July 15, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 532

The Syria-Lebanon Relations Conference: An Opening for Syria's Return to Lebanon

July 15, 2009 | By N. Mozes*
Syria, Lebanon | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 532


On April 14-18, 2009, the Conference on Syria-Lebanon Relations was held in Damascus, sponsored by Syrian Vice President for Cultural Affairs Dr. Najjah Al-'Attar. The Syrian government daily Teshreen characterized the conference as "the beginning of a new road towards Syrian-Lebanese rapprochement." [1] Speakers at the conference, while being careful to stress Syria's recognition of Lebanon's independence and sovereignty, placed a strong focus on the common ground between the two sides and played down their differences. They emphasized the special connection between the two countries, which is based on shared history and culture, geographical proximity and a common enemy (namely Israel); phrases such as "one people in two countries," "common destiny," and "economic-cultural integration" were frequently used. As for the issues of normalization and formal diplomatic relations between the two countries, Syrian officials downplayed their importance and necessity, stressing instead the "natural relations" that should hold between Syria and Lebanon.

The makeup of the Lebanese delegation reinforced this message. It was headed by former Lebanese prime minister Salim Al-Hoss, and by former Lebanese ministers Michel Samaha and Eli Al-Farizli, who are known for their pro-Syrian positions.

It should be noted that, in the weeks since the conference, Syria has made efforts to demonstrate its recognition of Lebanon's independence. After the recent parliamentary elections in Lebanon, the pro-Syrian Lebanese daily Al-Safir and the Saudi daily Al-Hayat reported that Syria, as part of an understanding with Saudi Arabia, had refrained from interfering in the Lebanese elections, thereby enabling the unexpected victory of the March 14 Forces. [2] Syria's non-interference in the elections was also repeatedly emphasized by Syrian officials. [3] As another step towards normalization, Syria also dispatched its ambassador to Lebanon, two months after his official appointment. [4]

The following are excerpts from statements by officials who attended the conference and from its closing statement, from statements made by the Syrian President in a meeting at the periphery of the conference, and from press reactions to the conference.

Syrian Vice President: "Beirut Is Damascus and Syria Is Lebanon"

Many of the speakers at the conference emphasized that the Syrian and Lebanese were in fact one people. At the opening session, Vice President Najjah Al-'Attar stated: "...Syria and Lebanon are one country in heart and in tongue. True, they are separated by borders that must be respected, but these [borders] do not obscure the obvious truth that the two peoples are [in fact] one people, with a shared origin and history, and with common interests... Syria was and continues to be Lebanon's twin [sister]... Beirut is Damascus and Syria is Lebanon... You and we are one people, speaking the same language. Uniting us are shared values, shared goals and shared problems..."

Accordingly, Al-Najjah stressed that there was no need for normalization between the two countries: "There is no need for normalization between brothers who are connected by ties of love and by a [shared] history studded with victories. The natural relations that prevailed [between us] in the past should be restored. The other kind of normalization is the one pursued, for example, by our enemy [Israel], and we reject it. This [kind of normalization] is what allowed some [of our] brothers to aim weapons at their own sons and to embrace the enemies of their nation. [It is surprising] that some of our brothers in Lebanon [i.e., the March 14 Forces], whom we respect, talk of renewed normalization with Syria, [and at the same time talk about] excellent relations with America, for instance, and about accepting [this country,] which presumes to monitor our honesty and integrity and to supervise our every move during the elections and at other times, and to dictate the positions [we must take]... Everything that happens in Lebanon is Syria's business, and everything that happens in Syria is Lebanon's business." [5]

Former Lebanese PM: We Are "One People in Two Countries"

Former Lebanese prime minister Salim Al-Hoss, who spoke on behalf of the Lebanese delegation, said in a similar vein: "We Lebanese and Syrians are in fact one people... The victorious pan-Arab sector in Lebanon [i.e., the Lebanese opposition] knows that Lebanon's Arabism actually passes though Damascus... The Lebanese have begun to grasp the importance of Syria as a gate through which the Lebanese economy [can reach] other Arab markets, especially those of the Gulf, and [to recognize our] shared interests, in all domains." Al-Hoss stressed that the Syrian-Lebanese Supreme Council [6] must continue to function despite the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries, and that the relations will continue to be excellent only if constant ties are maintained at the highest levels, as well as at the level of the Syrian-Lebanese Supreme Council. [7]

Other Lebanese conferees likewise emphasized the importance of the ties with Syria and expressed hope for their enhancement. [8]

The Conference’s Closing Statement: On Their Own, Syria and Lebanon are Deficient

The same notions were repeated in the closing statement of the conference, which said: "...What unites Lebanon and Syria is that both are rooted in one people, and in the same soil and history, and both are advancing towards a shared destiny. Therefore, their relations are characterized by unity, integration and continuity... This unity finds expression in various domains... making the two countries into [one] country whose economic, political, social, cultural and defensive structure makes it more strong and just. [Together, Syria and Lebanon] have a more important role and a greater presence [than each country could have had on its own]... Alone, each of them is deficient, especially since the natural and proper relations [that exist between them] are the key to Syria's security and Lebanon's stability.

