- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2008

DAMASCUS, Syria | Syria formally recognized Lebanon for the first time Tuesday by establishing diplomatic relations with its neighbor — meeting a U.S. demand to do more for regional stability even as Damascus pursues indirect peace talks with Israel.

Lebanon and Syria have not had formal diplomatic ties since both gained independence from France in the 1940s, thus the move by President Bashar Assad ends six decades of nonrecognition. Both countries announced plans to open embassies by the end of the year.

Lebanon’s Western-backed prime minister, Fuad Siniora, praised the development as a “historic step on the road to confirming Lebanon’s independence, sovereignty and its free decision-making.”

“It is the situation which Lebanon and the Lebanese have long hoped for,” he said.

Relations between the Arab nations have been lopsided since the 1970s, when Syria sent its army into Lebanon and retained control there for nearly 30 years. Ties unraveled when former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a 2005 car bombing that many Lebanese blame on Syria — a charge Syria denies.

The Hariri assassination triggered huge anti-Syrian street demonstrations; then Damascus caved in to U.S.-led international pressure and withdrew its tens of thousands of troops from Lebanon a few months after the bombing.

But establishing diplomatic relations remained a pressing demand of the anti-Syrian majority in Lebanon’s parliament, which saw it as an important symbol of recognition of Lebanese sovereignty.

Some observers say Syria is more comfortable dealing with Lebanon now that its ally Hezbollah has gained veto power in a unity government that was formed in July. In May, Lebanon also installed a president sympathetic to Syria.

Just a few months later in August, Lebanon and Syria agreed to establish ties and demarcate their contentious border. That landmark agreement marked a final break in Syria’s longtime dominance over its smaller neighbor.

“It is a positive step toward Syria recognizing its full responsibilities in terms of implementing Security Council resolutions and other international agreements,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. “Now, there are other aspects of this, and that includes fully defining the border between Syria and Lebanon. So there’s still outstanding work to be done. And also behavior beyond just setting up these embassies and establishing diplomatic relations also matters.”

The West is slowly moving away from a policy in recent years of isolating Syria — an ally of Iran and Hezbollah which has also provided a home for some radical Palestinian groups. Instead the West has tried to engage Syria more in Mideast issues.

Recognition of Lebanon could help Syrian aspirations to build trust with the West as it pursues indirect talks with Israel, mediated through Turkey.

The two nations have held four rounds of indirect talks so far and Mr. Assad recently said he is looking to have direct, face-to-face talks next year. The talks, however, have not made any significant headway, and Syria said last month that a fifth round of talks was postponed at the Jewish state’s request.

In Jerusalem, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official welcomed any step likely to contribute to regional stability.

“We hope that this first step will lead in future to Syria honoring its other international obligations,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to make an official statement. “First and foremost, ceasing its support for terror and its aid to Hezbollah.”

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