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Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi reiterated Sunday that Syrian President Bashar Assad has agreed to the deployment of European Union personnel along his country's border with Lebanon. A day earlier, Syria had issued a denial, but the confusion may have been a result of miscommunication.
On Saturday, Syria's official news agency denied reports that Assad had agreed to an EU presence on the Lebanese side of the border.
"The reports by some news agencies that Syria has accepted that European border guards monitor the Lebanese-Syrian borders are not true," the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported.
Prof. Eyal Zisser, chairman of the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University, was quick to dismiss the conflicting statements emanating from Italy and Syria as no more than "a simple misunderstanding."
What Assad said and what Prodi understood are likely to have differed due to "Assad's unclear speech," according to Zisser. "This is not the first time that Assad's words have been misinterpreted. He has a way of not speaking clearly, and this is most probably what happened here."
The positioning of European Union guards could help allay the government's concerns about the smuggling of weapons from Syria to Hizbullah, which is supposed to be stopped, according to the UN Security Council's cease-fire resolution.
Prodi issued a statement Saturday saying he had spoken with Assad several times over the last few days and that the Syrian president had agreed "in principle" to an EU presence on the border.
Prodi's statement also said, "We believe that a significant quantity of arms pass through this border... toward southern Lebanon."
The Italian news agency ANSA quoted Prodi as saying Syria had agreed to European border guards in plainclothes and without weapons to prevent arms shipments to Hizbullah. Prodi's office confirmed the ANSA report was accurate.
But after Syria issued its denial, Prodi's spokesman Silvio Sircana clarified the prime minister's statements. He said Syria's denial was accurate and quoted Prodi as saying Syria had agreed to "EU personnel." He denied Prodi had referred to them as border guards.
"I confirm that Prodi and Assad did not discuss troops or guards, but only EU personnel without uniforms or arms that will be at the disposal of the Syrian forces," Sircana said.
The Syrian news agency did not say whether the president had agreed to any other type of European presence on the border with Lebanon. It said that as part of continued consultations between Syria and Italy, Assad and Prodi spoke by telephone Saturday night and that "the talks were on technical assistance, including training, that is expected to be offered to Syrian border guards."
In the past, Syria has vehemently rejected the deployment of armed UN peacekeepers on the Lebanese side of the border. Assad said he would consider such a move a hostile act.
Other analysts said Sunday that Syria's refusal to allow EU guards on the border was a sign that Syria did not recognize Lebanon as a separate, sovereign state. While Syria might still have plans to assert its influence over its neighbor, said Zisser, the latest development was not directly linked to these plans.
"It is simpler than that. The Syrians do not want an international force inspecting [cross-border cargo] for weapons, because they intend to continue smuggling arms to Hizbullah," he said.
In a meeting with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Damascus earlier this month, Assad promised to increase Syrian patrols on the border and work with Lebanese troops to enforce the arms embargo.
Asked about Syria's long-term plans regarding Lebanon, Zisser conceded that an international presence in the area would hamper Syrian efforts to play a dominant role in Lebanese affairs.
"Syria will try its best to come back and play a part in Lebanon. In the immediate term, they want to destroy everything that has been achieved in Lebanon - to [overthrow] the current government and rid the country of an international presence," he said.