The Regional Lebanon Deal: What Does it Mean?

A Lebanon agreement seems to be emerging that would give the Maronite president more power than he has had since the Taif Agreement of 1989 empowered the Sunni Prime Minister at the expense of the Maronites.

Arab ministers meeting in Cairo yesterday announced that they had arrived at an agreement, which would involve two important steps.

1. The first step is the immediate passage of a constitutional amendment to allow Michel Suleiman to become President.

2. The second step is to be the formation of nation unity government.

As we know, the nature of such a national unity government has been contested over the last year and has been the major point of contention between the opposition and parliamentary majority. Hizbullah and Aoun have demanded a blocking third of the cabinet, which has been unacceptable for the March 14 bloc.

Most news stories are still not including details of the proposed national unity government. Naharnet is an example: Suleiman For 'Empowered' President by Unanimous Arab Backing.

This al-Nahar article in Arabic spells out the deal as follows:

 – يعقد الاجتماع التالي في 27 الجاري لتقييم نتائج التحرك واتخاذ المواقف اللازمة بشأنه.‏
وكانت قد رجحت مصادر مطلعة نهار امس ان يكون البند المتعلق بحكومة الوحدة الوطنية ‏يتضمن حكومة من 30 وزيراً يكون فيها 10 للموالاة و10 للمعارضة و10 لرئيس الجمهورية.‏

Of the thirty minister cabinet, 10 ministers will be appointed by the majority; 10 will be appointed by the opposition, and ten will be appointed by the president. This formula is a major innovation that gives the president important new power.

Thus, no side will be able to impose a decision or block a decision. (i.e. the ruling part will not have enough votes to impose a two-thirds majority decision, but the opposition will also not have the one-third vote to block decisions.

The president will have the power to break a cabinet vote that divides down parties lines.

This restores power to the Maronite president that was taken away at Taif and given to the Sunni Prime Minister. It does not give Hizbullah the power it demanded and seems to be a real concession on its part. Ultimately, it takes power away from the Muslims and places it into the hands of the Maronites.

One reading of the tea leaves suggests that Farouq al-Sharaa's visit to the Pope roughly two months ago was to reassure him that Syria favored a greater role for the Maronite presidency. Sfeir has been insisting for some time that a Suleiman presidency requiring a constitutional amendment would be better than a March 14 decision imposed by a simple majority in contravention of the constitution and in contravention of the spirit of the Lebanese tradition of consensus among the sects. Sfeir has been sensitive to Maronite anxieties that Hariri and the Sunnis have taken too much power from the Maronites. He has been leery of a Maronite backlash against a purely March 14 solution to Lebanon's impasse.

The length of a Suleiman presidency was also in dispute. It seems to have been resolved by the acceptance of a shorter term of 2 years, which would allow Suleiman to preside over parliamentary elections due to take place in 2009 and the drawing up of a new election law to precede the parliamentary elections. General Aoun had demanded that it not extend beyond 2-3 years. He hopes to become president following Suleiman's term.

Who benefits? 

Pro March 14 news outlets suggest that the deal only came about due to severe pressure on Syria. They suggest that it is a win for Saudi Arabia and the March 14 allies of the US and France.

Naharnet writes:

News reports said Muallem backed the Arab plan on Lebanon after his Saudi counterpart threatened that the Saudi Monarch would boycott the forthcoming Arab Summit to be held in Damascus in March if Syria continued to block the presidential elections in Lebanon.

Nickolas Blanford in Time explains that Syria faced greater isolation and a reinvigorated UN investigation because it had not disciplined Lebanon's opposition. Both France and the US were fed up with Lebanese opposition insistence on a blocking third. Bush had gone on record to say he was "fed up with Syria," and Blanford writes:

Sarkozy's efforts to engage Syria appear to have foundered, and, in a calculated swipe at the Syrian regime, he immediately followed his announcement of severed contacts with a promise to release funds for the international tribunal being established in the Netherlands to judge the accused killers of Hariri.

