x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Iran and Syria hold top-level talks

Official reports of meeting between Iranian foreign minister and Syrian president make no mention of Lebanon, though it was certainly on the agenda.

DAMASCUS // Syria and Iran, the key backers of Hizbollah, held high-level talks yesterday, with the acting Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi meeting Syrian President Bashar al Assad in the northern city of Aleppo.

Official reports of the discussions, published by Syria's state news agency, SANA, made no direct mention of Lebanon, referring instead to "the latest regional developments" and the two countries' satisfaction with the recently formed government in Iraq.

"President al Assad and Salehi expressed content over the existence of a consensus government [in Baghdad], stressing the importance of expanding the dialogue to include all the Iraqi spectrums," SANA said.

However the situation in Beirut, where Hizbollah yesterday stood poised to win control of the government, was certainly on the agenda.

"The Iranian acting foreign minister was visiting Syria to discuss this issue and other files," a member of Syria's ruling Baath party said, on condition of anonymity. But he dismissed suggestions that Damascus and Tehran were interfering in Lebanon's internal politics.

"The coming Lebanese government will not be a Syrian-Iranian government," he said. "But it will also surely not be an Israeli-US government either."

Lebanon's national unity administration, headed by the western-backed prime minister, Saad Hariri, collapsed earlier this month after Hizbollah and its allies resigned from the cabinet, in a dispute over the UN-backed tribunal investigating the murder of the country's prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, Saad's father.

Hizbollah members are thought likely to be indicted over the killing, a decision the movement's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has made it clear he will not accept. Saad Hariri, supported by the US and other western nations has, however, insisted the tribunal must go ahead. The disagreement risks pushing Lebanon into another civil war.

Syrian analysts yesterday said they expected the Iranian foreign minister to also meet representatives of Hizbollah while in the country.

As part of a two-day visit to Syria, he held talks on Sunday evening with Khalid Meshaal, head of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic resistance movement, as well as leaders from two other militant groups, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command.

Syria and Iran have been key allies for decades, joined in their opposition to Israel and its main backer, the US. A recent American diplomatic offensive, including the return of an ambassador to Damascus, has been designed in part with the aim of prising Syria away and leaving Tehran isolated as it pursues a controversial nuclear programme.