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December 21, 2009

Daily Star - Hariri calls for opening new horizon with Syria - December 21, 2009

Premier holds ?excellent? talks with Assad in Damascus

BEIRUT: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri called on Sunday for a renewal of ties with Syria to the benefit of both states at the end of a fence-mending visit to Damascus. “We want to open new horizons between the two countries,” Hariri told a news conference at the Lebanese Embassy in Damascus. He said his three rounds of “excellent” talks with the Syrian leader were frank and based on clarity.
“We tackled all issues positively and I only saw positivity from President Assad side concerning all issues that matter to the Lebanese and the relation between both countries,” Hariri said.
Hariri was speaking at the end of a two-day visit to Syria that marked the end to nearly five years of animosity between Damascus and the March 14 alliance he heads. Hariri arrived in Beirut Sunday night ahead of the Cabinet’s first meeting on Monday after gaining the vote of confidence.
Assad had extended a warm welcome to Hariri upon his arrival in the Syrian capital on Saturday. “There will be serious steps from our side and on the part of President Bashar Assad to translate this cordial and serious relationship into steps on the ground in several fields,” Hariri said, without giving details.
It was Hariri’s first trip to Damascus since the 2005 assassination of his father, ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a killing that he along with political leaders of the parliamentary majority blamed on Syria.
Regional commentators and several Lebanese political leaders have hailed the visit as an ice-breaker and step toward healing decades of turbulent ties between the two neighbors.
Lebanese analysts say an improvement of ties with Damascus would bridge a political divide in Beirut, easing sectarian tensions and providing Hariri with the necessary clout to push through long-delayed economic and other reforms.
“We want privileged, sincere and honest relations … in the interest of both countries and both peoples,” Hariri said.
“We want to build ties with Syria based on positive points,” he added.
Syria dominated Lebanon for nearly three decades until April 2005 when it pulled out its troops from Lebanon under international and regional pressure, two months after the assassination of Former Premier Rafik Hariri.
The two neighbors established diplomatic ties for the first time last year, with Syria opening an embassy in Beirut, while Lebanon opened its mission in Damascus in March.
Hariri said his unity government, which includes members of the opposition, including Hizbullah, a close ally to Syria, wanted to take measures with Damascus to develop these ties.
Assad is also “very attached to sincere relations based on common understanding” between the two countries and spoke “positively” of problems that still need to be resolved, Hariri said.
“Foremost is a plan to demarcate the porous border between the two neighbors,” he said.
Other than the demarcation of borders, thorny issues between the two countries include the fate of hundreds of Lebanese missing since the 1975-1990 Civil War, and the military presence of
Syrian-backed Palestinian militant groups outside refugee camps in Lebanon.
Hariri added that Saudi Arabia had “played an important role” in paving the way for his visit to Syria.
Rapprochement between Syria and Saudi Arabia earlier this year eased tension in Lebanon and allowed Hariri to form a unity government.
The Lebanese premier stressed that the visit was a continuation to Arab reconciliations which Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz started in order to unite the Arab states’ positions.
But Hariri stressed that he did not discuss with Assad a UN-led inquiry into his father’s murder nor the Special Tribunal for Lebanon that has been set up to try the suspected killers.
“The tribunal is doing its work and this is what everybody wishes,” he said.
Earlier this month, a Syrian court asked 25 prominent Lebanese, including individuals close to Hariri, to appear for questioning after former Lebanese General Security head Jamil al-Sayed filed a lawsuit against those individuals for giving false testimonies to the STL.
Lebanon’s ties with Syria hit rock bottom after Hariri’s “March 14” alliance accused Syria of assassinating Rafik Hariri in February 2005. They also blamed Damascus for attacking and killing other politicians and journalists. Damascus has denied any involvement.
Asked about the influence of the visit on the March 14 alliance, Hariri said he made the trip to Damascus as head of the Lebanese Cabinet rather than the leader of a political party.
“We are keen in the government along with all political parties in Lebanon to build friendly Lebanese-Syria ties,” he said.
Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said late Saturday that the visit helped make the “atmosphere comfortable” between the two countries, his office said in a statement.
Also on Saturday, Syrian presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban told reporters: “There is no doubt that the ice has been broken between the two sides.” Shaaban also described the talks as constructive, cordial and transparent.
Commentators and ordinary Syrians, meanwhile, hailed Hariri’s visit to Syria.
Syria’s official Al-Baath newspaper said in a front-page headline on Sunday: “Three positive, honest, friendly hours … break the ice and end the negative phase of the past.”
Samir Musalma, editor-in-chief of the government newspaper Tishrin, agreed.
“The past phase has been painful … but that does not mean we cannot move on,” Musalma told AFP.

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