This is how Nasrallah responded to such threats in his televised speech: (Quote thanks to mideastwire.com)

"Indeed the recent statement of President Sarkozy in which he pointed to the issue of the international tribunal means that there is a sort of enticement and intimidation policy, which means that he might have informed Syria that if it extends some help on the Lebanese issue, they will suspend the international court. But in my capacity as a Lebanese oppositionist, I want to submit testimony for history. Syria indeed has an interest in resuming good French-Syrian relations and good Arab relations. Syria indeed has an interest in resuming good European-Syrian relations. It definitely has an interest in distracting the phantom of the international court. But if Syria was only considering its own interests, it would have came to the opposition and pressured it and embarrassed it.

"Eventually Syria is capable of applying pressures, but whether the opposition responds or not is another issue. What happened is that Syria came and talked to the opposition, not all the opposition indeed because there are no contacts for example between Syria and General Aoun. They came and asked us: You as an opposition, what do you accept and what do you refuse?

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora

called the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt on Sunday, as well as other Arab officials, to thank them for helping find a solution to the crisis, his office said in a statement.

Saniora also called pro-government Lebanese officials and urged them to back the Arab initiative, calling it "a major development on the road to solving the crisis in Lebanon."

But Syrian and Iranian officials have also been underlining their positive role.

Larijani, Iran's foreign minister, who was visiting the Syrian capital of Damascus, said Iran supports any push to create consensus among the Lebanese people. "We wish success for Amr Moussa's efforts" said Larijani, referring to the head of the Arab League, who is scheduled to visit Lebanon in the coming days.

Speaking from Cairo,

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told Hezbollah's Al-Manar television that his country has repeatedly said it is ready to help end Lebanon's political crisis but "cannot put pressure on anyone in Lebanon because the solution should be Lebanese."

Speaking about his meeting Saturday with Saudi counterpart Saud al-Faisal, al-Moallem said, "Syria has its friends in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia has its friends in Lebanon and we have agreed to cooperate."

Al-Moallem was apparently referring to Hariri, who holds Saudi citizenship and has close relations with the royal family in the oil-rich nation.

Syrian Commentators writing on this site also argue that Syria comes out a winner.

Alex writes:

Basically, the president wins much more power … he has a number of ministers (appointed by him) who will make sure that

1) the majority (Seniora) does not have 2/3 as they wanted and

2) the opposition does not have the 1/3 they wanted

Not what Hizbollah wanted, and not what Hariri wanted … they both do not have enough power to force their agenda on the other side … only the President has that new power which is … a modification to Taif ! Hizbollah will be barely able to accept it .. but I hope they will.

The Christians win. The Shiites (Hizbollah) should be able to live with it even though they are not overly empowered through this arrangement (which makes them less perceived as a threat to the M14 group) and Syria gets its favorite man as President (General Sleiman) without worrying about a Seniora government that can be a threat to Syria. (In Arabic the full resolution)

And Syria wins. They got their man (Sleiman) to be the most powerful man in Lebanon … they did not disappoint Aoun (they did not sell him easily) and they weakened and constrained the Saudi (Sunni) power in Lebanon … without allowing Hizbollah to grow too powerful.

Isn’t that exactly what Syria wanted in the first place?

On top of that it looks like Syria was flexible.

EHSANI2 said:

Alex, Your analysis is on the mark. This is effectively the virtual undoing of the Taif accord. The power swings back to the Christian President.

Damascus played this chess game superbly. It agreed on the deal without seemingly being pressured by France or the U.S. It showed that it is only its leadership that can swing the vote. Its foreign minister stated that it supports a President for Lebanon “fawran…immediately”.

The U.S. has redefined victory in Lebanon in the election of a President there. It can now claim it won.

France has spent so much energy but won little publicly for this final resolution. Damascus upstaged it and won the publicity game as well.

Saudi seems to have agreed to yield more powers to the President’s office. Hariri does not have much to show for his efforts. Like Bush, his victory has been redefined as pushing for the election of Michele Suleiman. I guess he too can claim he won.

The Christians of Lebanon can thank Bashar but they will not of course. Events were moving beyond their direct control or understanding of the bigger picture encircling the region.

Regardless of who won or lost though, this is a major victory and breakthrough for the region.

