Syria showed signs of increasing nervousness Thursday about the future of its relations with Lebanon, in the wake of calls from the leaders of Lebanon's Christian community and others for it to remove its 35,000 troops from its small neighbor.
The official media weighed in with reminders of the achievements of its "historic" relations with Lebanon, and called for Lebanese factions once allied with Israel not to be allowed to harm the ties between them.
"Syrian-Lebanese relations are strategic, special and historic and do not depend on the wishes of one side or the other," wrote the Ath-Thawra daily.
It said that all those who believe these relations to be important had a duty to oppose any move that could damage them.
"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," the paper warned.
Its appeal came two days after a meeting of Christian Maronite bishops in Lebanon issued a statement calling for Syria to withdraw its troops, and complaining that their presence had robbed Lebanon of its sovereignty.
The bishops' statement provoked a storm in Lebanon, with President Emile Lahoud as well as several ministers and the country's two top Muslim dignitaries roundly condemning it.
The Syrian media has given wide play to the criticisms, broadcasting long extracts from newspapers backing Damascus' position.
"Some people in Lebanon are trying to confuse the issue by putting on the same footing (Syria's) positive role and (Israel's) sabotage," Ath-Thawra said.
"They close their eyes to the achievements -- in particular the liberation of the south -- which Lebanon would not have made without Syrian support," it added.
On Thursday, Syrian radio accused Israel of wanting to undermine relations between the two neighbors "to avenge its defeat in south Lebanon" as a first step to preventing joint action by the Arabs.
Meanwhile, Syrian politician Wissal Bakdash of the National Progressive Front, the ruling coalition of parties in Damascus, condemned "those who in the past had welcomed to their homes (former Israeli foreign minister) Moshe Arens, and Ariel Sharon, the butcher of (the Palestinian refugees camps) Sabra and Shatila" and now "claim to want to defend Lebanon's independence and sovereignty."
While calls in Lebanon for Syria's withdrawal of its troops and a reduction of its dominating influence are not new, they have recently been stepped up.
The issue was pushed into the arena of public debate in March this year in a widely publicized editorial in the respected daily An-Nahar, and more recently it has been taken up loudly in rallies of the banned right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces.
A Lebanese media chief who asked not to be named told AFP that the real reason why the bishops' statement had aroused such passion was that "some people suspect the Christian opposition of wanting once again to split the Lebanese track of the peace negotiations off from the Syrian track."
The Lebanese and Syrian governments regard the two tracks as indissolubly linked.
Lebanon and Syria, whose intervention ended the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war between Christian and Muslim factions, have been linked by a treaty of fraternity since 1991 -- DAMASCUS (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )