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Lebanese and Syrian Presidents to Discuss Missing Persons

Lebanese president Michel Suleiman and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad are expected to discuss the sensitive issue of hundreds of missing Lebanese people, as they meet in Damascus this week.

Many families of the missing Lebanese blame Syria for their disappearances, and the subject has been a point of contention between the Syrian authorities and anti-Syrian leaders in Lebanon.

Resolving the cases is considered crucial to the success of Syria and Lebanon’s attempt to establish diplomatic relations.

The matter is expected to be high on the agenda as Suleiman, who has enjoyed a good relationship with Syria in the past, makes his first visit to Damascus as head of state on August 13 and 14.

“Syria wants to close this file completely,” the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir reported on August 12.

Beirut-based organisation SOLIDE, which campaigns for Lebanese who have disappeared, estimates that 640 people are missing. Most disappeared during the country’s civil war in the Eighties, when Syria gained substantial power in Lebanon, and later when Syria controlled Lebanese politics and security in the Nineties.

Suleiman mentioned the disappeared in his inaugural address in May 2008, “which indicates how important this issue is in any future relations between Syria and Lebanon”, said a political analyst from Damascus.

“Truth and justice would heal the wounds,” he said.

In June 2005, after the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon, a Syrian-Lebanese committee was established to investigate missing persons from both countries. Little headway has been made as relations between the countries have been strained.

However, Syrian foreign minister Walid Al-Moallem said in a press conference in Lebanon last month that he hoped the committee would make progress soon.

Moallem was reportedly dismissive of the families of missing Lebanese who demonstrated near the press conference. While the Lebanese have been vocal about the fate of the missing for many years, Syrians have recently hit back with accusations that Syrians have also gone missing in Lebanon.

In an event widely covered by the pro-government media, dozens of Syrian families who asserted that their family members had gone missing in Lebanon protested in front of the interior ministry in Damascus on August 12, the day before Suleiman’s visit.

The protest was organised by a civil society group campaigning for Syrians which maintains that some 850 Syrians went missing in Lebanon during the civil war from 1975 to 1990 and after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005.

The protesters called on Interior Minister Bassam Abdulmajid to inquire about cases with the Lebanese authorities.

Damascus has denied any involvement in the cases of missing Lebanese.

In some cases, arrested Lebanese disappeared in the prison system, claim activists.

Milad Barakat – a Lebanese who was arrested for fighting the Syrian military in 1992 and whose family visited him for several years in Syria – was released in March 2008 after serving 16 years there.

His family lost track of him seven years ago, according to SOLIDE, which reported that he had served time in the Saidnaya military prison in Damascus.

Also in March, the London-based Syrian Committee for Human Rights reported that a former Syrian prisoner had met two Lebanese detainees during his detention in Al-Hasakah province in Syria.

The detainees reportedly claimed they were arrested in Syria in October 1990, when the country defeated Lebanese general Michel Aoun in Beirut. Lebanese newspaper Al-Mustaqbal recently published the names of 177 Lebanese who are missing – some of them since the 1990 battle – and are believed to be held in Syria.

But a human rights activist from Damascus said most of the Syrian prisoners released over the last few years knew little about Lebanese prisoners. He said that while some Lebanese who are believed to be in Syria could be held in secret detention facilities, it is unlikely that many will have survived.

"And if they are dead, how will the regime explain their deaths, and that they are buried on [Syrian] territory?” he asked.

A human rights activist from Aleppo, who worked on the cases of missing for several years, said if the Syrian government admitted involvement in cases of Lebanese who have disappeared, Beirut would also be forced to respond to Syrian families demanding to know the whereabouts of their missing relatives.

(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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