Assad prepares to visit 'sovereign' Lebanon

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NOT SINCE he slipped across the Lebanese-Syrian border in early 1975 to talk to the late President Sulieman Franjieh in the pre-civil war Bekaa town of Chtaura has such an idea been entertained. President Hafez al-Assad himself has abjured such a visit. Syria was not trying to gobble up Lebanon, so we were told. Mr Assad nurtured no ambitions for 'Greater Syria'. Why, did not the Taif agreement insist upon a withdrawal of Syrian troops from Beirut to the mountains above Hamana?

True, but it looks as though the Lion of Damascus truly intends to arrive here next September, to consolidate what is officially known as the 'Treaty of Brotherhood, Co-operation and Co-ordination'. Note the location. Baabda, seat of Lebanese presidents and last hiding place of the former rebel General Michel Aoun - he who began a self-styled 'war of liberation' against the Syrians in 1989 - is to witness the consecration of Lebanese-Syrian 'friendship', from whose heights the President of Syria, 'vanguard of the Arab nation', may look down upon the city of Beirut.

Lebanese-Syrian relations have been so close - the two countries may argue the meaning of the word 'close', although there can be no question about their geographical proximity - that they do not even maintain embassies in each other's capitals. Lebanese may use only their identity cards to visit Damascus, while Syrians wishing to visit Lebanon, including, of course, the 40,000 Syrian troops stationed here, may come and go as they please. But during Lebanon's 15-year war Mr Assad studiously avoided any tourism in the Land of the Cedars.

Officially, the story goes like this. Five Lebanese ministers are currently in Damascus to conclude new agreements on the Lebanese-Syrian economy, oil, transport and finance under the terms of the 'Treaty of Brotherhood'. Next month, Mahmoud Zubi, the Syrian Prime Minister, will visit Beirut to prepare for a meeting of the two heads of state. Then, in September, President Assad and President Elias Hrawi of Lebanon will meet - after so many discussions in Damascus - in the renovated palace of the Lebanese head of state at Baabda.

It was here that Mr Assad's air force bombed Gen Aoun out of his bunker in 1991. Relying upon France's mandate loyalty towards Christian Lebanon, Gen Aoun fled to the French ambassador's residence and thence to a depressed if noisy exile in Marseilles and Paris - whence he may not return until 1995. In interviews and secret cassettes, he continues to inveigh against Mr Assad, offering the Lebanese war at a moment when they have begun to enjoy peace, and with only a small, devoted band of Maronite followers left in Beirut.

Lest it be regarded as a shrine, Gen Aoun's underground car park bunker - where he sheltered from Syrian shellfire and issued his increasingly messianic declarations of war against Damascus - has been sealed up with concrete. It will certainly not be on Mr Assad's tourist itinerary, although the reconstructed palace, with plenty of Ottoman-style arches, will be proof enough of the 'Arab' identity of Lebanon.

Mr Assad's arrival there will also be final proof that the 'Treaty of Brotherhood, Co-operation and Co-ordination' is a reality - at least in his lifetime - and a declaration to Gen Aoun's followers that their leader can never return to political power. Already the Syrians are billing the prospective visit as confirmation that Syria acknowledges the 'independence and sovereignty' of Lebanon. Why else, after all, would the Syrian leader visit the capital of Lebanon?

The security measures for his arrival will be an epic affair, as will the United States' response to his prospective visit. Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, has long been linking the withdrawal of the Syrians from Lebanon with the retreat of Israeli troops from the south of the country, as part of an overall Middle East peace plan.

So the Lebanese will keep an eye on the Assad visit. If it goes ahead, it may be a way of exchanging Syria's military presence in Lebanon for a less obtrusive political control from Damascus. If it does not, then nothing will have changed. Syrian troops will stay on. So will the Israelis. And both sides can forget any temporary benefits of peace talks.