DAMASCUS, (Reuters) – Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Saturday for talks to end nearly five years of animosity between Damascus and a broad political alliance led by Hariri.
Assad warmly welcomed the prime minister at the entrance of the presidential palace in Damascus after Hariri, a billionaire businessman, flew in to the Syrian capital on his private jet.
Lebanese political sources expect the two leaders to agree on opening a new page in their personal relationship and on strengthening cooperation between their governments to guarantee Lebanon’s stability.
“At the end of the day, Syria is the nearest country to us. God willing this visit will bring stability and security to Lebanon,” Bahia al-Hariri, a member of the Lebanese parliament and the premier’s aunt, said in Lebanon.
Hariri’s “March 14” alliance has accused Syria of assassinating his politician father, Rafik al-Hariri, in February 2005. They also blamed Damascus for attacking and killing other politicians and journalists.
Syria denies the allegations. A special court based in The Hague has yet to indict anyone for the Hariri killing.
Outrage in Lebanon over the assassination and international pressure forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in April 2005, ending three decades of military presence in its smaller neighbour.
Saad al-Hariri’s coalition has often clashed in the past with Syria’s allies in Lebanon, led by the powerful Iranian-backed group Hezbollah, and the political crisis has threatened to plunge Lebanon into a new civil war.
Rapprochement between Syria and Saudi Arabia, which backs Hariri, earlier this year eased tension and allowed Hariri, who won a parliamentary election in June, to form a unity government that includes Hezbollah and other Damascus allies.
Hezbollah, which fought a bloody war against Israel in 2006, is the only armed group in Lebanon. It is considered a terrorist group by Washington but Hariri’s government has said it is a legitimate force whose aim was to end Israeli occupation of some Lebanese territory.
Hariri, accompanied by only one senior aide, will spend the night in the Syrian capital and hold further talks with senior officials before returning to Beirut on Sunday.