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SYRIA: Old foes become pals

December 4, 2008 |  2:59 am

Once Syria’s fiercest foe, he has turned into one of its steady allies. Eighteen years after Syrian troops forced him out of Lebanon, Michel Aoun, the Lebanese Christian opposition leader, received a cordial welcome from Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on Wednesday.

Indeed, alliances between Damascus and the various Lebanese political factions have dramatically reshuffled over the last few years. Most significantly, Aoun’s decision to turn over a new leaf with the Syrians is another sign Lebanese officials are adopting a more pragmatic approach as Damascus has helped restore stability in its smaller neighbor.

Following his two-hour meeting with Assad, Aoun said in a news conference that he saw a “bright future” for relations between the two countries:

“As long as there is a will ... we would certainly work out solutions to previous pending problems and agree on a new approach that respects interests of both states.... We are turning a new page where there is no victor and no loser. This is a return to normal relations.... Our discussions hold the promise of a bright future.”

The visit was lambasted by Aoun’s political opponents in Lebanon, the Western-backed March 14 coalition, which still considers Damascus as a source of insecurity in the country.

The 73-year-old Aoun has a long history of hostility with the Syrians. Toward the end of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, Aoun, then head of a disputed Christian government, waged a “war of liberation” against Syrian troops stationed in the country.

After battles with the Syrian military and other Lebanese factions, he was evicted from the presidential palace before going into exile in France in 1990. Fifteen years later, in May 2005, he returned triumphantly to the country, a month after the Syrian army pulled out of Lebanon, ending its 29-year military presence under popular and international pressure.

During his exile, Aoun, a former army general, pressed Syria to stop meddling in Lebanese affairs. His supporters were repeatedly beaten and jailed by security forces of both countries for staging university demonstrations and street protests against what they called “Syrian occupation.” Aoun even testified against Syria in Washington and lobbied for the Syria Accountability Act, which was passed by the U.S. Congress in 2003 and imposes sanctions on Damascus for sponsoring terrorism.

Months after his return, though, Aoun made an audacious move by forging an alliance in 2006 with Syria’s ally, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. He also dramatically toned down his criticism against Damascus.

Official relations between Lebanon and Syria improved following the election of a Lebanese president in May as a result of an agreement signed in Doha, Qatar, by Lebanese factions to end civil violence. 

In October, Lebanon and Syria officially announced the establishment of diplomatic ties. Several security and political officials have visited Damascus since, to discuss restoring cooperation between the two countries. Aoun has repeatedly said that with the Syrians out of Lebanon there were no reasons for   hostility between the two states.

This is not the position of Lebanon’s anti-Syrian camp, which holds Damascus responsible for a series of political assassinations, most notably the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a powerful blast in February 2005. The United Nations announced that the Hariri assassination tribunal will begin its work next March. Syria denies responsibility.

Druze leader Walid Jumblat, once an ally of the Syrians and their staunchest opponent today, said that “reconciliation with the Syrian regime is impossible.”

“I know the structure of the Syrian regime and I know that they have no mercy for anyone,” he said in a televised interview Wednesday evening.

Samir Geagea, another Lebanese Christian leader, criticized Aoun in comments made today:

“We want to overcome the past but how do we handle the present.... Hundreds of Lebanese citizens are jailed in Syria, we have bases manned by Palestinians loyal to Syria ... not to mention persisting Syrian efforts for more than three years to destabilize Lebanon.”

One pending issue between Beirut and Damascus is the hundreds of Lebanese missing in Syria since the civil war.

Some Lebanese also accuse Syria of delaying the demarcation of the border with its neighbor, a move they believe would help Lebanon regain by diplomatic means a disputed patch of land, the Shabaa Farms, from Israel.

Meanwhile, Aoun continues his five-day visit to Syria, where he is expected to meet Christian religious figures and visit holy sites.

-- Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: Syrian President Bashar Assad greets Lebanese Christian leader Michel Aoun in Damascus, Syria's capital. Credit: Syrian Arab News Agency