Annan’s plan a chance. As the US secretary of state warned, if [the Syrian regime] does not follow up on its commitments, we will move to the UN Security Council. We are aware that there are significant doubts that [the Syrian regime] is being sincere.”