Ties With Syria Warm Under Wary Lebanese Eyes Lebanon and Syria have had tense relations since the 2005 assassination of the Lebanese prime minister. Today, the two countries are experiencing a rapprochement that could yield significant economic benefits. Some Lebanese, however, wonder how long the positive trend will last.
NPR logo

Ties With Syria Warm Under Wary Lebanese Eyes

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/126136421/126155436" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Ties With Syria Warm Under Wary Lebanese Eyes

Ties With Syria Warm Under Wary Lebanese Eyes

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/126136421/126155436" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Next, let's look at some of the complex and evolving relationships in the Middle East. For many years, Syria had troops in Lebanon and effectively controlled its neighbor. But Syria withdrew those soldiers in 2005. Today, the two countries have improved relations that could bring benefits to both. Still, as NPR's Peter Kenyon repots, some Lebanese are wondering how long the positive trend is going to last.

PETER KENYON: This month saw the 35th anniversary of one of the defining Middle East conflicts of the late 20th century, the Lebanese civil war.

(Soundbite of music)

KENYON: In Beirut's Martyrs Square, young performers danced and acted out scenes from the 15-year conflict which left tens of thousands dead and saw the beginning of 29 years of Syrian dominance over Lebanon.

(Soundbite of music)

KENYON: But these days some of the old enmities and barriers are starting to dissolve. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has made one cordial visit to Damascus and is planning another, despite the widespread belief here that his father's assassination in 2005 was ordered by Syria - a charge Damascus denies.

Hariri's political adviser, Mohammed Shatah, says Lebanon has not forgotten the issues that continue to divide the two countries, but that shouldn't prevent cooperation where it's possible.

Mr. MOHAMMED SHATAH (Political Adviser to Saad Hariri): Saad Hariri stretched a hand to Syrian leadership, which was a major step after the events of the last five years. We're not going to stop normal relations or normal contacts because we don't see eye to eye on some issues, important as they may be.

KENYON: For Syria, the warming trend means tapping into economic opportunities in Lebanon. For long-occupied Lebanon, the historic opening of a Syrian Embassy in Beirut is a sign that Lebanon is at last being treated as an independent sovereign state - something the Syrian leadership has been loath to do.

There are a number of factors behind the rapprochement, notably the ongoing effort by moderate Arab states to pull Syria out of its regional alliance with Iran. Analysts say Damascus has responded positively on issues of common concern, such as the shape of the next government in Iraq.

But Beirut analyst Paul Salem, with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says Iran has no reason to be worried by the recent diplomatic moves among Arab states. He says the core Damascus-Tehran strategic relationship hasn't been shaken.

Mr. PAUL SALEM (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Iran is not terribly concerned that Syria's going to switch sides. Syria has not switched sides. It has remained on the same side, but improved relations with others in the region.

KENYON: Analysts say not only has Syria not switched sides, its interests in Lebanon - and those of Iran - are in better shape than they have been in years. Their ally, Hezbollah, is not only an important Lebanese political player, it has an effective veto over sensitive policy decisions.

The issue of disarming Hezbollah seems dormant in Beirut, despite the best efforts of Christian politician Sami Gemayel. He hopes that the topic will surge to the fore as concern mounts over reports that Syria has smuggled long-range Scud missiles over the border to Hezbollah, despite Syrian denials.

Mr. SAMI GEMAYEL (Christian Politician): It can't be ignored, and we will call the government to take a very clear statement about what's happening on the borders.

KENYON: Analyst Karim Makdisi at the American University in Beirut says all in all it seems this thaw in relations between the Lebanese and the Syrians could continue for some time, but only if things remain quiet.

Mr. KARIM MAKDISI (Analyst, American University): I think it's relatively going to be fine for the people to come, with one problem, which is the usual thing, which is the Israelis. Israel is always going to be the wild card in this region. It's always going to be the one that can launch an attack on any of its neighbors or any of the Arab countries anywhere across the Arab world. Then, of course, all bets are off, and it's impossible to predict what would happen.

KENYON: And in the complex web that is Middle East geopolitics, analysts say a new round of violence would likely have repercussions far beyond Lebanon.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Now regarding those Scud missiles. The U.S. government said yesterday it has not determined if Syria sent them to Hezbollah in Lebanon, but it's looking into the reports. Here's State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.

Mr. P.J. CROWLEY (U.S. State Department): The fact that you have a separate country prospectively arming a militia inside of Lebanon is a threat to Lebanon's sovereignty, and we are committed to support Lebanon, its sovereignty and regional security and stability.

INSKEEP: Crowley said the U.S. will go ahead with plans to send an ambassador back to Syria after a five year absence.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.