Syria boosts diplomatic ties with Lebanon

In another nod to the West, Syria also sent an ambassador to Iraq – the first in decades.

Syria has boosted its formal diplomatic ties to Lebanon and Iraq in a bid to further ease international pressure on Damascus and place decades of troubled relations with its two Arab neighbors on a fresh footing.

Syrian President Bashir al-Assad issued a decree Tuesday to establish formal diplomatic relations with Beirut. It is Syria's first formal recognition of Lebanese sovereignty since both countries gained independence from France in the 1940s.

The decree provides for "the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Syrian Arab Republic and the Lebanese Republic and the creation of a diplomatic mission at ambassador level in the Lebanese capital Beirut," according to Syria's official national news agency.

But analysts doubt that the move signals a fundamentally new way in which Syria will deal with Lebanon.

"It is symbolically important," says Ousama Safa, head of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. "It is window dressing for the West to show that Syria is fulfilling its commitments to the international community."

The announcement came a day after Syria sent its first ambassador to Iraq in decades, signaling a new era between two countries that were bitter enemies during the era of Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari received newly appointed Syrian Ambassador Nawaf Abboud al-Sheikh Faris on Monday, and "confirmed Iraq's desire to develop and enhance bilateral relations and to move to a new stage of cooperation," a statement from his office said.

The hostility between Syria and Iraq began in the 1960s when both were ruled by rival branches of the Baath Party. Syria closed its embassy in Baghdad after Saddam Hussein took power in 1979.

In Lebanon, Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh hailed Syria's decision to open ties, saying relations between the two neighbors were "more brotherly than ever." Mr. Salloukh travels Wednesday to Damascus to discuss logistics.

No date has been given for the opening of a Syrian embassy in Beirut, although it is expected by the end of the year.

Mr. Assad and his Lebanese counterpart, Michel Suleiman, agreed in August to diplomatic ties as well as to demarcate the 192-mile border between their countries.

Traditionally, Syria has not recognized Lebanese sovereignty, believing Lebanon is an errant part of the Syrian homeland. Syrian troops entered Lebanon in 1976 to help quell early stages of Lebanon's civil war. From 1990, Syria dominated Lebanon politically and militarily, but disengaged in 2005 when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's killing triggered huge anti-Syrian demonstrations in Beirut.

The US sought to isolate Syria diplomatically to compel Damascus to cease meddling in Lebanon and Iraq and drop support for anti-Israel groups. But Syria has fought back to regain some of its lost influence in Lebanon and weaken international consensus against Damascus.

In May, Syria and Israel announced indirect peace talks which, if successful, could change the region's geopolitical environment. Syria also has restored its relationship with France, months after the French froze contacts with Damascus.

Diplomatic relations indicate Syria "wants to play ball with the world," says Rami Khouri of the Issam Fares Center for Lebanon. "But we should not over-exaggerate the form and substance of it."

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