DAMASCUS - The Associated Press
Syria and Lebanon agreed Wednesday to establish full diplomatic ties for the first time in a step toward easing tensions between the two countries that have fueled Lebanon's turmoil. The neighbors have also agreed to resume work of a committee to demarcate their common border, a joint statement said yesterday.
Many Lebanese had long seen Syria's reluctance to establish ties as proof it never gave up historic claims that its smaller neighbor is part of its territory and that it still aims to dominate Lebanon. The step is a significant symbolic victory for them, seen as Damascus' formal acknowledgment that Lebanon is an independent nation.
But Syria only agreed to formal ties after its influence in Lebanon was guaranteed by the creation on Tuesday of a unity government in Beirut that gives Damascus' ally Hezbollah a strong say in decision-making.
The decision to open embassies in one another's capitals came during a landmark visit to Syria by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman - the first such visit by a Lebanese head of state since the Syrian troop withdrawal.
Suleiman and his Syrian counterpart, President Bashar Assad, decided Wednesday "take the necessary measures...to establish diplomatic relations...on the level of embassies in accordance with the United Nations charter and international laws," said Assad's adviser Buthaina Shaaban, reported The Associated Press. No date was given for the embassies' openings.
The United States, which backs Saniora, welcomed the decision but pushed for Syria to stay out of Lebanese affairs. "We have long stood for the normalization of relations between Syria and Lebanon on the basis of equality and respect for Lebanese sovereignty. One of the steps that has long been required is the establishment of a proper embassy for Syria in Lebanon and vice versa," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.
The neighbors also agreed yesterday to resume work towards formally demarcating their borders but Damascus said the boundaries of the disputed Shebaa Farms would not be drawn until Israel withdrew from them. Suleiman and his Syrian counterpart agreed the step at a summit in Damacsus, according to a joint statement.
"The two presidents agreed on...the resumption of the work of the joint committee to define and draw the Syrian-Lebanese borders," the statement said, according to Reuters.
Asked whether that would include the Shebaa Farms, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said: "The definition of the Shebaa Farms cannot happen under occupation." Lebanese group Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, cites the occupation of the Shebaa Farms as one reason for keeping its arsenal.
Israel considers Shebaa Farms part of the Golan Heights, which it occupied in 1967, while Syria and Lebanon say they are part of south Lebanon, from which Israel withdrew in 2000.
The United Nations declared Israel's withdrawal complete. A 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution urged Syria to demarcate borders, especially in areas where the boundaries are uncertain.