Saying that diplomatic ties between Syria and Lebanon are in a period of transition, Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, signaled his nation’s desire for a strong relationship with Lebanon during a forum Wednesday in Copley Formal Lounge.

The forum, called “Syria and Lebanon: What’s Next?” convened several experts on the Middle East to discuss the status of relations between Syria and Lebanon following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri last year.

“Syria wants to have a dignified relationship with Lebanon,” Moustapha said. “Syria is an evolving country. Lebanon is an evolving country. The historical ties are by far much stronger. This is a transitory period. A permanent rift is going to fail.”

Moustapha also discussed how an ongoing investigation into Hariri’s assassination could impact the future of relations between the two nations. He said that an inconclusive end to the investigation would open Syria to criticism from the global community.

“If they fail to reach a clear outcome, then political adversaries of Syria can use this against Syria and use it in a way that the myth of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was used by this [Bush] administration,” he said.

Moustapha also said that there are some who do not want Syrian-Lebanese relations to improve, those whose interests are served by the current instability between the two nations.

When asked if he made this comment in reference to Israel, which is considered an adversary of Syria, Moustapha said, “The problem between Syria and Lebanon are music to certain people – like those in Tel Aviv.”

Moustapha also noted that “important and influential forces” can obscure the truth during the debate between Syria and Lebanon and urged parties involved in improving relations between Syria and Lebanon to “calm down the rhetoric” and try to discuss the issues.

“We are open to bilateral discussion but not in the context of animosity and hatred,” Moustapha said.

Among the several experts and scholars participating in the forum were Joshua Landis, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma, and Ammar Abdulhamid, a visiting scholar at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Landis commented on the political culture in Syria under the current administration of President Bashar Al-Assad, calling the government corrupt but still influential. He called democracy as a means for “division” or “collapse” of the central government and said that the current American presence in Iraq supplies an image of democracy for many Syrians.

“Syrians don’t love President Bashar but rally around him because they don’t want to turn into Iraq,” Landis said.

Abdulhamid focused on the power of opposition forces in Syria to create change in the country.

“We have to end the administration from the inside, not through U.S. assistance from the outside,” he said.

Other panelists provided an overview of Lebanese politics and deeper discussions of the Hariri investigation and relations between Syria and the United States.

The forum was sponsored by the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

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