"The conferees believe that the only true way towards [maintaining good] relations is through [respect for] the sovereignty, freedom, independence, and strength of each country... The existence of Syria and Lebanon as two separate countries, each of them independent, sovereign, and free, does not detract from the sense of deprivation felt by each in the absence of the other. [Separated,] we live in deficient and unstable conditions, with relations that reveal the deep flaw inherent in freedom, sovereignty and independence in their common sense...

"The conferees agreed that... [Lebanon's and Syria's] economic activity, development factors, and interests are shared to the point of [complete] unity, and that their joint struggle against the Zionist plan and foreign control... must lie at the foundation of their relations so as to grant [both countries] a future of greater unity and integration..." [9]

Assad Attacks Opponents of Syrian Involvement in Lebanon

In a meeting with the Lebanese delegation at the periphery of the conference, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad made some statements apparently meant to assure his addressees, saying that there was no intention of returning the Syrian military to Lebanon, and that he was willing to comply with the Lebanese request to dissolve the Supreme Syrian-Lebanese Council. However, he qualified his statements in various ways, and also harshly criticized the March 14 Forces, who oppose the Syrian interference in Lebanon's internal affairs, and especially Lebanese Prime-Minister Fuad Al-Siniora.

Assad said that the decision to withdraw the Syrian military from Lebanon was taken after he became convinced that Lebanon had a strong army of its own, which could see to its security and military needs. He stressed, "Syria outside Lebanon is stronger than Syria inside Lebanon. Outside Lebanon, it can maintain better relations... with the Lebanese state and people. I have declared on several occasions that the Syrian forces will not return to Lebanon... We were [asked] many times about our position vis-à-vis Lebanon, and each time we gave the same answer, so Syria's position is now well known. Syria is strong when Lebanon is strong. We have every interest to see Lebanon strong. We do not support Hizbullah because [we want to back] one of the forces in Lebanon [at the expense of the others], but because it represents the resistance against Israel..."

Assad repeatedly expressed willingness to comply with one of the main demands of the March 14 Forces, namely to revoke the agreements between Lebanon and Syria and dissolve the Supreme Syrian-Lebanese Council - which are remnants of the Syrian involvement in Lebanon. However, he set unrealistic conditions for complying with these demands and tried to blame the Lebanese side for not resolving the issue. First, he stated that the treaties could only be revoked by a Lebanese consensus - a condition that obviously cannot be met considering the current political power-balance in Lebanon. Assad stressed that "any Lebanese position [should be reached by] consensus, which is difficult to achieve... Is there a Lebanese consensus or agreement about dissolving the Supreme Council? If [all the Lebanese] tell us that they do not want it, we will dissolve it. If they tell us they do not want the agreements, or that they want to amend them, we will comply..."

Trying to embarrass the Al-Siniora government, Assad added that he had approached the two last Lebanese prime ministers, Najib Al-Miqati and Fuad Al-Siniora, about the issue of the Supreme Council and the agreements, but to no avail. "Prime Minister Al-Miqati," he explained, "did not stay long in the government, while Al-Siniora and his supporters never gave me a [proper] answer. They rejected every proposal I made. I said that I was willing to discuss all the agreements, but they were not serious and ignored the entire affair. I am willing to forgo the Supreme Council if the Lebanese ask me to. I have spoken to Michel Suleiman about the agreements... and several of our ministers have spoken with some Lebanese ministers about them. [10] But our communication about this issue is only with them. With the other group [i.e., the March 14 Forces] we have no communication."

Assad also downplayed the importance of the agreements and the Supreme Council, saying: "The others [i.e. Al-Siniora and the March 14 Forces] should know that our interests [in Lebanon] will remain even if the agreements and the Supreme Council cease to exist. [Our interests] have nothing to do with [the Council and the agreements]... The Council does not do much [anyway]. We can involve it in the discussions we hold. We can also involve the two embassies [Syria's embassy in Lebanon and Lebanon's embassy in Syria]..."

