Berri makes surprise trip to Damascus on eve of dialogue session

Posted in Broader Middle East | 29-Jun-06 | Author: Nada Bakri| Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

BEIRUT: Speaker Nabih Berri made a surprise visit to Syria Wednesday to meet with President Bashar Assad and his deputy, Farouk al-Sharaa, to discuss strained relations between Damascus and Beirut. The purpose of "this visit is to follow up on my discussions with the Syrian leadership and following a series of meetings with Arab officials all in the aim of improving Syrian-Lebanese relations," Berri said after the talks.

He said the talks "were positive and fruitful" but refrained from providing further details.

"You should maintain secrecy if you want to get things done. And things are heading toward a better direction this way," Berri told reporters.

The speaker's visit to Syria - his second since May - comes amid a flurry of statements and counter-statements exchanged between Damascus and Beirut about Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's long-awaited visit to the neighboring country.

Siniora was assigned by participants in Lebanon's ongoing national dialogue - sponsored by Berri - to hold talks with Syrian officials over exchanging embassies, delineating borders and cooperation to establish the Lebanese identity of the occupied Shebaa Farms.

Assad said in an interview published Monday in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat that Siniora was twice invited to Damascus but he failed to respond.

The premier responded Tuesday, saying he was prepared to go the first time but the Syrians never followed up on the agenda he proposed. He added that when the second meeting - arranged by Berri - was scheduled , he requested a two-day delay but Damascus refused.

Berri's visit came on the eve of the ninth dialogue session, when rival leaders will continue discussions on the last item on the agenda of the national talks launched early March: a defense strategy for Lebanon in the face of a potential threat from Israel.

Berri, Phalange Party leader Amin Gemayel, Batroun MP Boutros Harb, Tripoli MP Mohammad Safadi and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun will present their defense-policy proposals.

Future Movement leader Saad Hariri, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea made their case in the previous sessions.

The sources said discussions over the defense policy should be over in two additional sessions, but that Berri will suggest holding periodic sessions to monitor implementation of the talks' decisions by Siniora's Cabinet.

FPM MP Ibrahim Kenaan told The Daily Star his bloc will not support this suggestion "if participants don't reach decisions that break the deadlock."

PSP MP Wael Bou Faour said they will support Berri's proposal to hold periodic sessions regardless of whether participants reach an agreement over the defense strategy.

"Even if we don't agree on a defense strategy there are decisions that we have reached and need to be implemented and we will monitor their implementation through these sessions," Bou Faour told The Daily Star.

Members of the parliamentary majority maintain that any defense strategy should keep decisions to "protect Lebanon" in the hands of the state and regular army.

But pro-Syrian groups, led by Hizbullah, have so far rejected UN Security Council demands to disarm and calls from within Lebanon to merge their fighters with the regular army.

Thursday's meeting comes after a heated public debate about Hizbullah's weapons.

Druze leader MP Walid Jumblatt, an influential figure of the anti-Syrian camp, insists that the "defense of Southern Lebanon should be the prerogative solely of the Lebanese state" and that Hizbullah fighters should be integrated within the ranks of the regular army.

But Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said only a paramilitary structure like his group's military wing, which he claims has over 12,000 rockets, can protect Lebanon from Israel.

In seven rounds of talks since March 2, participants have agreed to establish an international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri, dismantle Palestinian militant bases in Lebanon, and improve ties with Syria.