Syria Criticizes U.S. Warship Deployment Off Lebanon as 'Muscle Flexing'

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Saturday that a U.S. Navy deployment off the coast of Lebanon threatens security in the region and warned the United States it cannot impose its own solution to the long-running political crisis in Lebanon.

"There is a history of American fleet intervention in Lebanon. I think these experiences were not at all useful," al-Moallem said.

The planned deployment of at least three warships, announced Thursday, appeared to be aimed at making an American show of strength at a time of increasing international frustration at the volatile political deadlock in Lebanon between the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and the Syria and Iran-backed opposition, led by Hezbollah.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters Friday that the warships are an important sign of U.S. commitment to security in the region. "It should provide comfort to our friends" and, for U.S. adversaries, "a reminder that we are there."

Al-Moallem said the American military move is counterproductive. "Such a show of force will not be useful and will not lead, as they claim, to security in the region. It is against the security of the region," he said.

"I say to those Lebanese who are betting on America's ... muscle flexing off the coast of Lebanon that this is a losing bet," he added. "America cannot impose a solution in Lebanon as it sees it."

The government and opposition in Lebanon have been locked in a 15-month power struggle, with Hezbollah and its allies trying to force out Saniora's administration. The deadlock has prevented the country from electing a president since November, leaving the post empty in a dangerous power vacuum.

The United States — along with anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon — accuses Damascus of trying to reimpose its control in Lebanon.

Al-Moallem's allusion to past U.S. military intervention in Lebanon was referring to the 1980s when, at the height of the Lebanese civil war, some 17 U.S. ships patrolled the Lebanese coastline and bombarded Muslim militia positions on shore. A Marine contingent was also stationed at Beirut airport.

Suicide bombings against the Marine base and the U.S. Embassy in 1983 and 1984 killed over 200 Americans, eventually leading to a U.S. withdrawal.

Al-Moallem accused Washington of obstructing a settlement to the Lebanese crisis.

"The presence of this warship reinforces what we have been saying, that America is obstructing proposed political solutions in Lebanon," he said. Among those solutions, he said, was an Arab initiative which Moussa has been trying for weeks to market among feuding parties in Lebanon.

"America, by sending this warship, is sending an important message to the secretary general (Moussa), the Arab initiative and the Arab League," al-Moallem said, without elaborating.

The American deployment of warships off the coast of Lebanon is "unacceptable" and shows that the U.S. did not learn from the lessons of Iraq, the state-run Syrian Tishrin newspaper also said Saturday.

Moussa was in Damascus Saturday to discuss with Syrian officials the Lebanese crisis, as well as an Arab summit to be held in Damascus later this month.

U.S.-allied Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are reportedly threatening to boycott if no president is elected in Lebanon by then.

Syrian parliament legislator Mohammed Habash told the pan-Arab Asharq Awsat newspaper that any thinking of relocating the summit venue would be considered "a suicide for the Arabs' joint efforts and will have very dangerous repercussions."