Honest Patriot, a Lebanese, concludes:

Regardless of how the developments are spun by this or that as their victory, I just pray that deflation does indeed happen. All’s well that ends well and, speaking for myself, I really don’t care who gets the credit. [And judging by your prediction, it sounds like everyone will claim success]. The majority of Lebanese just want to be able to go to their jobs, work hard at advancing their status. I hope they will soon be given the chance to do this more effectively than the current conditions permit.

Nasrallah said in his recent speech that no one can pressure Hizbullah, not even Syria. But he added that as a friend, Syria can ask a lot and Hizbullah will consider it. Perhaps he was preparing his people for a climb down?

In conclusion, here is a final roundup by Alex:

This was not simply a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Arab league. A serious deal was reached, at the regional and at the Lebanese levels. Here is what happened:

1) Prime minister of Qatar visited Bashar in Damascus the day before

2) Foreign ministers of KSA, Egypt, Qatar and Syria met in Moussa's house. That's where the final agreement was reached. At first Saud al-faisal told Mouallem that Syria's allies are asking for the undoable and that Saudi Arabia (and Egypt) are not going to be attending the Arab Summit if Syria does not help convince her allies to reduce their demands (Which implies that KSA and Egypt WILL attend the Arab summit in Damascus now). Then, Moussa suggested a compromise .. which I suspect he knew already from the Qatari prime minister who was in Damascus earlier, that Syria will accept.

3) They called Seniora to inform him of the deal they reached (to inform him) and and he replied "I completely welcome" the agreement.

4) Hizbollah people were contacted and they expressed a similar opinion. But I have not heard a clear statement from Nasrallah yet.

As I said earlier, I expect that Hizbollah will require some clarification behind the scene when Mouallem comes back … this agreement is borderline acceptable to them. Although I tend to think that wen the Iranian envoy was in Damascus that day and gave his blessing to "Syria's efforts to settle the conflict in Lebanon" that Hizbollah took part in the decision to go along with the eventual Arab League formula.

5) Saad Hariri called this agreement "Noble and Historic" .. that's good enough I assume.

6) Nothing yet from Junblatt and Geagea. They also will need to hear some details from Tareq Mitri when he comes back to Beirut.

Before the Arab league meeting, M14 figures asked Arab ambassadors (Egypt etc) to take firm actions to punish Syria. Similar escalation came from the opposition side. Lebanese Information Minister held a news conference in which he compared the tense situation in Lebanon to that which preceded the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and expressed his worries that similar bloodshed might be ahead for Lebanon if an agreement is not reached.

Most likely we will see many new difficulties. But whatever the extent of the influence of outsiders (Syria and KSA at a direct level, then the United States and Iran behind them) an agreement was reached on the outside after consulting with their allies on the inside. We will now find out if the Lebanese themselves are to blame for their own problems or not.

It remains unclear how this deal will alter the Saudi-Syria competition in the region.

Syria is counting on its backing of Lebanon's Maronites to pay off in the future. It believes that Lebanon's Maronites are more naturally allies of Syria than they are of Saudi Arabia. If Syria can cement the growing alliance between Lebanon's Shiites and Maronites in order to separate them from the Sunni community, which has become ardently anti-Syrian and pro-Saudi, Damascus may be able to cultivate a friendly Lebanon well into the future. Syria is trying to position itself as the protector and benefactor of the region's Christians, not only by coming to their aid in Lebanon, but also by giving Iraqi Christians refuge as they are driven out of Iraq and by supporting secularism. As Washington allies itself with strictly Sunni Saudi Arabia, Syria is positioning itself as an ally – not just of Shiites, but of all minorities. This Syrian stand as the champion of all minorities and secular Arabs may actually convince Israel – the Jewish state – to take a second look at making peace with Syria.

Comments (60)


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51. T said:

AIG-
Well i called it right when I emphasized ‘theater’. I mean really, your histrionics are absurd- I have never said I “adored” Bashar, or even tolerated him. I havent addressed Bashar. I attempt to clean up my own back yard (US and Israel) before that of other countries because its my duty- I pay taxes to underwrite US-Israel behavior, not Syria’s. I dont pay to support Baath, nor do I pretend to care about democracy so that I can further a zionist agenda to overthrow Baath. And I certainly dont pay taxes to undemocratically overthrow governments that wont do what we want.

