It is time Syria let Lebanon be sovereign, Cardinal Sfeir says

Middle Eastern papers remain cautious vis-à-vis Syrian troop redeployment.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - "The time has come that Lebanon act as a sovereign state managing its own affairs," said Card Nasrallah Sfier, Catholic Maronite Patriarch. In view of Syria's decision to redeploy its troops (some 15,000 strong) in Lebanon, Cardinal Sfier has demanded once again that after 15-years of being a de facto Syrian protectorate Lebanon become truly independent.

Whilst the Patriarch seems to be pressuring Damascus and the international community, Syria's decision has not convinced everyone in the region. Both the Israeli and Arab press remain cautious. In both cases, people wonder what motives might be leading Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to redeploy his troops from Beirut. Few believe that he really wants to let the 'Cedar country' go free.

Speaking on Radio France International about Syria's, Patriarch Sfeir expressed his hopes that Beirut and Damascus would establish "normal diplomatic relations", which Syria still rejects on the grounds that the two countries are "sister nations", and called for a "government of national unity" to overcome the crisis that is gripping the country.

"Lebanon should be able to manage itself and be sovereign again. Having good relations with Syria is in our interest, but what is Syria's interest?," he asks. "What is missing," in his words, "is the fact that the two do not act like equal and sovereign states exchanging diplomatic missions as is customary among independent countries and as Lebanon does with all other Arab countries."

Many times in the past Cardinal Sfier had called for Lebanon's independence. To make his point, he cancelled his scheduled visit to Damascus during the Pope's solemn visit in May 2001 in order to reject what he saw as Assad's attempt to use the papal visit to justify Lebanon's subordination.

Even then Cardinal Sfeir stressed that whilst many Lebanese want to maintain "special ties" with Syria, "especially since it is the country closest to us", "like Syria, Lebanon itself must be able to manage its own internal affairs without any external supervision or interference".

In the meantime in Lebanon, the al-Safir newspaper wonders whether "Syria's redeployment [is] the beginning of a Syrian-US deal" adding that "what Washington is asking Syria entails much more than just the Lebanese problem".

Other Arab commentators feel the move will help remove a pretext for a US or Israeli attack on Syria, although there is unease that Damascus might be bowing to Western pressure.

An editorial published in the United Arab Emirates paper Akhbar al-Arab argues that "Syria gains by redeployment from Lebanon." It suggests that "Damascus will score a number of points by implementing the Security Council resolution. One of them is restoring its healthy ties with Lebanon, which is the most important thing. Secondly, it will prevent Israel and the US finding justifications to attack it."

Different reaction in Saudi Arabia's al-Jazirah newspaper which, in an editorial headline, writes indignantly that "Syria is not occupying Lebanon!" Instead, it argues that Israel is likely behind Syria's move.

"Syria has decided to redeploy its forces in Lebanon, an issue which used to be taboo, [. . .] in the wake of international and Lebanese pressure," the Saudi paper claims adding that "the redeployment should have coincided with an Israeli withdrawal from the Shabaa farms region [of Lebanon, adjoining the Golan Heights]."

According to London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat, "Syria needs Lebanon, but more importantly, it needs rational people who can protect its ties with Lebanon, as well as its international image."

Suspicion prevails among Israeli commentators as to Syrian motives. Some go as far to say that it is a plan concocted with the people inside the Bush administration.

In an editorial article Ha'aretz writes that "it is possible to get the impression that Damascus has made a decision to end its military presence in Lebanon. [However,] that impression is premature." The Israeli daily adds that "the Syrian decision does not go so far, is not irreversible, and there is no certainty [about it]. [. . .] Syria is not relinquishing control over Lebanon. It is seeking other measures, hidden from the eye, to continue maintaining control."

"Even if the Syrian army were ostensibly on its way out of Lebanon, it would only be the beginning of a very long road ahead," the paper concludes. (FP)