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French Version

Hopes high for Lebanon-Syria ties on eve of Moallem's visit to Beirut

ABU jamra says rapprochement could see return of lebanese detainees

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem is to visit Beirut on Monday a week after Lebanon and Syria agreed to establish diplomatic relations between the adjoining nations.

Moallem is to deliver an invitation to Lebanese President Michel Sleiman from his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad to visit Damascus - a trip the Lebanese press said would take place within a week or 10 days.

Moallem last visited Beirut on May 25 to attend the election of Sleiman.

Sleiman and Assad met last weekend at the sidelines of the Mediterranean Union summit in Paris and reportedly agreed on establishing diplomatic ties for the first time since their independence from French colonial rule more than 60 years ago.

"It is expected that the question of diplomatic relations will be raised during the visit. We hope it will mark a new step in Syrian-Lebanese ties," said Syria's Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the government.

It added that during his visit, Moallem would discuss "ways of improving relations given the favorable circumstances with the election of a consensus president in Lebanon and the formation of a national unity government."

Syria, the former powerbroker in Lebanon, withdrew its troops in 2005 in the aftermath of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, ending a military presence of nearly three decades.

Anti-Syrian majority MP Akram Shehayeb called on the Lebanese Parliament to abolish a 1991 "friendship and cooperation" treaty which effectively formalized Syrian power in Lebanon, saying it had "weakened" the country.

Fellow anti-Syrian MP Mosbah al-Ahdab called for borders to be clearly established and that a resolution be found to the issue of weapons held in Lebanon's 12 Palestinian refugee camps, which he said could only be achieved with the help of the Syrian intelligence services.

"We hope that Damascus cooperates in a serious and positive manner to bring a resolution to the issue of Lebanese prisoners held in Syria and those who went missing while Lebanon was under [Syrian] control," he added.

Hundreds of Lebanese vanished during Syria's domination of Lebanon and Lebanese rights groups claim they are still held by Damascus.

Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Issam Abu Jamra, a senior member of retired General Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, said on Sunday that Lebanese-Syrian rapprochement will help bring back home Lebanese detainees in Syria.

"What happened in France between Sleiman and Assad will eventually lead to freeing the remaining Lebanese prisoners who are still held in Syria," Abu Jamra said.

Meanwhile, the ministerial committee designed to draft the new government's policy statement is expected to hold its fourth meeting Monday after it succeeded in achieving "major progress" in its third session on Saturday.

News reports on Sunday said the committee's meeting Monday would tackle the issue of Hizbullah's arms and try to work out some sort of a joint approach that the government would adopt pending a final stand on the issue during national dialogue session that would be later launched by Sleiman.

Any statement on the resistance is to be based on the Taif and Doha accords as well as Sleiman's inaugural address to Parliament on the day of his election, the reports added.

The president said earlier that Hizbullah's military capabilities should be capitalized on in order to reach a defense strategy for Lebanon.

Hizbullah has repeatedly argued it will hold on to its arms in order to defend Lebanon against any Israeli attacks.

Meanwhile, Hizbullah's second in command Sheikh Naim Qassem said on Sunday that his group was open to discussion on the issue of the "resistance and its future role."

Qassem said Hizbullah was in favor of discussing the relationship between the state and armed organizations, as recommended by the Doha accord, on the condition that the aim of such discussion would be how to safeguard Lebanon's independence and liberate its occupied territory.

"We should worry about safeguarding our independence rather than thinking of different ways to abandon the resistance," he said.

Qassem added that facing Israel through diplomatic means would not achieve the desired goals unless supported by the presence of the resistance.

Also on Sunday, Agriculture Minister Elias Skaff said the ministerial committee had reached a tentative agreement on the new government's policy statement.

"The committee has already agreed on the main pillars of the ministerial statement ... there are still some differences that are being sorted out," he said.

Skaff is a member of the committee that is also comprised of ministers Wael Abu Faour, Mohammad Shattah, Tarek Mitri, Nassib Lahoud, Jebran Bassil, Mohammad Fneish, Fawzi Salloukh, and Youssef Taqla.

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar said on Sunday that Prime Minister Fouad Siniora was trying his best to avoid including obscure clauses in the new ministerial statement.

"Siniora is trying carefully to avoid obscure clauses that would create misunderstandings in the future ... he wants everything to be clear," Najjar told Voice of Lebanon radio.

The prime minister headed a committee meeting at the Grand Serail on Saturday.

The pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat said on Sunday that the meeting had addressed sensitive issues, such as Palestinian military bases that are located outside refugee camps.

The reports said that all committee members, representing the different factions, had agreed that all such bases should be eliminated.

Information Minister Tarek Mitri said after the meeting on Saturday that major progress has been made toward the drafting of the new government's ministerial statement.

"The committee held its third meeting today and much progress has been made toward drafting the ministerial statement ... we have already agreed on some issues but we still need to meet for some time on Monday," Mitri told reporters.

"We agreed on a number of issues which I will not list right now, but we still have to add a couple of lines in our next meeting," he added.

Mitri said the committee was working seriously in order to finish drafting the ministerial statement as soon as possible.

"We all want to finish our work the soonest possible, but we do not want to rush anything," he said.

Beirut 21-07-2008
The Daily Star

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