And what is it with all those ?????????????????? bullets in your posts? Subliminal smoking gun message? ADD or manic disorder? Or is it just grammatical bad manners. For God’s sake get hold of your punctuation. There is no excuse for that kind of behavior here- this is an educated, literate blog! Its not fair to those who DO adhere to grammatical rules. Again, please clean up your act- on all levels.

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January 7th, 2008, 10:18 pm

 

52. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

T,
If you don’t care to discuss Syria, what are you doing on this blog? There are much better places to attack the US and Israel.

And if you do care about Syria, what is your position about Bashar? Should his rule be supported even though he denys basic rights to most Syrians? And if yes, why?

Those ?????????? are there to highlight the simple question that you can’t answer: Why you demand a better western press but ignore completely the lack of freedom of press in Syria? Why don’t you understand that freedom of press in Syria is what is holding Syria back and not how good the media in the US is????????????????????????
The solutions for Syria come from reforming Syria and not from reforming the NY Times. This is so obvious except to some Arabs like you. I cannot figure out your weird way of thinking.

Even if you assume I am only advocating democracy to push some other agenda (which?), how can you fail to understand that changing the NY Times will not help make the life of any Syrian better? It is only by changing the regime so that it treats Syrians as western democracies treat their own citizens that Syria will imporve.

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January 7th, 2008, 10:38 pm

 

53. T said:

Ron Pauls offense? He advocates cutting aid to Israel- and all other foreign nations. And he demands no foreign interventions in Iran or Syria and the following resolution during Israel’s 2006 War on Lebanon got him branded antisemitic. This is why those media-control demographics matter.

December 26, 2007, 8:24 pm
Editors’ Note: The Ron Paul Vid-Lash
By The New York Times

A post in The Medium that appeared on Monday about the Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul and his purported adoption by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups contained several errors. Stormfront, which describes itself as a “white nationalist” Internet community, did not give money to Ron Paul’s presidential campaign; according to Jesse Benton, a spokesman for Paul’s campaign, it was Don Black, the founder of Stormfront, who donated $500 to Paul. The original post also repeated a string of assertions by Bill White, the commander of the American National Socialist Workers Party, including the allegation that Paul meets regularly “with members of the Stormfront set, American Renaissance, the Institute for Historic Review and others” at a restaurant in Arlington, Va. Paul never attended these dinners, according to Benton, who also says that Paul has never knowingly met Bill White. Norman Singleton, a congressional aide in Paul’s office, says that he met Bill White at a dinner gathering of conservatives several years ago, after which Singleton expressed his indignation at the views espoused by White to the organizer of the dinner. The original post should not have been published with these unverified assertions and without any response from Paul.
Comments (319) E-mail this
The Israel Resolution
by Ron Paul
Before the U.S. House of Representatives, July 20, 2006

I rise in opposition to this resolution, which I sincerely believe will do more harm than good.

I do agree with the resolution’s condemnation of violence. But I am convinced that when we get involved in foreign conflicts and send strong messages, such as this resolution will, it ends up expanding the war rather than diminishing the conflict, and that ultimately comes back to haunt us.

Mr. Speaker, I follow a policy in foreign affairs called non-interventionism. I do not believe we are making the United States more secure when we involve ourselves in conflicts overseas. The Constitution really doesn’t authorize us to be the policemen of the world, much less to favor one side over another in foreign conflicts. It is very clear, reading this resolution objectively, that all the terrorists are on one side and all the victims and the innocents are on the other side. I find this unfair, particularly considering the significantly higher number of civilian casualties among Lebanese civilians. I would rather advocate neutrality rather than picking sides, which is what this resolution does.

Some would say that there is no room to talk about neutrality, as if neutrality were a crime. I would suggest there should be room for an open mind to consider another type of policy that may save American lives.

I was in Congress in the early 1980s when the US Marines were sent in to Lebanon, and I came to the Floor before they went, when they went, and before they were killed, arguing my case against getting involved in that conflict.

