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Lebanese PM Calls for Renewed Relations with Syria

Edward Yeranian | Cairo 20 December 2009

The visit was symbolic to both countries, since no Lebanese Prime Minister has visited Damascus since the slaying of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. Relations between the two countries went into a deep freeze that year, after the younger Hariri accused Syria of the crime.

The faces of both leaders appeared somewhat tense, despite what seemed like a genuine effort to put a thaw to long frosty relations. The Lebanese Prime Minister was also invited to spend the night at the presidential palace, in a sign of recognition that the elder Hariri had helped to build it, and had once enjoyed cordial relations with Damascus.

Prime Minister Hariri told a press conference, however, that he was visiting Syria as the head of a Lebanese national unity government and not for personal or partisan reasons.

He went on to stress that his lengthy discussions with President Assad demonstrate that both he and the Syrian president were doing their best to improve ties between Syria and Lebanon.

He says that four hours of meetings, yesterday, and breakfast, today, demonstrate that there is a relationship which is being built in the interest of both countries and (with an eye) towards the future. He conceded that talks were frank and honest, but stressed that both sides were learning from the past, and working to build for the future.

When asked about the thorny issue that has long plagued Lebanese-Syrian relations, Hariri noted that the United Nations international tribunal that is investigating the assassination of his father, is "no longer a personal issue, but is now the purview of the international community."

Mr. Hariri did not, however, travel to Syria with key members of his cabinet, in another reminder of the lingering conflict between members of his March 14th coalition and Damascus and its Lebanese allies. Prime Minister Hariri also did not make the two-hour drive from Beirut to Damascus, but flew in with just a few aides.

Syrian President Bashar Assad's top media and political advisor, Boutheina Shaaban admitted that relations between Lebanon and Syria had gone through tremendous turmoil in recent years, but stressed that things were on the mend.

She says that the guarantee (that the past conflict doesn't recur) is the will of both President Assad and Prime Minister Hariri to build a positive and constructive relationship, because they each understand that such a relationship is in the mutual interest of both countries and peoples.

Syrian government TV also placed great emphasis on the effort to mend relations between both countries, speaking with many Lebanese about what they thought of the visit.

Lebanese Member of Parliament Mohammed Fneich of the pro-Syrian Hezbollah told supporters that he and his party were pleased by the bid to mend relations.

He says that this visit expresses the desire to turn the page on old (conflicts) and open a new page of cooperation. Lebanon he says cannot live without Syria, nor can Syria live without Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia, whose relations with Syria were also been strained after the slaying of the elder Mr. Hariri, has played a major role in reconciling Damascus with its smaller neighbor. Prime Minister Hariri noted that King Abdallah had pushed for a "global Arab reconciliation" and that his visit was part of that effort.

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