UNITED NATIONS – Palestinian militants in Lebanon are getting more weapons from Syria, one reason why the Lebanese government has made no significant progress in disbanding and disarming militias that operate with impunity inside its borders, a U.N. report said Wednesday.
The report said that despite some positive steps, Lebanon still has not achieved full “sovereignty and political independence” more than six months after Syria withdrew its troops and intelligence apparatus from its neighbor following a 29-year presence.
That conclusion could be a powerful tool for the United States, France and Britain, which have proposed a Security Council resolution that threatens sanctions if Syria doesn’t cooperate with a separate probe into the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister. The council was to discuss the resolution in a meeting later Wednesday.
In the report to the council, Secretary-General
Kofi Annan highlighted the difficulties controlling the Lebanon-Syria border and reports of “an increasing influx of weaponry and personnel from Syria” to some militia groups in Lebanon.
“The government of Syria has informed me that smuggling of arms and people across the Syrian-Lebanese border does indeed take place, albeit in both directions,” he said.
The report, prepared by U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, was assessing the implementation of Security Council resolution 1559, which called for Syria to withdraw all military forces and intelligence operatives as well as the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon.
It noted important progress because of recent elections and the April troop withdrawal, and said there was no “visible or significant Syrian intelligence” still in Lebanon.
But Hezbollah, a pro-Syrian guerrilla group with a strong political faction, has almost complete control in southern Lebanon where it clashes frequently with Israeli troops on the two countries’ border. Lebanese authorities generally stay out of Palestinian refugee camps, where many of the weapons from Syrian end up.
The report praised Lebanon for making some efforts to clamp down on the Palestinian militant groups, some of which have headquarters in Syria. Earlier Wednesday, the Lebanese military surrounded a mountain militia base linked to weapons smugglers and deployed hundreds of soldiers to another camp following the killing of a Lebanese contractor.
Yet it also highlighted that Hezbollah, recently included in Lebanon’s new government, remains armed and fiercely protective of its autonomy in the south.
“The carrying of arms outside the official armed forces is impossible to reconcile with the participation in power and in government in a democracy,” the report said.
It urged the Lebanese government to extend its authority throughout southern Lebanon and disarm the militias, praising recent talks in Paris between the Lebanese and Palestinian prime ministers on the issue.
While Annan’s report notes that Lebanon appears to be moving out from Syria’s shadow, the Security Council could still use the report’s findings to put new leverage on Syria as it wrestles with a tough draft resolution threatening sanctions.
A U.N.-backed prosecutor, Germany’s Detlev Mehlis, released a report last week implicating top Syrian and Lebanese security officials in Hariri’s Feb. 14 killing. The report accused Syria of refusing to cooperate with his probe.
On Tuesday, the United States, France and Britain proposed a resolution that would threaten tough sanctions on Syria if it doesn’t cooperate with Mehlis’ team. It demands that Syria make senior officials available for him to interview.
The resolution would also immediately freeze the assets and impose a travel ban on anyone identified as a suspect by the commission.
U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said Wednesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad would not be exempt from being questioned.
“It absolutely includes the president of Syria,” he told reporters. “No person is above the law, and the president’s had time to talk to the media … If he has time to do that, he has time to talk to commissioner Mehlis.”
Yet Russian opposition to sanctions against Syria could spell serious trouble for the draft resolution that the three countries circulated late Tuesday to pressure Damascus to cooperate, because Russia has veto power in the
U.N. Security Council. China could also oppose.
Moscow made clear on Tuesday that it is adamantly against sanctions.
“Russia will be doing everything necessary to prevent attempts to impose sanctions against Syria,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said, according to Russian news agencies.
The 22-member Arab League on Wednesday also came out against sanctions, saying in a statement that it “sees no logic or legitimacy in imposing sanctions on Syria based on accusations that are not fully investigated.”
Syria withdrew its troops and intelligence officials last April, ending a presence in Lebanon that began when Damascus sent troops to help quell what was then a year-old civil war.
While resolution 1559 was adopted a year ago, it was Hariri’s assassination, and the massive anti-Syrian protests it sparked, that spurred the Syrians to leave.