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Road to Damascus

DW staff (nda)December 3, 2006

Four months after abruptly axing a trip to Damascus, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier will travel to Syria Monday to hold talks with President Bashar al-Assad and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.

Assad's Syria may have pulled its troops out of Lebanon but its influence is still strongly feltImage: AP

Officials traveling with the German delegation on a Middle East tour said Sunday that Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier planned to meet the Syrian officals during a one-day visit.

Steinmeier had in August cancelled a visit to Damascus hours before his planned arrival after Assad described Israel as "an enemy", said that 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.

Berlin has frequently indicated it is prepared to offer economic incentives to Damascus in exchange for "constructive" cooperation in Middle East peace efforts.

Steinmeier's spokesman Martin Jaeger had said Thursday that the minister would "possibly" stop in Syria at the end of his regional tour but that it would depend on developments in the Middle East "and particularly Lebanon."

During a stop in Beirut Saturday, Steinmeier urged foreign powers to stay out of Lebanese affairs amid a mass protest led by Hezbollah aimed at bringing down the Western-backed government.

On Sunday, Steinmeier visited German troops leading the naval contingent of a UN force deployed to prevent arms trafficking to Lebanon following the July-August war between Hezbollah and Israel.

He was to travel to Israel later Sunday to meet his counterpart Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Washington and Paris have refused all contact with the Syrian leadership and have regularly accused Damascus of attempting to destabilize Lebanon.

Syria came under renewed suspicion after the assassination last month of Lebanon's anti-Syrian industry minister, Pierre Gemayel, in Beirut.

Steinmeir reiterates German support for Siniora

Steinmeier in Beirut - Treffen mit Siniora
Steinmeier offered support to beleaguered SinioraImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Steinmeier arrived in Lebanon Saturday for talks with Prime Minister Fuad Siniora despite continued tensions over the Hezbollah-led sit-in by pro-Syria demonstrators outside the government buildings in central Beirut where he met the Lebanese leader.

Steinmeier said that Germany would continue to support Lebanon's independence in the face of pressure from inside and outside the country, a reference to the protests which started Friday and which have brought central Beirut to a virtual standstill.

"I know your country is passing through a rough situation," Steinmeier told reporters at Beirut International Airport. "My presence is a gesture of support for Lebanon's independence in the management of its affairs without foreign intervention."

After his talks with Siniora, Steinmeier called on all Lebanese politicians to work together in the best interest of the country and to ease the burden on the Lebanese people "who have been through a lot."

Destabilization of Lebanon on no-one's interest

Libanon Demonstration in Beirut gegen Regierung Saniora Flaggen
Pro-Siniora media have called the protests a coup attemptImage: AP

The destabilization of Lebanon was in not in the interest of anyone inside or outside Lebanon, he said. "For this reason the European Union and especially Germany is exerting all its efforts to help Lebanon and to secure a ceasefire on the border" with Israel.

German naval troops continued to monitor Lebanon's coast and the German government had offered equipment and training to border personnel as well as 80 million euros in aid, he added.

Upon his arrival at the airport, Steinmeier handed over scanners to customs officers for searching goods coming into the country. Germany has also supplied Lebanon with shipping vehicles and computers for use in border monitoring.

The German naval contingent is part of a UN force entrusted with monitoring the coast to prevent any arms shipment to Hezbollah in line with UN Security Council resolution 1701 that ended a month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah this summer.

In Beirut, Steinmeier also held what he described as "very positive talks" with the pro-Syrian parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who is a close ally of Hezbollah.

West critcizes attempts to unseat Siniora's government

Massenprotest in Beirut
Thousands of protestors remain on the streets of BeirutImage: AP

Meanwhile, Lebanon's Western-backed cabinet vowed not to cave in to calls to resign as the political deadlock which has nearly paralyzed state institutions amid a fierce struggle for supremacy between pro- and anti-Syrian camps within the power-sharing regime tightened.

The stand-off has prompted concern and criticism from Western nations eager for Lebanon to remain under the control of the Siniora government.

US State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Washington denounced what he called "threats of intimidation or violence" which "are aimed at toppling Lebanon's legitimate and democratically elected government".

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, who also held talks with Siniora Saturday, expressed her support for his government. "We call on all parties to work together for the good of Lebanon, and to return to dialogue," she said.

Arab League chief Amr Mussa was to hold talks in Beirut on Sunday to offer his services as a mediator, Arab diplomats said. The Saudi ambassador mediated between the two sides late Friday and brokered the reopening of some access roads to Siniora's offices.

Lebanese deadlock attributed to Hariri tribunal

Libanon Jahrestag Mord an Rafik Hariri Beirut
Rafik Hariri's murder is a scar that won't healImage: AP

Siniora appealed Saturday for renewed talks with the opposition over a deadlock which threatens to block the government's legislative program, including its centerpiece plans for an

international tribunal to try the suspects in the murder of his predecessor Rafiq Hariri's murder, in which Syria has been implicated.

The opposition spearheaded by Hezbollah is demanding a greater say in the government, which it charges has been riding roughshod over the power-sharing arrangements in force since Lebanon's devastating 1975-90 civil war.

But the anti-Damascus camp says the opposition demands are a ploy at the behest of their Syrian sponsors to avoid the formation of the proposed international tribunal to try suspects in the Hariri murder.