Assad did not try to conceal Syria's intentions to interfere in Lebanon's affairs, though he emphasized the need for public Lebanese support for this move. He said: "Who wants to make changes in Lebanon? The politicians or the people? In some countries, the elected [leaders] are the ones who bring about change. Syria's role in Lebanon is to help those who want to stand up and [bring about change], not to do this on their behalf. We cannot take the place of the Lebanese... Change cannot occur without a [Lebanese] mechanism. We are in direct contact with the [whole] Lebanese society, and the Lebanese society is in direct contact with Syria. That is one of the lessons that the past has taught us... Our assistance is confined to what the Lebanese ask of us. So this issue is up to the Lebanese, their intellectuals and elected leaders. I ask you - does Lebanon have a mechanism that will allow us to help?" [11]

Lebanese Criticism of the Conference

Some criticism of Syria was nevertheless expressed at the conference. Lebanese historian 'Isam Khalifa called upon Syria to "change its tactics and strategy vis-à-vis Lebanon," stating: "[Any decision to] set out on defensive adventures [this refers to the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers that led to the 2006 Hizbullah-Israel war] must be taken jointly by Syria and Lebanon, and the same goes for [any decision] to start peace negotiations with Israel." He added that "increasing the armament of certain parts of Lebanese society may have dangerous ramifications that will affect not only the situation in Lebanon." Khalifa's strong words provoked a reaction from the Syrian government daily Al-Watan, which remarked that, even though Khalifa calls himself an independent researcher, his affiliation with the March 14 Forces is unmistakable. [12]

Most of the Lebanese press reports about the conference appeared in the dailies Al-Akhbar and Al-Safir. Though they are known to be pro-Syrian, these papers likewise expressed some criticism of the Syrian position as reflected at the conference and in Syrian reports about it. Lebanese journalist Samah Idris, who attended the conference, denounced some of the Lebanese participants for being even more pro-Syrian than the Syrian participants themselves. He also criticized the government Syrian press for censoring some of the statements made at the conference for fear that they would harm Syria or its policy in Lebanon. [13]

The March 14 Forces: The Conference - A Reflection of Syria's Greed

The March 14 Forces characterized the conference as "a cover for Syria's old policy, which is manifest in its age-old greed vis-à-vis Lebanon..." [14] March 14 MP Akram Shahib said that the claim of Syrian Vice President Najjah Al-'Attar that "Beirut is Damascus and Syria is Lebanon" reflected "the desire of the Syrian regime to base the 'natural relations' between the two countries on the principles that prevailed in the period of [Syrian] sponsorship and hegemony [over Lebanon]..." He added that the conference showed what situation would prevail in Lebanon if the March 8 Forces (i.e. the Opposition) won the parliamentary elections. [15]

Saudi columnist Hassan Haydar, who is close to the March 14 Forces, wrote in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat that though the holding of the conference could be a good thing in itself, there was no sign of change in Syria's perception of Lebanon. He added that the terms of "brotherhood" and "twinship," which were used by Al-'Attar, were not an appropriate description of a healthy relationship between two states, and that restoring the relations that existed in the past between Syria and Lebanon, as she recommended, was precisely what must be avoided. [16]

*N. Moses is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Teshreen (Syria), April 16, 2009.

[2] Al-Safir (Lebanon), Al-Hayat (London), June 10, 2009.

[3] Teshreen (Syria), June 10, 2009.

At the same time, the Syrian daily Al-Watan, which is close to the Syrian regime, published many articles accusing the March 14 Forces of election fraud and bribery. The articles also claimed that, because of the Lebanese elections law, the election results were slanted and did not reflect the voters' will. See, for example, Al-Watan (Syria), June 10, 2009.


[5] Al-Thawra (Syria), April 15, 2009.

[6] The Higher Syrian-Lebanese Council was established as part of the Brotherhood and Cooperation Treaty, signed May 22, 1991, which effectively turned Lebanon into a Syrian protectorate. Its task was to formulate policy on Lebanese-Syrian coordination and cooperation, and to supervise the implementation of this policy.

[7] Al-Thawra (Syria), April 15, 2009.

[8] For example, journalist Amin Qamouriyya said that it was impossible for Lebanon to act without consulting Syria, since the latter was one of the key countries in the region. Al-Thawra (Syria), April 15, 2009. Journalist Mahmoud Haydar said that Syria was Lebanon's "economic and cultural depth," because the two peoples were one. Al-Khalij (UAE), April 19, 2009.

[9] Teshreen (Syria), April 19, 2009.

[10] This presumably refers, inter alia, to Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh, who visited Syria in August 2008, and to Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, President Suleiman's representative in the government, who visited Syria in November of the same year.

[11] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 17, 2009.

[12] Al-Watan (Syria), April 19, 2009.

[13] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 30, 2009.

[14], April 21, 2009.

[15], April 21, 2009.

[16] Al-Hayat (London), April 16, 2009.

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