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Syria's role at U.S. talks may help Lebanon

Syria's controversial presence at Tuesday's Middle East peace talks in Annapolis may boost stability in Lebanon, which is deadlocked over electing a new president.

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Syria's presence at the Annapolis peace conference Tuesday could help ease tensions in Lebanon, which has entered a leadership vacuum after rival factions reached deadlock over the election of a new president, analysts say.

Syria, which exerts powerful influence over the Lebanese opposition to the Western-backed government in Beirut, is attending the Annapolis conference after US officials agreed that the fate of the Golan Heights – Syrian territory occupied by Israel since 1967 – could be discussed.

The presence at Annapolis of Syria, a close ally of Iran and a staunch foe of Israel, may herald the beginning of a thaw in the icy relations between Damascus and Washington, which some analysts believe could help stabilize Lebanon and weaken Syria's relationship with Iran.

"There's been a very clear link in the past two weeks between the Lebanon crisis and Annapolis," says Ibrahim Hamidi, the influential Damascus correspondent of the pan-Arab Al-Hayat daily. "It's part of a process that focuses again on the Arab-Israeli struggle. Definitely, it will have a positive impact on Lebanon."

The Lebanese parliament is scheduled to convene on Friday for a sixth attempt at electing a new president. The last attempt, on Friday, hours before President Émile Lahoud stood down, was postponed after parliamentarians failed to reach the necessary quorum of two-thirds.

Lebanon in limbo

A tense calm has settled over Lebanon, which has entered an unprecedented constitutional limbo. Hundreds of Lebanese troops and armored vehicles are deployed throughout Beirut to prevent trouble from breaking out. But so far the two rival factions – the Western-backed March 14 block, which forms a slim parliamentary majority, and the pro-Syrian opposition led by the Shiite militant group Hizbullah have refrained from escalating the situation.

The March 14 block had threatened to elect a president from their own block if no consensus candidate was found. Such a step, however, would have triggered the opposition to launch street demonstrations and possibly even form a rival government, leading to chaos and potential violence.


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