DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Thursday that Lebanon was still in a fragile state and he was worried about foreign-backed “extremist forces” fomenting instability in the northern city of Tripoli.
Assad, speaking at a summit of the leaders of France, Qatar and Turkey, said he had urged Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to send more Lebanese troops to the north.
“Sending these forces now and urgently is necessary to resolve this problem otherwise Lebanon will not be stable given the presence of extremism,” Assad said in televised remarks.
At least 22 people have been killed in Tripoli since June in sectarian fighting linked to Lebanon’s broader political troubles. A separate bomb attack in August in the city killed 15 people, including 10 soldiers.
“The situation in Lebanon is still fragile and we are worried about what is happening in north Lebanon, in Tripoli,” Assad said at the Damascus meeting.
“Anything positive accomplished in Lebanon will be worthless without a solution to extremism and the Salafist forces that are moving in Lebanon. There are countries that support these forces officially.”
Salafism is a conservative Sunni Muslim ideology. Some Salafists back the use of violence to pursue their aims.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner recently warned of foreign meddling in Tripoli which was fuelling tensions there.
The sectarian fighting in the mostly Sunni city has pitted Alawite factions against Sunni gunmen. Lebanon’s main Alawite group has close links to Syria, which is headed by the Alawite Assad.
Saad al-Hariri, a strong opponent of Syrian influence in Lebanon, is the main Sunni political force in Tripoli. He has strong backing from Saudi Arabia.
Tensions in Tripoli have overshadowed Lebanon’s return to political stability after Qatar mediated an end to an 18-month power struggle between the anti-Syrian coalition led by Hariri and the pro-Syrian alliance, led by Shi’ite Hezbollah.
Relations between Syria and Lebanon have since thawed, culminating in a visit by Suleiman to Syria in August during which they agreed to resume work towards formally demarcating their border and establishing diplomatic relations at ambassadorial level.
Assad said he expected diplomatic ties to be established by the end of this year.
Opening diplomatic ties had been another step which countries such as France and the United States had demanded of Syria, which dominated its neighbor until 2005 when the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri forced it to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.
Editing by Keith Weir