Ronald Reagan, when he sent the troops in, said he would never turn tail and run. Then, after the Marines were killed, he had a reassessment of the policy. When he wrote his autobiography a few years later after leaving the Presidency, he wrote this.

Perhaps we didn’t appreciate fully enough the depth of the hatred and the complexity of the problems that made the Middle East such a jungle. Perhaps the idea of a suicide car bomber committing mass murder to gain instant entry to Paradise was so foreign to our own values and consciousness that it did not create in us the concern for the marines’ safety that it should have.

In the weeks immediately after the bombing, I believe the last thing that we should do was turn tail and leave. Yet the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics forced us to rethink our policy there. If there would be some rethinking of policy before our men die, we would be a lot better off. If that policy had changed towards more of a neutral position and neutrality, those 241 marines would be alive today.

It is very easy to criticize the Government of Lebanon for not doing more about Hezbollah. I object to terrorism committed by Hezbollah because I am a strong opponent to all violence on all sides. But I also object to the unreasonable accusations that the Government of Lebanon has not done enough, when we realize that Israel occupied southern Lebanon for 18 years and was not able to neutralize Hezbollah.

Mr. Speaker, There is nothing wrong with considering the fact that we don’t have to be involved in every single fight. That was the conclusion that Ronald Reagan came to, and he was not an enemy of Israel. He was a friend of Israel. But he concluded that that is a mess over there. Let me just repeat those words that he used. He said, he came to the conclusion, “The irrationality of Middle Eastern politics forced us to rethink our policy there.” I believe these words are probably more valid now even than when they were written.

July 21, 2006

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January 7th, 2008, 11:24 pm

 

54. Joshua said:

Michael Young writes:

So let me get this straight. According to what you imply in the quoted sentence, Syria’s destiny is to be a partner of Israel, since Jews are a minority in the Middle East, as are Shiites, Maronites, Alawites, etc. Or at least the Israelis must understand it that way and make peace with Syria accordingly.

That’s quite remarkable news. Has is occurred to you that that’s precisely the line the Assad regime, ever keen to bolster its Arab nationalist credentials, has spent the last 38 years furiously trying to dispel in order to survive in a mostly Sunni Arab world?

If this is the regime’s new policy; if peace with Israel is what the Syrian regime needs to break out of its isolation, then we are in for some truly amusing times ahead.

I wonder if the regime shares your fervor. I expect they know better, and would not particularly applaud so bold an appeal for Israeli approval and friendship.

The Syrian Baath Party has always pursued a two track policy on Arab nationalism.

It attracted a heavy minoritarian following during its early years as its ideologues, Zaki Arsuzi an Michel Aflaq, sought to define much of the traditional Sunni religious baggage out of Arab nationalism.

This focus on secularism left the party open to attacks that it was Godless and anti-Sunni. Jalal al-Sayyid, one of the founding Sunni fathers of the party, after leaving the party in the mid-1950s, wrote the first book laying out these accusations, which were later repeated more vociferously by the Muslim Brothers.

The Party’s founding members bent over backwards to deny this and to stress the that its values were identical with those of the “eternal message” of the Semitic religious tradition. Aflaq famously declared Muhammad the exemplar Arab nationalist, and the like. As you correctly state, the Asad regime spent the last 38 years furiously trying to dispel [the notion that it was a minoritiarian regime] in order to survive in a mostly Sunni Arab world?

The Baathists tried to combine the “secular,” minoritarian appeal of the Syrian nationalist party with the Arabism of the traditional Sunni nationalist parties, such as Quwatli’s Hizb al-Watani. It made Arabism minority friendly. It allied Syria’s minority communities with rural Sunnis.

The danger of Baathism, as a national-socialist party that stressed the Arab ethnic foundations of the nation, was that it would become fascist and virulently anti-minoritarian. This, I would argue, is what happened in Iraq under Saddam. He led racist campaigns against Jews, Kurds, and Shiites as non-Arabs who were treasonous. Many were killed or driven from the country.

Syria avoided this turn toward fascism, perhaps in part because the Assad family presided over the Party. It has made sectarian tolerance and stability the center of its policy.

