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Strong Words in Syria

DW staff (nda)December 4, 2006

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier met with President Assad in Damascus and urged the Syrian leader to engage in the peace process. But Assad held a belligerent stance, blaming Israel for current tensions.

Steinmeier and Assad held open and direct talks but the divisions were again obviousImage: AP

"I call particularly on Syria to do everything in its power to prevent the destabilisation of Lebanon, directly or indirectly," Steinmeier told reporters, according to an official translation of his remarks from German to Arabic.

"The region is in a difficult transitional phase and is anything but stable," the German foreign minister said. "I was in Lebanon and witnessed the fragile situation, in particular after the assassination of Pierre Gemayel."

He added that Syria was an "important actor" in the Middle East that he hoped could play a "constructive" part in the peace process and said "all parties should make every effort to prevent increased violence in Lebanon."

Steinmeier held talks with Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem and President Bashar al-Assad on the latest leg of his tour of the region.

Nahost Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Israel bei Zipi Liwni
Steinmeier with Israeli counterpart Tzipi LivniImage: AP

During a two-hour discussion with Assad, Steinmeier urged the Syrian president to use his influence on Hezbollah to diffuse the current tensions in Lebanon. Sources within the German delegation told Associated Press that the discussions had been open and direct.

Steinmeier and President Assad also spoke about the situation between Israel and the Palestinians, with the German minister pressing for Assad's assistance in tempering unrest within the Gaza Strip through his connections with Khaled Maschaal, the exiled political leader of Hamas in Damascus.

In Berlin, foreign ministry spokesman Martin Jäger told reporters Steinmeier would also "deliver a political message" from Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora to Syria, asking it to "exercise a moderating influence on Hezbollah."

Assad reiterates stance on Israel as an "enemy"

After the meeting, however, Assad spoke only of the divisions within the region and laid the blame for the current tensions at the doors of Israel and the United States.

"The USA and Israel are far away from any peace," Assad said. "Israel is our enemy and does not want peace. Peace would mean that Israel would have to return the occupied territories again. Israel was built on aggression and the rejection of peace, and nothing changes."

"People always say that you need the United States for peace, to stabilize, because of its position as a military world power and its diplomatic relations with many different states," the president continued. "However, the United States have to answer for this war. This is the opposite of having the will for peace."

Assad's comments Monday echoed those made in August shortly before Steinmeier and he were supposed to meet.

Five months ago, Steinmeier cancelled a visit to Damascus hours before his planned arrival after Assad described Israel as "an enemy," said it was an honor for Syria to support Shiite militia Hezbollah in its struggle against Israel and described resistance against the Jewish state as legitimate.

Steinmeier meets with Livni in Jerusalem

Hisbollah Proteste Libanon
Hezbollah supporters want the Lebanese cabinet to resignImage: AP

Steinmeier left for Damascus after talks in Israel, which has occupied the Syrian Golan Heights since 1967, with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

"A trip like this only makes sense if one uses it to leave clear messages behind," he told reporters at a brief news conference with Livni in Jerusalem on Sunday.

"Lebanon must have a chance to develop based on its own domestic forces and that can only happen when outside interference is ruled out," Steinmeier added.

The German minister's Middle East tour has come at a time of heightened tensions in the region, despite the continuing adherence to two ceasefires between the Israelis and the Palestinians in Gaza, and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

The trip, which started in Jordan on Friday and took Steinmeier through the West Bank, Gaza, Beirut and Cyprus, almost unraveled when it came to Beirut due to the continued protests of thousands of pro-Syrian protesters installed outside government buildings calling for the resignation of Lebanon's Western-backed government.

Critics see Syria's hand in current unrest

Western critics claim that Assad's Syria is responsible for stirring the current discontent and allege that the hand of Damascus continues to push for Hezbollah's increased, if not total, presence in the Lebanese government.

Steinmeier's visit is the first to Syria by a senior German government official in more than two years and it is expected that he will make the most of it by taking a tough stance.

On Saturday in Beirut, Steinmeier met Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and pledged that Germany would support "Lebanon's independence in the management of its affairs without foreign intervention."

However, while Steinmeier talked frankly about Lebanon while in Syria, his discussions did not contain any measure of threat.

Germany pursues constructive dialogue with Damascus

Libanon Industrieminister Pierre Gemayel ermordet Demonstration Reaktionen
Political killings in Beirut have been blamed on SyriaImage: AP

Berlin has frequently indicated that it is prepared to offer economic incentives to Damascus in exchange for "constructive" cooperation in Middle East peace efforts and Steinmeier himself has repeatedly said during his tour that Syria's positive involvement in the region is integral to finding a lasting settlement.

Other leading Western powers have sought to isolate Damascus over its alleged role in last year's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in Beirut while critics also accuse it of assassinating anti-Syrian cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel 12 days ago. The Syrian government denies involvement in the killings.

Syrian Foreign Minister al-Moallem slammed what he said were efforts to isolate Syria.

"There are parties in the world who have isolated Syria, but we want solid relations with every country in the world, especially Germany, based on common understanding and non-interference in (Syrian) internal affairs," he said.

Still, Syria is increasingly seen in Europe as a key to solving the myriad inter-woven conflicts in the region and, as Germany takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union less than a month from now, Steinmeier is looking to lay the foundations of potential progress in the coming months.

Berlin will be involved in the Middle East Quartet of peace mediators, comprising the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the EU.

Steinmeier has vowed to revive the ailing Quartet's plans and assured Israeli Foreign Minister Livni on Sunday that Germany would actively support efforts to forge peace in the region, saying the fragile ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip offered a "glimmer of hope" for the whole region.