- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 14, 2008

DAMASCUS, Syria | Syria and Lebanon agreed Wednesday to establish full diplomatic relations for the first time in a step toward easing tensions that have caused decades of turmoil in Lebanon.

The two countries have not had full relations since they won independence from France in the 1940s - seen by many Lebanese as a sign Syria never gave up historic claims that its smaller neighbor is part of its territory.

The decision to open embassies came during a landmark visit to Syria by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman. It was the first such visit by a Lebanese head of state in the more than three years since Syria withdrew its troops and ended decades of domination of Lebanon.

Syria sent its army into Lebanon in the 1970s amid the civil war and wielded political control there for nearly 30 years. Even after the 2005 withdrawal, anti-Syrian Lebanese accuse Damascus of trying to maintain its influence through its allies in Hezbollah. They also accuse Syria of being behind a string of assassinations of anti-Syrian figures since 2005, a charge Damascus denies.

Syria agreed to establish ties after Lebanon formed a unity government that ensures Hezbollah a strong say in decision-making with anti-Syrian politicians who hold the majority in parliament and are allied to Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

Mr. Suleiman and his Syrian counterpart, President Bashar Assad, decided Wednesday to “take the necessary measures … to establish diplomatic relations … on the level of embassies in accordance with the United Nations charter and international laws,” said Mr. Assad’s adviser, Buthaina Shaaban.

No date was given for opening the embassies.

The anti-Syrian majority in Lebanon’s parliament has been pushing for diplomatic ties to guarantee Syria’s recognition of Lebanon as a sovereign nation. Syrian officials have long maintained that relations with Lebanon were “too close” for formal diplomatic ties.

Syrian official news agency SANA reported that the two presidents also discussed the issue of formally demarcating the country’s shared border, another step called for by many Lebanese lawmakers.

The announcement is the latest sign of progress in resolving three years of crisis in Lebanon. The country appeared on the brink of civil war in May, when Hezbollah fighters battled with Siniora supporters and seized parts of Beirut.

But the factions reached a deal to end the fighting, agreeing to elect Mr. Suleiman, then-army chief, as president - a post left empty for months - and to form a unity government that would give Hezbollah and its opposition allies enough seats in the Cabinet to veto major decisions.

It took weeks of negotiations between the factions, but the unity government was approved by parliament on Tuesday.

Mr. Assad had first raised the idea of establishing ties to Mr. Suleiman when they met in Paris last month on the sidelines of a Euro-Mediterranean summit. Mr. Assad told Mr. Suleiman the step was possible once a unity government was confirmed.

Zeina Karam contributed to this report in Beirut.

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