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ARAB-AFFAIRS - Sept. 22 - Syria Hits Back At Lebanese Bishops.

Syria's state media defend the country's role in Lebanon following a call by Lebanese Christian leaders for Syrian troops to withdraw. (The Maronite bishops' demand for the pullout of about 35,000 Syrian soldiers has caused a storm in Lebanon since it was issued on Sept. 19. The bishops said Syria's withdrawal was the "only way to prevent Lebanon's disintegration", while its troops' presence in Beirut "greatly embarrasses the Lebanese... demeaning their sovereignty and national dignity". Reports say the controversy recalls memories of Lebanon's 16-year civil war, which pitted Christian Lebanese nationalists against Muslim and leftist factions.) Syrian papers respond to the bishops with reminders of the importance of its "strategic, special and historic" relations with Lebanon. 'Al Thawra' warns: "Had it not been for these relations, Israel would have been able to realise all its plots against Lebanon which would have been divided into mutually hostile cantons and mini-states". (Syrian troops have been stationed in Lebanon since its intervention ended the 1975-90 civil war. Officials in Beirut and Damascus insist it is a temporary presence.)

On Sept. 20, Syrian official radio - without mentioning the bishops' attack - accused Israel of trying to drive a wedge between Damascus and Beirut "to avenge its defeat in south Lebanon". (Opponents of Syrian domination of Lebanon have stepped up their calls for a military withdrawal since Israel ended its occupation of the south of the country in May.) The radio said some people in Lebanon are trying to confuse the issue by putting [Syria's] positive role and [Israel's] sabotage on the same footing. (The death in June of Syrian Pres. Hafez Al Assad, who had played a strong hand in Lebanese affairs, also provided encouragement for the anti-Syria camp.) Lebanese Pres. Lahoud - a Maronite, but one who supports the status quo - accuses the bishops of provoking "confessional, sectarian instincts, which do not serve the country's highest interests". Reports also say many Lebanese are surprised and disturbed by the vociferousness of the bishops' call for a Syrian withdrawal. The statement, issued after a conference chaired by the country's Patriarch Nasrallah, said: "The situation has become intolerable - Lebanon has lost its sovereignty faced with a hegemony imposed on all its institutions". (A scaling down of Syria's military presence is stipulated in the 1989 Taif agreement which brought the Lebanese civil war to an end. However, Syria has shown little sign of implementing the agreement, arguing that the circumstances for reducing its presence have not yet arrived. Syrian ally Walid Jumblatt, who leads Lebanon's Druze, had called for a troop pullout, the return of anti-Syrian Christian leaders and dialogue among Lebanese factions. However, it is believed that until there is a comprehensive ME peace, Syria will be reluctant to leave, as it is considered vulnerable to attack by Israel via Lebanese territory.)
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Publication:APS Diplomat Recorder
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Sep 23, 2000
Previous Article:ARAB-AFFAIRS - Sept. 21 - Syria, Saudi Arabia Discuss Regional Peace.
Next Article:ARAB-EUROPEAN RELATIONS - Sept. 22-French Flight To Iraq Causes Row.

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