WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush on Thursday warned Damascus against interfering in Lebanon’s political crisis, saying his patience with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had run out long ago.
“Syria needs to stay out of Lebanon,” Bush told a news conference when asked whether he would be willing to talk to Assad about stabilizing Lebanon, where political tensions have risen to the highest level since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Bush also weighed in on the impasse within Lebanon over the choice of the next president. He said that if a deadlock between a pro-Western governing grouping known as the March 14 coalition and pro-Syrian groups cannot be resolved, then the coalition should prevail.
“If they can’t come for agreement, then the world ought to say this — that the March 14 coalition can run their candidate and their parliament. Majority plus one ought to determine who the president is,” he said.
The Bush administration has long tried to isolate Damascus diplomatically, though Syria sent representatives to a U.S.-hosted Israeli-Palestinian peace conference last month in Annapolis, Maryland.
“My patience ran out on President Assad a long time ago,” Bush said. “The reason why is because he houses Hamas, he facilitates Hezbollah, suiciders go from his country into Iraq and he destabilizes Lebanon,” Bush said.
Bush was speaking less than three weeks before he visits Israel and the West Bank as part of a Middle East tour to push a fragile Israeli-Palestinian peace effort.
The White House left Syria and Lebanon off the stops on Bush’s January 8-16 trip.
Syria has denied long-standing U.S. accusations that it is interfering in neighbouring Lebanon and trying to undermine its Western-backed government. Damascus withdrew its forces from Lebanon in 2005 after a 29-year military presence.
Syria’s foreign minister insisted on Thursday that Damascus is trying to help resolve Lebanon’s presidential stalemate. Lebanon’s presidency has been vacant since November 23 when the term of pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud ended.
Fears of a prolonged power vacuum persist despite French efforts to mediate a settlement between the Western-backed governing coalition and the opposition, led by Hezbollah and other groups with close ties to Damascus.
The two sides have agreed on army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman as president, but his election by parliament was postponed for a ninth time on Monday because of disagreement over power-sharing under Lebanon’s sectarian-based system.
The Bush administration once hoped Lebanon would serve as a model of emerging democracy in the Middle East but its constant crises have undermined that prospect.
A series of assassinations, mostly of anti-Syrian politicians, has added to tensions.
Bush did not point the finger at Syria for any of the killings, as some U.S. officials have done, but he had strong words for Assad. “If he’s listening, he doesn’t need a phone call. He knows exactly what my position is,” Bush said.
Assad said this week that Bush’s stated aim of achieving Middle East peace before he leaves office in January 2009 looked unrealistic because the United States would be preoccupied all next year with its November presidential election.
The Annapolis meeting, attended by Syria and 43 other countries, relaunched formal peace talks with Israel and the Palestinians pledging to try to forge a peace deal by the end of next year. A key aim would be creating a Palestinian state.
Syria said the Annapolis meeting revived its bid to recover the occupied Golan Heights from Israel although there were no direct talks between the two adversaries.
Bush spoke hopefully about his coming trip, which will include his first presidential visit to Israel plus stops in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. “One (objective) is to advance the Palestinian-Israeli peace process,” he said.
But Bush’s tour comes as his room for manoeuvre is limited by the unpopular Iraq war, while his hands-off approach to peacemaking during almost seven years in office has also raised doubts about his newfound commitment.
Editing by Alan Elsner