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Lebanon, Syria to Bolster Military Cooperation

Lebanese defence minister Elias al-Murr discussed security cooperation and strengthening border controls during a visit to Damascus on January 28.

Murr met with top Syrian politicians including President Bashar al-Assad to talk about cooperation between the two countries’ armed forces.

His talks followed the establishment of diplomatic ties and a series of visits by senior Lebanese security and political officials over the past few months to discuss curbing the smuggling of weapons and the movement of Islamist militants across the border between the two states.

Syrian officials say that a group of militants belonging to an Islamist organisation in Lebanon were responsible for a car bombing in Damascus last September in which at least 17 people were killed and 14 injured.

An official news agency in Lebanon reported that the contentious issue of paramilitary bases located inside Lebanon close to the Syrian border also came up during Murr’s talks. These armed camps are run by Palestinian groups controlled by Damascus, say some Lebanese politicians.

A statement issued by Murr’s press office this week noted that the Syrians showed they were ready to “take all the measures necessary to facilitate the Lebanese army’s mission on the border and lead to security and stability in both countries”.

The two sides agreed on mechanisms for running more patrols at sensitive points on the border, the statement said.

Relations between Lebanon and Syria deteriorated following the killing of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri in February 2005. An international tribunal is due to convene this year to look into the assassination, and it is expected that the Syrians will fall under suspicion.

Observers note that the increased military cooperation between the two states is mirrored by the warming of diplomatic relations.

On January 27, Lebanon announced that Damascus had approved the nomination of Michel Khoury, a career diplomat, as the first Lebanese ambassador to Syria. In November, the two countries officially announced they were opening embassies in each other’s capitals as part of establishing diplomatic ties for the first time. Syria has not yet named its ambassador to Beirut.

“Syrian Lebanese relations are going through a temporary honeymoon phase,” said Adnan Ali, a Damascus-based political analyst and a columnist in several Syrian newspapers.

He added that the Lebanese recognise they need to maintain strong relations with Syria in order to stop their country becoming a battleground in future conflicts.

On January 28, a French official told reporters in Beirut that Assad had played a role in preventing Lebanon from being dragged into a conflict with Israel during the latter country’s recent military operation in Gaza.

“President Assad told me he exerted influence to ensure Hezbollah adopted a responsible attitude and showed restraint during events in Gaza,” said Philippe Marini, a French senator acting as envoy for President Nicolas Sarkozy.

A political researcher who spoke on condition of anonymity said Damascus was trying to draw Lebanon into a tripartite military alliance with Moscow to counter United States hegemony over the region.

International powers have showed recently a growing interest in building up the poorly-equipped Lebanese army. The US has substantially increased military assistance for Lebanon over the last few years, while Russia pledged to provide the country with fighter planes last month.

The researcher added that Moscow was reasserting its role in the region. The Russians keep their largest naval contingent in the Middle East at the Syrian port of Tartus.

(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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