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(photo credit: AP [file])
Syria is not opposed to establishing diplomatic relations with Lebanon, but no foreign power could impose such ties, Syrian President Bashar Assad said in comments published Monday.
In an interview with the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, Assad also said the al-Qaida terror network has increased its presence in Lebanon since Syrian troops withdrew in April 2005.
Referring to Syria's own battle with Islamic militants, Assad said: "Some of the groups that we chase flee from Syria to Lebanon because it is the closest and easiest (country to hide in) with mountainous roads."
Assad defended the recent detention of human rights activists and intellectuals who had signed the so-called "Damascus-Beirut Declaration," a document that called on Syria to improve relations with Lebanon and which the government saw as criticizing its policies. The detainees included the pro-democracy activist Michel Kilo and Syria's leading rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni.
"They were warned," said Assad. "The declaration harms Syrian national security and was issued in collaboration with anti-Syrian Lebanese personalities ... They violated the law, and it is natural that the law be applied to them."
Syria has long refused to forge diplomatic relations with its western neighbor, saying the two countries are too close for such formal ties. But the Lebanese government has pushed for such relations since the Syrian military withdrawal and, earlier this year, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution, sponsored by the United States, France and Britain, that urged Syria and Lebanon to demarcate their common border and establish diplomatic relations.
"In principle, we have no objection to having an embassy (in Lebanon), but this cannot be imposed by international, local or regional powers," Assad told the London-based Al Hayat.
Assad said Syria had never objected to having an embassy in Lebanon but deemed that to be "unnecessary, particularly that the distance from Beirut to Damascus is shorter than the distance from Damascus to Homs," he said, referring to a city in northwestern Syria.
Many Lebanese believe Syria has always refused diplomatic relations because Syrians have long regarded Lebanon as a part of their country, a part that was taken away during French colonial rule. France ruled Syria and Lebanon until 1943.
Syrian-Lebanese relations deteriorated sharply after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. Many Lebanese and some UN investigators believe Syria had a hand in the killing.
Syria has denied involvement, but the assassination led to massive anti-Syrian demonstrations which, combined with international pressure, forced Syria to withdraw its troops, ending a 29-year presence in Lebanon.
In the interview, Assad reiterated that any Syrian found to be involved in Hariri's assassination would be considered a traitor. "Before being handed over, he would be tried under Syrian law, and Syria law is very harsh when it comes to this," he said.
Assad also repeated that demarcation of the Syrian-Lebanese border in the disputed Shaba Farms area was not possible.
"You have to start from the north or any other place. But not the Shaba Farms which is under Israeli occupation. This is our position," he said.
Syria has opposed marking the border in the Shaba Farms region while it remains under Israeli control. Lebanon claims the sliver of land where the borders of Syria, Lebanon and Israel meet.
The U.N. says Shaba is Syrian territory that was occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. Hizbollah guerrillas, who control much of southern Lebanon, occasionally attack the Israeli troops stationed there.
Assad warned the West against a military strike on Iran because of its nuclear program, saying the results could be catastrophic.
"I don't think any sane person in the U.S. or elsewhere can believe that things can be settled by war," he said. "Now, there is talk of dialogue, and we hope that the dialogue will really start. The way we see it, things are going in the right direction," he said.