3 Assad-Hariri meetings tackle bilateral ties, regional developments

Lebanese-Syrian talks underline commitment to strategic principles

17 agreements, MoUs signed, deal reached to launch border demarcation workshop

Syrian FM says President Assad to visit Lebanon soon

Tense political haggling in Lebanon over Hezbollah chief’s recent speech

Lebanese Premier Saad Hariri and Syrian President Bashar Assad held a third round of talks Monday focusing on further boosting bilateral ties between the two countries.

Hariri and a Lebanese ministerial delegation arrived Sunday in Damascus, where the Lebanese premier held three meetings with Assad. Hariri and the accompanying delegation returned to Beirut on Monday evening.

According to the Syrian state-run news agency SANA, Assad and Hariri resumed their talks on Monday, “expressing satisfaction over the steps that were achieved in developing relations between the two countries and affirming their determination to continue boosting these ties to meet the aspirations of the two brotherly peoples in both countries.”

The two sides also discussed means for using the agreements signed between Syria and Lebanon to create a network of mutual interests for the two countries and their peoples, SANA said.

During Hariri's third visit as premier to a country he once blamed for his father's murder in 2005, Syrian and Lebanese ministers signed a total of 17 accords covering justice, tourism, education and agriculture.

"We will also continue to take action to control the borders so as to combat trafficking and all illegal acts," he told a joint press conference after talks with his Syrian counterpart Mohammed Naji Otri and Assad.

Hariri told reporters that his relations with the Syrian leader were "in the interest of both countries... which face a common enemy."

"During the course of our meetings, a friendly relationship has been built up between the Syrian president and myself, something which strengthens the interest of Lebanese and Syrian citizens," he said.

Earlier, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told reporters that the UN's Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the assassination of Hariri's father, ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, was "a Lebanese affair."

"If irrefutable evidence demonstrates that a Syrian citizen was implicated, that person will then be judged in Syria for high treason," Muallem said.

A UN commission of inquiry had said there was converging evidence that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services were involved in Hariri's killing, but Damascus has consistently denied any involvement.

The killing prompted the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after a 29-year presence.

During a visit in December, his first since his father's assassination, Hariri called for "privileged, sincere and honest relations... in the interest of both countries and both peoples."

Hariri and his political allies, backed by the West and Saudi Arabia, won a majority of seats in parliament in June 2009, edging out an alliance led by the Syrian-backed Shiite Hezbollah.

The two blocs now share power in a government of national unity.

Assad held a luncheon in honor of Hariri and visiting Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, during which they discussed ties between the three countries and means to bolster them “to reflect positively on regional issues, particularly the Palestinian cause.”

On Sunday, Syria and Lebanon signed economic agreements, signaling an improvement in relations, but did not resolve a border demarcation issue that the Lebanese government views as central to its sovereignty.

The deals, signed by Hariri with his counterpart Mohammad Naji al-Otri in the Syrian capital, were the first since the 2005 assassination in Beirut of his father Rafiq Hariri.

The elder Hariri was a member of Parliament and a former premier whose killing heralded international pressure that forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon.

The agreements included investment protection, pharmaceutical products, shipping, tourism and taxation.

Hariri said a committee set up by the two countries to demarcate the border “has to begin its work and finish it as soon as possible.”

Otri said cooperation between Syria and its smaller neighbor had to extend to security. Damascus had hinted it was concerned about infiltration by Islamist militants from Lebanon after a 2008 bombing targeted a security compound in Damascus.

Syria agreed with Lebanon in 2008 to set the border, two years after a UN resolution recommended Syria work on the issue.

Damascus has since said its technical teams were busy finishing border demarcation with Jordan and that a small Lebanese region occupied by Israel and bordering Syria complicated any demarcation.

According to the Syrian state-run news agency SANA, Assad and Hariri resumed their talks on Monday, “expressing satisfaction over the steps that were achieved in developing relations between the two countries and affirming their determination to continue boosting these ties to meet the aspirations of the two brotherly peoples in both countries.”

The two sides also discussed means for using the agreements signed between Syria and Lebanon to create a network of mutual interests for the two countries and their peoples, SANA said.