But it has not shrunk from supporting regional minorities even in the face of Sunni criticism.

When Syria intervened in Lebanon, it was to support the Christians and preserve Lebanon’s religious balance. One can argue that this was done for purely cynical reasons of divide-and-rule, but this misses the larger picture. Syria promotes religious balance within Syria as well. It is the heart of regime strategy and national interest.

It is for this reason that Syrian Christians have stood beside the Baath party and Asad regime so resolutely.

When I call the Asad regime a “minority regime” in front of Sunni Syrian friends, I am frequently corrected. They point out to me that Sunnis are as responsible for the regime as Alawites. When push came to shove in 1982 at the time of the Hama revolt, the Damascene Sunni elite stepped forward to support Hafiz al-Asad. Ratib Shallah and other Sunni merchant leaders chose the regime over the Muslim Brothers. They determined that the secular Baath with all its shortcomings was better for the country and for them than Sunni radicals. They sided with the Baath and kept Damascus calm. They saved the regime. The Asads never forgot it and gave Sunni merchants the lion’s share in determining Syria’s economic path.(incomplete)

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January 7th, 2008, 11:37 pm

 

55. Qifa Nabki said:

All this talk of different sectarian groups in Lebanon “winning” and “losing” as a result of this or that deal somehow does not ring true to me. Perhaps I have become a cynic as a result of this whole debacle, but I simply cannot see any deal sticking for long.

Lebanon has reached a point of no return.

The standoff between M14 and the Lebanese opposition has finally exposed the realities of a broken and corrupted system, which the Civil War might have done had it not been for the Ta’if Accord’s 17 year-long artificial resuscitation.

The cat is out of the bag, the milk has been spilled, the pink elephant has come out from behind the lampshade.

Not even Syria can make Lebanon “work” anymore, until the system is overhauled. No matter how much money Saad al-Hariri attracts from the Gulf, no matter how stentorian Michel Suleiman’s cheekbones make him look, no matter how secure the Maronites feel… the armistice will simply not hold.

Something’s gotta give.

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January 8th, 2008, 1:27 am

 

56. Qifa Nabki said:

On a more mundane level, how can anyone still believe that we can refer unironically to such entities as “The Maronites” or “The Christians”… as though they were homogeneous communities that thought, breathed, and acted as one?

The Christians of Lebanon are a mockery of a political constituency… they are so divided, embittered, and (often) self-hating that they couldn’t be counted on to feel at ease with a political solution if you handed the entire country to them on a silver platter. Half of them would still be emigrating to Canada, and the other half would be painting LF and FPM slogans on each others walls.

It is the Christian zu`ama’ who are trying to sell the world the illusion of Christian unity. Nobody else (really) buys it.

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January 8th, 2008, 1:34 am

 

57. norman said:

jOSHUA,

iT IS SO GOOD TO READ YOUR POST IT MAKES A LOT OF SENCE.

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January 8th, 2008, 2:47 am

 

58. Alex said:

Qifa Nabki,

I agree but the options now are:

1) confrontations (inside and outside Lebanon)
2) This temp solution … until the next elections, and after they modify the elections law … and that modification will prove challenging I assume.

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January 8th, 2008, 4:59 am

 

59. Welcome | Project on Middle East Democracy said:

[…] In the Christian Science Monitor, Nicholas Blanford discusses the ongoing efforts of the Arab League to help resolve the political crisis in Lebanon.  Arab ministers agreed in Cairo on Saturday to the following two actions: the immediate passage of a constitutional amendment to allow Michel Suleiman to become President and the formation of national unity government.  On his blog, Joshua Landis describes the Arab League proposal as giving ”the Maronite president more power than he has had since the Taif Agreement of 1989 empowered the Sunni Prime Minister at the expense of the Maronites.”  While Landis highlights that Syria’s compromise will be utilized to cultivate a friendly relationship with the Lebanese Christian community, Mustapha at Beirut Spring urges caution on the deal, citing the external threat of Iran’s influence. […]

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January 8th, 2008, 8:28 pm

 

60. Enid Houston said:

Michael Young has finally given the Assad’s their historical due….

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January 9th, 2008, 8:52 am

 

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