Syrians in Lebanon hold posters of Syria's President Bashar Assad… (Jamal Saidi / Reuters )
Reporting from Beirut — The United States is upping pressure on Lebanon to reduce its ties to neighboring Syria in an effort to further isolate President Bashar Assad as his security forces violently suppress a pro-democracy movement, according to diplomats and officials.
Visiting Beirut last week, the State Department's Middle East envoy, Jeffrey D. Feltman, bluntly warned Lebanese officials that the tide had turned against the autocratic four-decade-old Damascus regime and urged them to distance themselves from a nation that has long been a major player in Lebanese political life, a Western diplomat and Lebanese officials said.
"There is no return back to the bad old days. Syria is going to change," a source with knowledge of the talks said, characterizing the U.S. message to Lebanon.
Also seeking to influence the cast of a new government in Beirut, Feltman warned that Lebanese leaders "risk being as isolated as Syria," which he characterized as "potentially the North Korea of the Middle East," said the source, who requested anonymity because of the private nature of the talks.
Lebanon has long been in Damascus' sphere of influence and from 1990 to 2005 was under Syrian military occupation. Lebanon has lacked a functioning government since February, when the Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc, backed by allies in Syria and Iran, withdrew from the government, dislodging Saad Hariri's pro-U.S. alliance. Hariri is now serving as caretaker prime minister while his rival Najib Mikati, perceived as more sympathetic to Syria, attempts to form a Cabinet.
On Wednesday night, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, urged Syrians "to support their country as well as the ruling system, a regime of resistance" to U.S. domination of the Middle East. The U.S. views Hezbollah as a terrorist group and would like to see a waning of its rising influence over Lebanese politics.
At the same time, the U.S. effort in Lebanon, a Western diplomat said, was one prong in a larger campaign to push the Arab world to stand against Syria's crackdown on protesters. Other steps have included outreach to such nations as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which have sent emissaries and messages and support to Damascus in recent weeks. On Wednesday, a draft resolution by several European nations was submitted to the U.N. Security Council demanding that Syria stop the violence against protesters and cooperate with the U.N. investigation of alleged rights abuses.
"There is broad engagement on this issue," said the Western diplomat.
As the antigovernment uprising erupted in Syria in March, Lebanon found itself drawn into a conflict that could potentially stir its own volatile political and religious mix and give the Damascus regime another excuse to intervene in Lebanon.
Feltman, who arrived in Beirut late Thursday and left early Saturday, delivered his message to Mikati, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, Hariri aide Mohammad Chatah and President Michel Suleiman, who has repeatedly called for "stability" in Syria in what many perceive as vocal support for Assad's regime.
"Suleiman is playing up the fear of a Christian genocide," said a Western diplomat in Lebanon, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record to journalists.
American officials are concerned that Lebanese ambivalence on the Syrian uprising has resulted in refugees and defecting Syrian soldiers being sent back home. "In Syria, deserting soldiers are executed," said the Western diplomat.
Some 4,000 families have fled Syria to Lebanon, most of them to the north via illegal border crossings, which Lebanese and Syrian armed forces vowed to close off Wednesday. Human Rights Watch last week warned Lebanon that it could be legally responsible for any harm suffered by refugees it sent back to Syria.
"We want to ensure that the people who are refugees are afforded all their rights," said the Western diplomat. "We had great concerns over the humanitarian implication of all this."
Syria and its allies have been increasingly flexing their muscles in Lebanon. Damascus' allies have sometimes violently disrupted peaceful demonstrations by Lebanese activists. A hotel in Beirut canceled a conference of intellectuals and journalists to demonstrate solidarity with the Syrian government.
Syria's surrogates have managed to create a climate of fear in Lebanon. Even traditionally anti-Syrian bastions have toned down their criticism of the Assad regime. Reporters and producers at Hariri's Future TV acknowledged that they've been ordered to ease criticism.
"There's been a little bending over backwards in order not to be perceived as meddling in what's happening in Syria," said Chatah, Hariri's aide. "The Syrians have been pointing fingers. Historically, Lebanon has been the scapegoat. In an effort not to be involved, most people have gone a little bit in the other direction of not saying much."
But some Lebanese are saying a lot about the unrest in Syria — mostly in support of the regime. Syria's allies in Lebanon often appear on pan-Arab television stations speaking out on behalf of Assad. "It seems like I only see Lebanese people on television defending the regime," said Rami Nakhle, a Syrian democracy activist in Lebanon.