Berri says Syrian Influence in Lebanon can be Discussed, Presence 'out of Question'
Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called for an end to the debate over Syria's presence in Lebanon Monday as efforts to defuse tension continued to gain ground, reported the daily Star.
Berri was quoted in the local press as calling the debate “dangerous.”
According to the Star, a senior political source asserted that Berri was ready to engage in dialogue over Damascus' influence on political life, as opposed to its military presence here, while a government minister announced from Bkirki that an official "initiative" was forthcoming.
At Nijmeh Square, the parliament’s building area, Berri declared that "Syrian troops will stay as long as (regional) peace has not been signed.”
He argued against the notion of holding a dialogue over the issue, asking that it be "left out of the domestic political game,” said the paper. However, he indicated his willingness to "discuss all other issues of discord with the various Lebanese factions, including those that are not represented in Parliament."
One of these issues could be Syria's influence on Lebanon’s political life, a source close to the speaker told The Daily Star. The source said the speaker believed in the importance of distinguishing between the presence of Syrian troops in the country, which he said was necessary at this point in time, and Damascus' authority over domestic politics.
The source said Berri was ready to discuss this latter, which he believes to be the main source of worry for most Lebanese, including Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir.
The source added that whereas a Syrian departure is out of the question, the question of Syrian influence could be discussed and the level of such intervention reduced.
It was in this spirit that Berri relayed a message to the prelate through Father Abdo Abu Kasm, who visited him over the weekend. The speaker urged Sfeir to join Pope John Paul II in his trip to Damascus early next month.
According to Berri, Syrian President Bashar Assad will ask to meet the patriarch if Sfeir were to visit Damascus. Berri reportedly told Abu Kasm that by visiting Syria, the patriarch would be increasing the chances of engaging in a serious dialogue with the Syrian leadership about controversial issues such as Syrian influence in the country.
"The ball will be in the Syrians' court," a source familiar with the meeting quoted Berri as saying
According to AFP, Berri repeated to journalists late Monday that there was no question of the Syrian army withdrawing its 35,000-strong garrison from Lebanon "under present circumstances."
Berri, who heads the Shiite Amal movement that fought against Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon until the Jewish state's troop pullout in May 2000, is Syria's prime ally in Lebanon, said the agency.
Berri accused Maronite Christians of raising the matter with the aim of securing the release from prison of former Christian militia leader Samir Geagea and the return of the former Christian prime minister Michel Aoun, who went into exile in France after failing to throw the Syrians out militarily 10 years ago.
Maronite bishops called for the Syrian troops to leave, or at least redeploy away from key centers and positions, last September.
The call has been forcefully repeated by Sfeir, notably on a recent tour of North America, and more than 100,000 people gave him a hero's welcome when he returned to Lebanon last week.
Berri's remarks came as former Lebanese foreign minister Christian Fuad Butros resumed a mediation effort between Syria and Sfeir. Butros was due to hold talks Tuesday with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud.
The dispute further heightened after remarks from non-Christian politicians, particularly Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who criticized Damascus' interferences in Lebanese affairs, mainly through Lebanese and Syrian intelligence services.
As Christian figures demand the "withdrawal" of Syrian troops from Lebanon, Jumblatt has called for a "redeployment" of the Syrian army in line with the 1989 Taef accord that put an end to Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, said AFP – Albawaba.com
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)