08/14/2008, 00.00
LEBANON - SYRIA
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Summit between Beirut and Damascus has not eliminated all doubts

by Fady Noun
The announcement of the establishment of normal diplomatic relations is positive, but questions remain over Assad's true stance. It's still an open case, from the definition of borders to the assassination of Rafic Hariri.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - The Lebanese have received peacefully the news of an upcoming exchange of ambassadors between Lebanon and Syria, following a decision placed at the opening of the joint statement published at the end of the meeting between presidents Bashar el-Assad and Michel Sleiman (August 13-14). But no one is celebrating it. No festive gunfire, no fireworks. Life goes on as usual.

Of course, for Lebanon this is a significant achievement, an achievement awaited since 1943, the year of Lebanese independence. Now, it's said to be just weeks away. But it comes late, and the joy of seeing its former guardian now recognizing the independence of Lebanon cannot wipe away 30 years of struggle, interference, and suffering that this objective cost before it could be attained.

Properly understood, everyone wants to believe the good news, everyone wants to believe in the magic wand of the Doha agreement, but everyone is also asking how long these good relations will last. The war has taught the Lebanese to be skeptical, and not let the wool be pulled over their eyes. A little like St. Thomas, words aren't enough for them, they want to touch it before they'll believe.

And this desire is all the greater now that they have heard the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Moallem, allude to a terminology that makes them bristle. Mr. Moallem has spoken of "privileged relations" between Lebanon and Syria, an expression that refers directly to an agreement of cooperation, coordination, and friendship imposed on Lebanon in 1991, by virtue of which a Lebanese-Syrian high committee for bilateral coordination was created. The "Treaty of fraternity and cooperation" stipulated "the highest degree of coordination" in the areas of politics, the economy, and security between Syria and Lebanon.

The icing on the cake is the secretary-general of this high committee, Mr. Nasri Khoury, who read aloud the resolutions of the Lebanese-Syrian summit. In the eyes of some Lebanese, who are demanding nothing less than the repeal of the Treaty of fraternity, this is not very reassuring, to say the least.

Observers in Lebanon note, rightly, that the easing of the atmosphere in the region and of relations between Lebanon and Syria comes as a significant lack of political trust still remains on the part of Lebanon toward Syria. Symptomatic of this mistrust, the head of the powerful Future Movement, Mr. Saad Hariri, has told journalists in no uncertain terms that he will not go to Syria. Not, at least, until the truth about the assassination of his father, Rafic Hariri (on February 14, 2005), has been established, and the suspicions directed against the Syrian regime have been dismissed.

The reestablishment of trust depends to a great extent, in this area, on the conclusions of the international investigation intended to clarify the circumstances of the assassination of Rafic Hariri. The quasi-final report of the commission is expected by the end of 2008, at which point the special tribunal should begin meeting at The Hague, in Netherlands, to examine the evidence and findings that the commission has gathered over three years of steady work, and using considerable means. The majority leaders, who believe that Syria is responsible for the attack, could not change overnight to a favorable view of those they now consider assassins, without completely discrediting themselves.

The development of  events in Lebanon depends on a number of factors. It depends on the results of the presidential elections in the United States, this much is clear. But it also depends on the status of the indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel, which could result in direct talks by 2009. An easing in political tensions between the United States on one side and Iran and Syria on the other could change regional and local conditions, and prompt changes in alliances.

In addition to the suspicion directed against the Syrian regime, there is also distrust in Lebanon between the parliamentary majority and the opposition, led by Hezbollah. The violent verbal exchanges that marked the recent confidence vote of the new government are the best proof of this. And Syria continues to be a concern, notably because of its lack of transparency. This includes the country's refusal to mark the boundaries of the region of Shebaa, which is preventing Lebanon from reclaiming by diplomatic means the part of its territory occupied by Israel. Hezbollah's weapons and the organic relationship between Hezbollah and Iran, through Syria, are still a problem, in the eyes of many Lebanese. The question of the Lebanese who have disappeared in Syria - about 650 of them - has still not been settled. If one adds to these issues that of terrorism against the armed forces, which has just struck in Tripoli, it is clear that the months to come will not be smooth sailing in the run-up to the legislative elections in the spring of 2009, expected to produce an uncontested majority and determine Lebanon's long-term future. It will be interesting, in this regard, to follow the fortunes of President Sleiman. Will he succeed in creating a "third way" for Lebanon?

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