Killing, U.N. Vote Deepen Syria-Lebanon Tensions
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Relations between Syria and Lebanon are at an all-time low. This week Gebran Tueni was assassinated; he was a prominent Lebanese critic of the Syrian government. A UN investigator has already implicated Syria in the murder of another Lebanese politician. As NPR's Deborah Amos reports, Damascus and Beirut are trading heated threats and accusations.
DEBORAH AMOS reporting:
It is a packed house every night at the Rameeda Theater(ph) in Damascus for a new play called "Stand Up, Sit Down, Silence." The authors poke fun at the UN investigation, but the broad farce is most insulting to prominent Lebanese politicians who are well-known here as critics of the Syrian regime. The sexually explicit humor gets laughs every night.
(Soundbite of play performance; laughter)
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
Professor MARWAN KABALAN (Damascus University): The Syrian-Lebanese relations have deteriorated dramatically over the past actually few weeks.
AMOS: Marwan Kabalan, a professor at Damascus University, says Syria has tightened the border. Syrian workers are coming home from Lebanon. Tensions have never been higher.
Prof. KABALAN: The Syrian government believes now that Lebanon is helping the American in order to bring down the regime, because this is for the first time a Lebanese politician would call for regime change in Damascus.
AMOS: Lebanese calls for toppling the Syrian regime came this week after the assassination of Gebran Tueni, a prominent critic of Damascus, killed by a powerful car bomb in Beirut. Four prominent Lebanese critics of Syria have also been killed this year.
(Soundbite of funeral activities)
AMOS: At this funeral at the Lebanese capital, Orthodox priests said prayers as Tueni's wooden coffin was carried through the streets. Tens of thousands of Lebanese Christians and Muslims shouted insults at Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad. Hikmat Bouzikian(ph) was one of the mourners at the funeral.
Ms. HIKMAT BOUZIKIAN (Mourner): Come on, Bashar, you have to kill everybody from Lebanon here.
AMOS: These kinds of public accusations would have been unthinkable when Syrian troops were stationed in Lebanon. Since their withdrawal this year, many Lebanese, including political leaders, have become bolder in challenging Syria, but there's also growing fear, says Habib Sami(ph), a Lebanese Christian.
Mr. HABIB SAMI (Lebanese Christian): We keep paying. We keep sacrificing day after day. They have to do more. Yes, we want protection. We want to talk about our freedom.
AMOS: While most of the Arab world watched the funeral on TV, Syrian television broadcast a soap opera instead. The government has denied any links to the Tueni death or to Hariri's, but Syrians feared another assassination in Lebanon would bring more international pressure on them.
(Soundbite of celebration activities)
AMOS: At this Christmas celebration in the opera house in Damascus, a children's choir sings carols in Santa suits. Father Ilya Sahouri(ph) asked the audience to pray for the country in these difficult times.
Father ILYA SAHOURI: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: Syria has little to celebrate in the new year. The UN Security Council has voted to keep the Hariri investigation open for another six months. US investigators have already implicated top Syrian security officials in the crime. Meanwhile, Arab diplomats have been shuttling between Damascus and Beirut to diffuse a crisis that Syria does not want, says Professor Marwan Kabalan.
Prof. KABALAN: Syria has high stakes in the country, economic, political and strategic. This is why we find that Syria is finding it extremely difficult to allow Lebanon to become anti-Syria in the region.
AMOS: But some Lebanese politicians have raised the stakes again. In interviews this week, they demanded a trial for the president of Syria. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.