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Damascus Hails Lebanese Foe Turned Ally

Christian leader Michel Aoun this week became the latest in a series of Lebanese officials who have visited Syria recently to seek better relations between the two countries.

The emergence of a more pragmatic relationship between Beirut and Damascus comes despite dissident voices in Lebanon who still accuse their neighbours of meddling in their country’s affairs.

On December 3, Aoun, formerly Syria’s fiercest enemy, paid a historic visit to Damascus and received a cordial welcome from President Bashar al-Assad.

Aoun, who was once forced into exile after being defeated by Syrian troops, has now emerged as a strong ally of Damascus, and was hailed there as a symbol of “courage, openness and sincerity”.

President Assad’s political advisor Buthaina Shaaban said the visit opened up a new era in bilateral relations which would be to the advantage of both states, according to the state news agency SANA.

The 73 year-old former general described his talks with Assad as a “heart-to-heart” meeting, adding that he saw a “bright future” for relations between the two neighbouring states.

"We are turning a new page where there is no victor and no loser. This is a return to normal relations," Aoun said at a news conference following his two-hour meeting with Assad.

Relations between the two states started improving after feuding political factions in Lebanon signed an agreement in Doha in May. The deal was partly facilitated by Syria. Following the accord, Lebanon elected a new consensus president.

Aoun, who heads the largest Christian bloc in the Lebanese parliament, said his visit to Damascus was justified since Lebanon and Syria formally announced they were establishing diplomatic ties in October.

Aoun and the Syrians were once fierce opponents. In 1989, towards the end of Lebanon’s civil war, Aoun headed a Christian-led government and waged a “war of liberation” against the Syrian troops stationed in the country.

Defeated by the Syrian army, he was driven out of the presidential palace near Beirut and went into exile in France in 1990.

Leading the opposition from abroad, Aoun testified against the Damascus regime in Washington and reportedly campaigned for the Syrian Accountability Act, a document accusing the country of fostering terrorism and developing weapons of mass destruction. The act, which called on Syria to end its presence in Lebanon, was passed by the US Congress in 2003.

In May 2005, the ex-general returned to Lebanon, following the withdrawal of the last Syrian troops under internal and international pressure. Their departure marked the end of a nearly three-decade long military presence.

Aoun softened his tone towards Damascus after he unexpectedly formed an alliance in 2006 with the Iranian- and Syrian-backed militant group Hezbollah.

Talking about his war with the Syrians at this week’s press conference, Aoun said, "That is an old story that is now over. We must have better relations with Syria."

Observers say that many Lebanese politicians now realise they cannot afford to maintain a hostile position towards the Syrians.

“The Lebanese realise… that the key to a solution in Lebanon lies in Damascus,” said Adnan Ali, a Damascus-based political analyst who writes for the official daily Al-Thawra.

Ali said changing Lebanese views about the Syrians resulted from the United State’s failed policies in the Middle East and also from Syria’s emergence from international isolation after channels of communication opened up with European states, France in particular. He added that the Lebanese realise that Syria is a regional power, and that it is not in their interest to have hostile relationship with it.

Last weekend, Lebanese army general Jean Qahwagi visited Damascus to discuss joining forces to stop Islamist militants crossing their common border. Interior minister Ziad Baroud also met officials in Damascus recently to talk about cooperation on security matters.

But for some Lebanese politicians, with so many outstanding issues remaining between the two states, Beirut and Damascus cannot be on good terms.

"Reconciliation with the Syrian regime is impossible," said Walid Jumblat, a Druze member of parliament and a staunch opponent of Syria.

"I know the structure of the Syrian regime and I know that they have no mercy for anyone," he said in an interview broadcast on Lebanese television late on December 4.

Jumblat, a leader in the western-backed March 14 coalition, holds Syria responsible for a string of political assassinations, above all that of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.

Damascus denies any involvement in the crime. An international tribunal is due to start looking into Hariri’s murder next spring.

Antoine Zahra, a member of parliament from the March 14 coalition, criticised Aoun for extending a hand to the Syrians before outstanding matters had been resolved. In an interview with a Lebanese local radio station recently, he said that Syria still had not revealed the fate of hundreds of Lebanese nationals missing since the civil war, and believed by their parents to be in Syrian jails.

On December 4, Aoun gave a lecture at Damascus University during which he spoke about Lebanon, Israel and the prospects for peace in the Middle East.

With Lebanon’s next parliamentary election scheduled for spring 2009, Aoun’s Syrian trip may also have been an attempt to score political points at home, by positioning himself as a Christian leader who transcends borders.

Aoun is expected to visit Christian holy sites and meet religious figures during his five-day stay. When he visited old churches in Damascus on December 4, crowds gathered around him waving Lebanese and Syrian flags.

As Christians in Lebanon are politically divided between the western-backed March 14 coalition and the Hezbollah camp, competition for political power among their leaders remains very strong.

“Aoun is showing himself to be a protector to Christians not only in Lebanon but also in the whole of the east,” said Ghassan Saoud, an analyst writing for the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar.

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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