After more than a year of failing to elect a president, Lebanon's fractured politicians may finally be rallying behind a candidate -- a childhood friend of Syria's leader Bashar al-Assad.
Suleiman Frangieh, who would become the first Lebanese president who was a child during the country’s 15-year civil war, has made no secret of his close ties to Assad.
But his potential candidacy is coming as a surprise to many in a country that has been roiled by the war in Syria next door and that has seen major efforts in recent years to reduce longstanding Syrian influence.
Lebanon’s presidency has been vacant since May 2014, with the country’s chronically divided parliament unable to agree on a successor to Michel Sleiman after his term expired.
Under Lebanon’s constitution, the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian and both of the country’s two main political blocs have backed their own candidates for the post.
The Western- and Saudi-backed bloc led by former prime minister Saad Hariri, which is bitterly opposed to the Syrian regime, has backed Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces party.
The bloc led by the Hezbollah movement, which is allied with Iran and backs Assad, supports the candidacy of ex-general Michel Aoun.
The bitter division between the camps has seen parliament meet 32 times without managing to elect a president.
But in recent weeks a new consensus appears to be emerging, with Hariri meeting Marada movement leader Frangieh in Paris and the Lebanese press swiftly anointing the 50-year-old the leading candidate for the presidency.
In a landmark move, Saudi Arabia has welcomed the initiative, with the kingdom’s ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Asiri saying, “We bless this step”.
“The presidency is a Lebanese choice only and the kingdom does not interfere in this decision, but it blesses this national initiative,” Asiri said, in comments carried by Lebanon’s National News Agency.
Like many of Lebanon’s prominent political figures, Frangieh hails from a storied dynasty and has been deeply affected by the civil war, which began when he was 10.
Frangieh’s grandfather, his namesake, was president when the war began and in May 1976 called on the Syrian army to intervene in the conflict to repel an offensive by Palestinian, Sunni and Druze militias against embattled Christian forces.
The appeal opened the door for a controversial Syrian presence in Lebanon that only ended in 2005, after the assassination of Hariri’s father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, whose death many in Lebanon blamed on the Syrian regime.
In 1978, Frangieh’s father Tony, along with his mother and sister, were murdered by rival Christian fighters in an attack he survived because he was elsewhere in the country at the time.
His potential rival Geagea, then a Christian fighter, was accused of carrying out the attack, during which he was reportedly wounded in the hand.
Frangieh left school at 17 to become head of Marada, at the time a militia movement.
He was elected to parliament in 1991 and reelected multiple times in his family’s traditional fiefdom in northern Lebanon.
“He is of the war generation and was a victim himself because he lost his relatives,” said Hilal Khashan, head of the political science department at the American University in Beirut.
“He saw Lebanon in all the stages of the war and he will be careful, like those of his generation, not to repeat it,” Khashan added.
He said Frangieh’s chances of becoming president appeared good because “he is a pan-Arabist, which appeals to the Sunnis, and he is supported by the Americans, the Russians, the French, the Saudis, and even the Iranians and Syrians.”
SYRIAN SPHERE OF INFLUENCE
Lebanese media have also speculated that Frangieh’s elevation to the presidency may be part of a deal that will see Hariri, in self-imposed exile since 2011, return to the country as prime minister, a post reserved for Sunnis.
Asked about Frangieh’s candidacy after talks with French President Francois Hollande in Paris Thursday, Hariri said: “There are ongoing dialogues and the atmosphere is positive, hopefully, and the coming days will show that Lebanon will be fine.”
Frangieh’s family has long been close to the Assad clan, with his grandfather known for his warm relations with former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad.
Frangieh has been open about his friendship with Bashar, whom he has known since their youth.
“I’m a friend of President Bashar al-Assad and I am proud of that under all circumstances,” he said in a 2010 interview.
More recently, he praised Syria’s “resistance” during its nearly five-year conflict, saying they “had not backed down, despite the global war against his country.”
Frangieh’s presumptive candidacy — he has not officially announced his interest in the post and still claims to back Aoun — has raised eyebrows in some quarters because of his close ties to Syria.
Damascus’s 30-year presence in Lebanon ended only after massive demonstrations following Rafik Hariri’s assassination, and many view Frangieh as a return to Syrian interference in its smaller neighbour.
Sahar Atrache, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said it was “surprising to see Frangieh proposed as a presidential candidate given his friendship with Assad.”
His election could “put Lebanon once again in the Syrian sphere of influence.”