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Syrian-Lebanese Relations at Crossroads

Analysts say relations between Lebanon and Syria are at a crossroads following the election of army general Michel Suleiman as Lebanon’s new president.

Suleiman was chosen by the divided Lebanese parties largely because he is seen as a neutral figure, something of a rarity in that country.

Damascus, which once controlled Lebanese politics and remains a strong ally of the Hezbollah movement, welcomed Suleiman’s appointment. President Bashar al-Assad phoned the new Lebanese leader to congratulate him.

After taking the presidential oath earlier this week, Suleiman said Syria and Lebanon should continue their “special relationship based on equality”, and display “mutual respect for each country’s sovereignty and borders, and diplomatic relations that are mutually beneficial”.

Wrote in the government's Tishreen newspaper, Omar Jafalti said, “National reconciliation has restored to Lebanon the balance and accord which it has lacked in recent months.... Hopes are pinned on this new era under President Michel Suleiman, so that the Doha agreement is implemented and Lebanon returns to the Arab family flourishing, stable and harmonious.”

Syrian officials did not offer predictions as to how bilateral relations would fare under the new Lebanese government.

Analysts in the country said Suleiman’s neutral stance made it hard to predict how his presidency might affect the relationship, but they agreed that restoring normal ties would not be easy.

Suleiman’s emphasis on the need for an equal relationship may be a hint that he will work with Damascus but does not want the Syrians to seek to control Lebanese politics.

Safwan Akkash, a political analyst and a leading figure in the banned Communist Labour Party said that all Lebanese parties – even those opposed to the government in Damascus – recognised the importance of the relationship with Beirut.

“Establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries does not mean [relations] are bad, but it does not mean they are good either,” he said, but argued that the formal expressions of approval for Suleiman’s appointment were “a sign that tensions are decreasing between the two countries”.

Lebanon is now “a grown-up”, he said, and has the right to decide for itself what kind of relations it wants to have with Syria.

Fouad Siniora, whose pro-western government was in confrontation with Syria after it came to power in 2005, was named prime minister-designate this week despite opposition from Hezbollah.

Analysts say the future of ties between the two countries will not be determined by Suleiman alone, and will require a difficult consensus between the various factions.

“Establishing diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon is more complicated than the Lebanese president merely desiring or deciding it,” said Mazen Darwish, who heads the Damascus-based Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression.

Darwish noted that restoring diplomatic ties did not automatically mean the relationship would be healthy or equal. If Syria opens an embassy in Beirut, it could indicate a desire to re-engage in Lebanese politics as much as a thaw in relations.

He added that from the government’s perspective, “Syria wants to guarantee two things – sustaining the influence and strength of its allies, particularly Hezbollah, and ensuring that Lebanon is not used as a launch-pad for attacks against the Syrian regime.”

Developments at the United Nation’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which will try those suspected of involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, are likely to be a defining factor in how the relationship progresses. The tribunal is expected to start work in 2009.

Michel al-Tammo, spokesman for the Kurdish group Al-Mustaqbal, claimed that Damascus had tried to stall the court proceedings, arguing that “the regime’s interests lie in instability in Lebanon”.

Akkash disagreed, saying the government must have breathed a sigh of relief when Suleiman became president.

“It’s not at all in Syria’s interest to have a neighbouring country suffering from turmoil that could spill over into civil war, especially when the disagreements relate to sectarianism,” said Akkash. “These problems could shift into Syria.”

(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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