Ahead of White House Visit, Lebanese PM Meets With Syrian President, Seeks Talks with Hezbollah Leader

By Patrick Goodenough | May 20, 2010 | 4:58 AM EDT

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, right, outside the Lebanese Embassy in Damascus on his previous visit to Syria, on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2009. (AP Photo)

(Editor’s note: Adds State Department comment on Hezbollah’s status.)

(CNSNews.com) – Preparing for his first official visit to Washington next week, Lebanon’s U.S.-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri has held “coordination” talks with Syrian President Bashir Assad and reportedly plans to meet Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

The Lebanese newspaper Ad-Diyar reports that Hariri is “keen” to hold talks with the leader of the Shi’ite group before traveling to the United States.
The U.S. government has listed Hezbollah as a “foreign terrorist organization” since the FTO designation was first established under legislation enacted in 1996; its deadliest attacks included suicide bombings in Beirut in 1983 which killed more than 300 people, including 241 U.S. servicemen and 58 French troops.
Hezbollah also operates as a political party, and in the Hariri-led “unity” government established after elections last year, the Iranian- and Syrian-backed group and its allies control one-third of the cabinet portfolios.
Although U.N. Security Council resolutions call for Hezbollah to be disarmed, Hariri’s government had made no move to do so. It recently defended Hezbollah in the Security Council, protesting Israel’s characterization of the group as a terrorist organization.
Washington and other Western governments support the Lebanese government, despite its ambiguous relationship with Hezbollah.
Some Western countries, notably Britain and Australia, differentiate between “political” and “military wings” of Hezbollah, and have only outlawed the latter.
The U.S. has not formally made the distinction, although Obama’s counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, was quoted this week as suggesting that the U.S. should have differing approaches to what he called “moderate elements” in Hezbollah, and others.
“There is certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us what they’re doing,” he told a conference in Washington on Tuesday, according to a Reuters report. “And what we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and to try to build up the more moderate elements.”
Brennan made comparable remarks last August, when speaking at another event in DC he described Hezbollah as having “a terrorist core” and added that “a lot of Hezbollah individuals are in fact renouncing that type of terrorism and violence and are trying to participate in the political process in a very legitimate fashion.”
At the time, the State Department denied a policy shift was in the works.
“We do not make any distinction between the political and military wings, and that is our policy,” then spokesman Robert Wood said on Aug. 7. “Until Hezbollah decides that it's going to change and stop carrying out the acts of terrorism and other acts that are causing instability in the region, there's no reason for our policy to change.”

Asked about Brennan’s latest remarks, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Thursday that U.S. policy towards Hezbollah remained unchanged.

“We do not recognize separate military and political wings,” he said. “Hezbollah’s leadership and funding are fungible across all parts of the organization, and all parties within Lebanon must adhere to their obligations under U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1701 and 1559 [which require the group to disarm].”

On the issue of whether there moderates in Hezbollah, Crowley said, “We can get into any kind of esoteric conversation as to whether there are moderates in Hezbollah … there are clear red lines that we have laid down for anyone who wants to constructively engage in seeking peace in the Middle East.

The U.S. expects parties in the region to forego violence, recognize the existence of Israel, and adhere to existing agreements.

Hezbollah up to now has not met those criteria, he said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, pictured here with the visiting Emir of Kuwait, held talks with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri Tuesday ahead of the latter’s visit to Washington next week. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi).

Early this month, President Obama renewed economic sanctions against Syria first imposed in 2004, citing among other factors its “continuing support for terrorist organizations.”
Although he did not elaborate, Hezbollah is the terrorist group Syria is best known for sponsoring, through funding, training, weapons and political, diplomatic and organizational assistance. (Assad also supports Hamas and smaller Palestinian terror factions.)
Coordinating positions with Damascus
The Obama administration has been tentatively reaching out to Syria, although its attempts to appoint an ambassador to Damascus are being held up by Republican lawmakers. In letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, GOP senators protesting the nomination of Robert Ford have cited Syrian policies in Lebanon, including recent claims by Israel about the alleged shipment of long-range Scud missiles to Hezbollah.
Both Syria and the Lebanese government have denied the allegations.
Ahead of his May 24 meeting at the White House, Hariri held talks with Assad in Damascus on Tuesday, their second since he became prime minister last year.
Syrian presidential advisor Bussaina Shaaban wrote in the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper ahead of the meeting that it was “designed to coordinate policy ahead of [Hariri’s] trip to Washington.”
After the talks, the official SANA news agency referred again to the “coordination of stances between both countries.”
Syria has a long history of dominating Lebanon, and had 15,000 troops stationed there for years until forced to withdraw them under pressure sparked by the assassination in 2005 of Hariri’s father, Rafik Hariri.
Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister and popular Sunni politician, had opposed Syrian political and military interference.
A U.N. inquiry into the truck bombing that killed him is underway. An earlier independent commission found evidence implicating senior Syrian officials, and suspicion of involvement has also fallen on Hezbollah.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow