Dubai: The deployment of thousands of Syrian troops along the Lebanese frontier doesn't constitute a threat to Beirut and the move should be seen in the context of Damascus's need to safeguard its interests, the Lebanese foreign minister said on Tuesday.
"The troop deployment doesn't constitute a source of concern for us as long as they [troops] remain within Syrian territory," Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Sallough told Gulf News.
His comments came even as Washington expressed concern about the troop movement and warned Damascus on Monday against interfering in Lebanon.
"We're concerned about this type of activity along the border and that it does not lead to any further interference on the part of Syria into Lebanon's internal affairs," said Robert Wood, spokesman of the US Secretary of State.
"The recent terrorist attacks that took place in Tripoli and Damascus should not serve as a pretext for, you know, further Syrian military engagement or ... should not be used to interfere in Lebanese internal affairs," Wood said.
The day after a car bomb killed 31 civilians near a Shiite shrine in southern Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad described northern Lebanon as "a base for extremists" and warned that such developments "posed a threat" to his country.
However, his statements were viewed with apprehension by the anti-Syrian majority in the Lebanese parliament, which voiced concern that Syria appeared to be setting the stage for a return of its forces into Lebanon.
Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2005 afer 30 years of military presence in the country.
The American warning was also downplayed in Syria.
"They want to create something out of nothing," said Syrian political anaylst Thabet Salem. "The American warnings and concerns should not be taken seriously," he said, stressing there was no problem as such between the two neighbours with the exception of some statements by certain politicians.
The controversy over Syrian troops goes back to September 22, when the Lebanese army said Damascus has deployed nearly 10,000 troops in the Abbudiya region along the northern border.
"The Lebanese President Michel Sulaiman called the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and inquired about the issue. He was reassured that the troop deployment came within the context of safeguarding Syria's security," said Sallough who is expected to visit Damascus next week for talks with Syrian officials on exchanging ambassadors between the two countries.
The debate over the Syrian troop deployment concided with a Lebanese-American agreement on Monday on the setting up of a joint military commission to bolster military cooperation. It follows the first visit by the Lebanese president to Washington and his meeting with George W. Bush.
Lebanese Defence Minister Elias Murr and US Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs, Mary Beth Long, led the commission's inaugural session on Monday. Long arrived in Beirut on Sunday, joining US Deputy Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, David Hale, who has held separate talks with Lebanese politicians for several days.
According to US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, the Lebanese army was given nearly $400 million in military assistance.
A further $60 million worth of aid, including helicopters and ammunition, is awaiting Congress' approval. A joint statement Monday by the US Embassy in Beirut and the Lebanese army said the commission will provide a forum to discuss military cooperation. It also said the two sides signed three new military contracts worth $63 million in US grants to the Lebanese army for secure communications, ammunition and weapons for the infantry.
- With additional input from agencies