To forgive and forget
Is General Aoun’s decision to “forgive” Syria pragmatism, or betrayal?

NOW LEBANON ::: Date: 3/14/2008

Today, on March 14, 2008, General Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement argue that the day is really theirs. “On March 14, 1989, General Aoun declared the Liberation War to drive the Syrian Army out of Lebanon,” reads a flier being distributed throughout the city. “Ever since that date, every year until 2005, the Free Patriotic Movement celebrates the March 14 anniversary and calls for freedom, sovereignty and independence.” Many of those who were with Aoun on that day nearly twenty years ago, however, now celebrate with another group of players – the March 14 coalition. Aoun, they say, has forgotten what he was fighting for.

Aoun returned to Lebanon in May 2005 after 15 years in exile, where he had devoted much of his time and energy to building up the anti-Syrian opposition. Today however, through a dizzying turn of events in 2005 and 2006, the FPM is a political party aligned with the Syrian-backed Hezbollah, Amal and Marada movements.
And while quickly shifting alliances are nothing new for Lebanon, what has surprised even some of the staunchest supporters of “the General” is a recent call for forgiveness. “Between me and the Syrians, there were numerous problems and a big file,” he said during a February 28 interview with LBC talk show host Marcel Ghanem, “and I forgave them and turned to a new page.”

Some, like young FPM activist Jad Makkawi, simply did not believe it, despite the party’s coordination with the Syrian regime in recent years. “I don’t think he forgives them,” was all Makkawi had to say.

Those who knew the commander well – like General Selim Kallas, who famously lead Aoun’s Eighth Brigade at the 1983 battle of Souk al-Gharb, and politicians working with Aoun today, like MP Salim Salhab from the Metn – however, had a more nuanced take on the announcement to offer NOW Lebanon.

General Selim Kallas
Some have called Aoun a madman, others have charged that he is driven only by his desire to be Lebanon’s next president. Kallas, on the other hand, believed that Aoun’s political conscious, right or wrong, had been fundamentally shaped by the Lebanese civil war, especially the 1988-1990 wars with the Lebanese Forces and the Syrian army.
Recalling March 14, 1989, when Aoun and his generals declared the War of Liberation against Syria, Kallas suggested that, “it was more of a political declaration than it was a real war against Syria.”

“But no one responded to his declaration, and he found himself under more pressure,” continued Kallas. It was this failure to rally the country that implanted in Aoun’s mind exactly how important it was to coordinate with Syria. “[Aoun] changed his way of working because he knows well how important Syria is to the Lebanese policy,” believes Kallas.

Forgiving Syria, then, according to Kallas, is a pragmatic component of Aoun’s new take on working with Syria. “If you are on my side, I can forgive you,” explained Kallas, saying that this is simply how politics work in Lebanon. Also, “Michel Aoun is a deeply Christian man, so as a Christian, you have to forgive.”
For many, though, Aoun’s willingness to forgive is too much. Many of his troops – and Kallas’s – are still in Syrian prisons or, now dead, their bodies have not been returned to their families in Lebanon. “They will die in prison, and no one will say anything, because this is the way Syria does it with its own citizens,” lamented Kallas.

Ali Abou Dahen
Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, in a joint interview with Aoun on February 6, said unequivocally that “these prisoners are not in Syria.” Kallas, however, remains unconvinced, as does Ali Abou Dahen after spending 13 years in Syrian jails himself.
Speaking to NOW Lebanon, Abou Dahen attacked both men for their positions on the soldiers still in Syrian prisons, exclaiming, “Both of them denied it! If Hassan [Nasrallah] denied it, well… But Aoun! He can’t deny it because some of his soldiers are still in the prison.” “Now, I can’t forgive Aoun for saying this,” he said resolutely.

Abou Dahen was arrested in 1987, charged as a spy and then tortured until he confessed. Until December 2000, shortly after the death of then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, he was shuttled from prison to prison. “Now, pray that Bashar al-Assad dies so that my friends – they will go free too,” he half-joked.
Asked whether he could forgive Syria as Aoun had done, Abou Dahen said, “I can forgive the Syrian people but not the Syrian government.” “They were 108 [prisoners] in ten rooms,” Abou Dahen recalled the day he left Syria to return home. “When I put my head on the pillow, till now, I think of them.”

Is it so easy to forgive and forget? “We should find a balance between the right of remembrance and the duty of forgetfulness,” then-Culture Minister Ghassan Salameh suggested in 2004, voicing an enigmatic sentiment held by many Lebanese. The power-sharing Taif Agreement may have brought an end to much of the fighting when it was signed in 1989, but the hasty amnesty that came in August 1991, pardoning war crimes and even crimes against humanity, did much to set Lebanon back. With Aoun, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Kataeb head Amin Gemayel all back from jail or exile, the political scene of the late 1980s has been recreated in many ways. Even with dramatic shifts in alignments, the players remain the same, as does the game.

And, while it is commendable that Aoun is a forgiving man, Lebanon would do well to consider just how much he is willing to forget. Are his men still in Syrian prisons doomed to be forgotten, all in the name of political pragmatism?

NOW LEBANON ::: Date: 3/14/2008 4:27:23 PM