Assad held a luncheon in honor of Hariri and visiting Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, during which they discussed ties between the three countries and means to bolster them “to reflect positively on regional issues, particularly the Palestinian cause.”

On Sunday, Syria and Lebanon signed economic agreements, signaling an improvement in relations, but did not resolve a border demarcation issue that the Lebanese government views as central to its sovereignty.

The deals, signed by Hariri with his counterpart Mohammad Naji al-Otri in the Syrian capital, were the first since the 2005 assassination in Beirut of his father Rafik Hariri.

The elder Hariri was a member of Parliament and a former premier whose killing heralded international pressure that forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon.

The agreements included investment protection, pharmaceutical products, shipping, tourism and taxation.

Hariri said a committee set up by the two countries to demarcate the border “has to begin its work and finish it as soon as possible.”

Otri said cooperation between Syria and its smaller neighbor had to extend to security. Damascus had hinted it was concerned about infiltration by Islamist militants from Lebanon after a 2008 bombing targeted a security compound in Damascus.

Syria agreed with Lebanon in 2008 to set the border, two years after a UN resolution recommended Syria work on the issue.

Damascus has since said its technical teams were busy finishing border demarcation with Jordan and that a small Lebanese region occupied by Israel and bordering Syria complicated any demarcation.

Meanwhile, Lebanon First bloc MP Hadi Hobeich told New TV on Sunday that Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s Friday speech was not targeting Israel but was aimed against “a certain Lebanese party,” in a reference to the March 14 alliance and the figures supporting the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).

Nasrallah on Friday accused the STL of being an “Israeli project” designed to target the Resistance by stirring up sectarian strife in Lebanon.

Hobeich said Hezbollah does not benefit from describing the STL as an “Israeli project.”

For his part, March 14 General Secretariat Coordinator Fares Soueid said that Sayyed Nasrallah’s Friday speech is a coup against the Lebanese government and people, Akhbar al-Yawm news agency reported on Saturday.

“The STL is something all Lebanese parties agreed on during the national dialogue in 2006,” he said, adding that Nasrallah has changed his position by categorizing it as an Israeli project.

Soueid slammed Change and Reform bloc leader MP Michel Aoun’s statement that there are military groups in Lebanon–especially among the Christians—whose actions might lead to an internal conflict. Soueid said that if Aoun really said this, then he should present proof of his claims to the authorities.

The leader of the pro-Iran movement had said on Friday that a UN tribunal set up to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Hariri was an "Israeli project."

"The Israelis are helpless in confronting the resistance (Hezbollah) ... so they are betting on another Israeli project called the STL," Nasrallah said in speech honoring those who fell during the July 2006 war against Israel.

Israel launched the 33-day attack against Lebanon after Hezbollah militants snatched two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

"The Israelis are waiting for the STL decisions to cause an uproar in Lebanon ..." Nasrallah said.

The Hague-based tribunal, set up by the UN Security Council in 2007, has summoned 12 Hezbollah members or supporters as witnesses.

Hariri was killed in car bomb blast along with 20 other people in Beirut on February 14, 2005. His followers blamed Syria and its allies in Lebanon, but Damascus has denied any link to the attack.

Press reports over the past year said that the UN court was getting ready to accuse Hezbollah members in the assassination, but tribunal officials dismissed this as "speculation."

The Hezbollah leader said Lebanon recently uncovered a spy network working for Israel that controlled the telecommunications system in Lebanon since the July 2006 war.

Last month, a technician at the Alfa-mobile company was arrested on charges of "collaborating with Israel and providing it with information." Another Alfa employee was arrested this week.

Telecommunications Minister Charbel Nahas has described the suspected spying operation as "the most dangerous in the history of Lebanon."

Nasrallah told his followers, "there is no doubt that Israel has complete control over telecommunications in Lebanon, including wireless communication networks and the internet."

Lebanon and Israel remain technically in a state of war, and convicted spies face life in prison with hard labor, or the death penalty.

Nasrallah called for the death penalty to be applied to such agents.

Since April 2009, Lebanon has arrested more than 70 people on suspicion of spying for Israel, among them retired Lebanese army officials.

Israel has so far not commented on the arrests.