UN intervention may deepen Lebanon-Syria animosity

BEIRUT  — The UN Security Council’s call for Syria to establish diplomatic ties with Lebanon was expected to stiffen Damascus’ resolve against formal links to its tiny neighbour, a move it has steadfastly rejected for six decades.

Three factors, at least, are at work against Syria heeding the UN resolution — uppermost among them: The measure can’t be enforced.

Beyond that the political atmosphere between the eastern Mediterranean neighbours remains acrimonious, especially as long as an anti-Syrian government remains in charge in Beirut.

And finally, Damascus still is smarting from the hurried and forced withdrawal of its army from Lebanon last year under pressure from the Lebanese themselves and the international community after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, whose murder has been linked to Damascus by a UN investigation.

“I’m afraid it will complicate matters further,” George Jabbour, a Syrian legislator, said of the UN resolution.

“The Security Council’s intervention in such a way was a disappointment to all those who would like to see friendly and brotherly relations between the two countries.” Bishara Charbel, editor-in-chief of the independent Lebanese newspaper Al Balad, said the resolution in principle stresses an earlier resolution adopted in 2004 “but it seems it will complicate the atmosphere because of tensions in Lebanese-Syrian relations.” He said Syria’s allies in Lebanon bear responsibility for not using their influence with Damascus to improve ties.

Sateh Noureddine, managing editor of the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, which has taken a pro-Syrian line, said the UN resolution’s lack of implementation mechanism made it a piece of “propaganda with no political value that could provoke the Syrians and undermine resumption of relations.” Since 1943, when Syria and Lebanon gained independence from France, Damascus has sidestepped formal links with Beirut, preferring to influence the country through proxy allies inside the nation and then by sending in its army for nearly three decades.

The Syrians say diplomatic relations are unnecessary because ties between the countries are much closer than could be defined by such a formal link. But many in Lebanon suspect Syria has never really accepted that Lebanon is an independent country and remain angered that parts of it were carved out of the former Syrian province of the Ottoman Empire in 1920.

After Wednesday’s UN resolution, Syria reacted with unusual speed, voicing anger and criticising the measure as unprecedented interference in the affairs of two countries.

A Syrian foreign ministry statement said the UN resolution that also urged permanently drawing the border between Lebanon and its neighbour was “a tool for unjustified pressure and a provocation that complicates matters more than it solves them.”

The ministry said the resolution ignored Syria’s stand that “it was not, in principle, against diplomatic relations between the two countries when the appropriate circumstances and the favourite climate exist.” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, speaking to parliament in Damascus, declared that Syria desires to develop and boost its relations with Lebanon. But on the issue of diplomatic ties and demarcating borders, Moallem signalled Damascus would not rush to implement the UN call and said establishing formal ties and setting out the border now “would never serve Lebanon’s interests nor Syria’s.” Syria has opposed border demarcation in Shebaa Farms while it remains controlled by Israel. For its part, Lebanon claims the sliver of land where the borders of Syria, Lebanon and Israel meet.

The UN considers it Syrian territory occupied by Israeli during the 1967 Mideast war. Hizbollah fighters, who control much of southern Lebanon, occasionally attack Israeli troops there.

Lebanon’s government, dominated by anti-Syrians, welcomed the international backing for its call for diplomatic ties.

Prime Minister Fuad Siniora told reporters after a Cabinet meeting Wednesday that the resolution “encourages the two countries to establish diplomatic relations.” Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said he hoped “channels and doors be opened” for Siniora to go to Damascus to hash out solutions to Beirut’s disputes with the Syrians. The Lebanese have sought such a trip for two months, but never it materialised because Syria has not responded.

Anti-Syrian factions in Lebanon blame Syria for Hariri’s murder, which set in motion massive domestic and international pressure which finally forced Damascus to withdraw its army in April last year. The Syrian army was sent to Lebanon to help quell the 1975-90 civil war, but Syrians troops stayed on.

Lebanese anti-Syrian groups say Damascus is responsible for bombings and assassinations in the last two years hoping to destabilise the country and with the help of its allies in the country to paralyse the Lebanese government.

Damascus denies all the accusations.

Rival Lebanese leaders agreed in their national dialogue late last month to ask for a demarcation of the ill-defined border and the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

But Syria appears convinced that international pressure has eased and its allies in Lebanon are recovering from the setback of the Syrian pullout, making compliance with the resolution a matter of choice — which for now is negative.

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