UNITED NATIONS - Lebanon's top representative at the United Nations, Ibrahim Assaf, was asked to return home due to pressure from Syria, according to a pan-Arabic newspaper, Asharq al-Awsat. If the paper's report is accurate, Syria may be in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution championing Lebanon's political independence.
Syria's involvement in Lebanese affairs was the main topic of resolution 1559, which the council passed in September 2004. It called for non-government militias such as Hezbollah to disarm, and demanded that Syrian troops leave Lebanon.
According to yesterday's piece in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat, the order to recall Mr. Assaf, who long has served his country as a diplomat at the United Nations, came from Lebanon's foreign minister, Fawzi Salloukh, a Shiite pro-Syrian politician.
One reason cited in the article, drawing from, it said, "informed sources" at Lebanon's Foreign Ministry, was suspicion that Mr. Assaf is "most likely" a source of a story that appeared in The New York Sun that was damaging to Syria's image.
The Sun reported last week that Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, Fayssal Mekdad, told an Arab diplomat that his country would be blamed "every time that a dog dies in Beirut." His comments were made, according to a third diplomat, following a bombing last week that killed a politician and journalist, Gibran Tueni. The Sun did not disclose the source of the quote or identify the Arab diplomat.
The slain journalist's father, Ghassan Tueni, threatened publicly to sue Mr. Mekdad. In turn, Mr. Mekdad publicly denied making the remark. Yesterday's report in Asharq al-Awsat suggested that the timing of Mr. Salloukh's decision to relieve Mr. Assaf of his U.N. duties might be related to growing public anger toward Syria from Lebanon.
Approached by the Sun yesterday, Mr. Mekdad refused to address the circumstances of Mr. Assaf's situation. Mr. Mekdad told Asharq al-Awsat, "There is no truth to the whole matter and we have been friends with Ibrahim Assaf for the whole years that passed," according to an English translation by mideastwire.com.
Mr. Assaf, who was at the United Nations yesterday, did not comment.
When Lebanon's Cedar Revolution began, Beirut's Foreign Ministry froze all changes in foreign diplomatic posts and has not filled a critical vacancy at the United Nations. In lieu of a full-fledged ambassador, Mr. Assaf has represented Beirut at Turtle Bay, where he was well liked and considered effective in representing a government divided by sectarian affiliations and split loyalties.
"I'm surprised," Russia's U.N. ambassador, Andrey Denisov, said yesterday when told of the Asharq al Awsat report. Mr. Denisov described the Lebanese diplomat as a "young, very good diplomat ... not biased. He is straightforward. He works for the nation of Lebanon, and as far as I can tell [does so] very effectively."
America's U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, said that Washington is "considering what to do" about Syria's violations of resolution 1559. The Syrians are "still allowing weapons across the border, still arming the militias, still not allowing full diplomatic recognition" of Lebanon, he told the Sun yesterday. Until now, however, the council was concentrating on the murder of a former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, delaying action on resolution 1559 until after the completion of the probe into the assassination.
According to a U.N.-based diplomat who requested anonymity because of the sensitivities involved, pro-independence members of the Lebanese Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Siniora, began fighting yesterday to reverse the foreign minister's decision on Mr. Assaf.
Along with five other Shiite Cabinet members, Mr. Salloukh suspended his government activities last week to protest Mr. Siniora's request, made in a letter to Secretary-General Annan, that the United Nations extend the mandate of its Hariri probe to include several assassinations of outspoken critics of Syria, including Tueni.
Although none of the Shiite cabinet members announced an end to their self-imposed hiatus, Mr. Salloukh issued the memo requesting Mr. Assaf to return to Beirut "immediately" and asked ministry officials to relay the information therein to the U.N. diplomat, according to Asharq al-Awsat. "Sources said that this move was to serve Syrian wishes," the newspaper reported.
Separately, the U.N. undersecretary general for political affairs, Ibrahim Gambari, told the Sun that a Belgian magistrate, Serge Brammertz, has not yet agreed officially to replace the German investigator Detlev Mehlis, the leader of the U.N. probe into the Hariri assassination. Mr. Brammertz, who currently serves at the U.N.-backed International Criminal Court, met late last week with Mr. Annan. America has been a strong opponent of the ICC.