March 16, 2008 / 1:46 PM / 12 years ago

EU's Solana urges pressure on Syria over Lebanon

By Paul Taylor

BRUSSELS, March 16 (Reuters) - The European Union’s foreign policy chief called on Sunday for greater pressure on Syria to allow the election of a president in Lebanon, warning of a "dramatic" crisis unless that happens this month.

In unusually blunt criticism, Javier Solana said Damascus was using proxies in Lebanon to prevent the election of armed forces chief Michel Suleiman, while the pro-Western majority in parliament was whittled away as lawmakers were killed.

The best chance to solve the issue was before a planned Arab summit in Damascus on March 29-30, because key leaders would not attend unless a new Lebanese head of state was present, he said.

"The pressure on Syria has to grow in order to solve the situation in Lebanon. I think the opportunity is there, before this summit which will take place in Damascus," Solana told the Brussels Forum on transatlantic relations.

"To tell you the truth, I’m not pretty sure that will be done. If that is not, then we get into a very serious crisis. This crisis is very dramatic," he said.

Damascus denies interfering in Lebanon. Syria’s allies in Lebanon, including the powerful Shi’ite group Hezbollah, are demanding effective veto power in government in order to allow the election of a president. Syria supports their position.

Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2005 under United Nations pressure following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, which prompted the appointment of a U.N. prosecutor to probe suspected Syrian involvement.

Solana noted that the next report of the international investigator into the Hariri killing was due to be issued on March 27, just before the Damascus summit.

He suggested Syria may have been emboldened in its behaviour by the release last year of a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that its key regional ally, Iran, had stopped efforts to build a nuclear weapon in 2003.

"The NIE made a change in Damascus. The sentiment that was conveyed was that there was no risk at all (of U.S. military action). That sentiment was conveyed to Tehran but it was also conveyed to Damascus," he said.

The EU has been divided over tactics towards Syria, with France, the former mandatory power in Lebanon, trying to isolate President Bashar al-Assad after its own attempts at Lebanese mediation failed, while Germany recently welcomed his foreign minister to Berlin.

Solana himself visited Damascus last year to try to persaude Assad to support Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts by reining in the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups. Syria hosts exiled leaders of both Palestinian groups. (reporting by Paul Taylor; Editing by Sami Aboudi)

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