Syria Lebanon diplomacy, diplomatic agreement Syria Lebanon, greater Syria
Bassem Tellawi/AP
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem,
right, shakes hands with his Lebanese
counterpart Fawzi Salloukh.

New Syria–Lebanon Relationship Takes Toll on Syrian Oppositionists

November 25, 2008 06:53 AM
by Josh Katz
Many have praised the strengthening ties between the historically tense countries of Lebanon and Syria. But, Syrian oppositionists have suffered.

Syria and Lebanon Team Up Against Oppositionists

As part of Syria’s renewed friendship with Lebanon, Lebanon has agreed to help combat the activities of Syrian oppositionists. The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported that Syria asked Lebanon to keep watch on the oppositionists within the country and limit their operations.

According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, the newspaper Al-Safir quoted a Lebanese source as saying that the measures used by Lebanon against the oppositionists are, “the [same] measures used against any group attempting to harm an Arab country, as mandated by the agreements and [mutual] commitments [that exist] among the Arab states.”

The deteriorating situation for Syrian oppositionists in Lebanon since Syria’s accord with Lebanon in October is evidenced by the case of oppositionist Mamoun Al-Homsi. Al-Homsi, a former Syrian MP, recently fled Lebanon for the United States after learning that Syrian security forces were planning his assassination.

Syrian journalist and human rights advocate Jihad Saleh commented on the campaign against Syrian oppositionists in Lebanon on the oppositionist Web site “The [activity of the oppositionist] Syrian forces [in Lebanon] is completely open and transparent. It complies with the principles of justice and nonviolence, and is based on the right to freedom of speech and expression. [The oppositionists] break no regional, international or even Lebanese laws.”

Background: Syria and Lebanon sign historic agreement

On October, just after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced his support for improved relations with Lebanon, the foreign ministers of both nations signed a diplomatic agreement putting them on equal footing.

The statement “reaffirms the determination of both parties to reinforce and consolidate their relations on the basis of mutual respect, the sovereignty and independence of each, and to preserve privileged fraternal relations between the two brotherly countries in order to respond to the aspiration of both peoples,” it said.

In the past, Syria has “been the dominant side” of the relationship
between the countries, according to the Middle East Times. The pact is the first time Syria has officially recognized Lebanon as a “sovereign state,” rather than an extension of “greater Syria.”

Opinion & Analysis: Assessing the diplomatic agreement

The Arab press had, for the most part, come out in support of the deal and called it a good step forward. For example, editorials from two newspapers in the Middle East said that relations between Syria and Lebanon have reached a “new era,” according to the BBC. But a number of Lebanese observers remained skeptical, asserting that the agreement was hollow without tangible action on Syria’s part.

An editorial in The Boston Globe saw the current climate in the Middle East as an opportunity for the United States to improve its diplomatic relations with Syria. Syria, it says, is essentially the opposite of what Iraq used to be: Syria has a Sunni majority, but a minority Shiite leadership (called Alawites), whereas Iraq has a Shiite majority but had a Sunni leadership under Saddam Hussein. According to the editorial, Syria is trying to move closer to the West because al-Qaida Sunni fighters fleeing the Iraq war are launching attacks against the Alawite-Shiite government of Syria and Shiite locations in Lebanon.

Related Topic: U.S.-Syrian relations possibly on the mend

In light of the diplomatic agreement, the United States and Syria had been engaged in “high-level meetings” in September, according to U.S. News & World Report, signaling a potential “breakthrough.”

Syria’s ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, indicated that the talks could point to a Bush administration now inclined to “reconsider U.S. policies toward Syria.”

But a State Department official was more hesitant: “The message is, Syria has a long way to go, and they have to change their behavior in the region and on these policy issues.”

Historical Context: Syria and Lebanon since World War II

Relations between Syria and Lebanon have been tense for some time now. Since both countries achieved independence in the 1940s, Syrian nationalists have considered Lebanon a part of Greater Syria. In 1976, Syria sent forces into Lebanon to aid the Lebanese Christian nationalists who were losing a civil war to the Leftist-Palestinian alliance. By the time the civil war concluded in 1990, roughly 30,000 Syrian troops stayed in the country, as well as Syrian intelligence agencies.

Israel pulled its troops out of southern Lebanon in 2000, leaving Syria as the sole foreign force in the country. The U.S. also stepped up pressure against Syria at this time to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty. Hostility against Syria increased in 2005, when many blamed Syria for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 20 others. Syria acceded to international opinion and pulled out of the country that year.

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