BEIRUT: Damascus is working to avoid potential violence in neighboring Lebanon as rival parties go head-to-head over a UN probe into the murder of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said in comments published Tuesday.
"The political situation in Lebanon is not good — it is even troubling," Assad told the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat.
"Any clash at any given moment… will destroy Lebanon," Assad added in response to whether Syria, once Lebanon’s powerbroker, anticipated renewed violence in Beirut.
"We are currently working to ensure that Lebanon does not come to that."
Syrian troops were ushered into Lebanon at the height of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war and retained a tight grip over the country for almost three decades.
Damascus withdrew its troops under massive international pressure in the months following the 2005 assassination of Hariri, who was close to rival regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia.
Five years later, Lebanon is facing a full-blown crisis as rival alliances are locked in a standoff over the UN-backed tribunal on the Hariri murder.
The standoff has sparked a flurry of diplomatic efforts aimed at containing the tension, and Assad himself met Saudi King Abdullah earlier this month to discuss the fate of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
At the centre of the growing crisis are unconfirmed reports the STL is set to accuse members of Shia militant group Hezbollah.
The Syrian- and Iranian-backed party has accused the United Nations of interfering in Lebanese affairs and warned such an eventuality will have repercussions in Lebanon, calling instead for a local investigation.
Assad also warned of a backlash in Lebanon against the outcome of the UN investigation.
"In a crime of this magnitude, an indictment (not based on conclusive proof) could destroy a country in its entirety," Assad said on Tuesday.
Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of Rafiq, initially accused then-foe Syria of his father’s murder but in a stunning about-face recently said he had erred in making the "political accusation".
Damascus has consistently denied any involvement in the assassination and has ordered the arrest of 33 people, including Lebanese politicians and journalists, over alleged false testimonies given in the UN probe into the Hariri murder.
But Assad maintained that his door was open to Hariri’s son.
"We believe that Saad Hariri can overcome the current situation," he said. "He is a person who is capable of helping Lebanon through the current crisis."