Sarkozy: Syria, Lebanon to upgrade ties

French leader also asks Assad for help in easing the international standoff with Iran over its nuclear program.

France's president said Saturday that Syria and Lebanon will open embassies in each other's countries for the first time. But Syria's leader cautioned there was still work to be done before that could happen. Syria and Lebanon have not had full-fledged embassies in each other's countries since Lebanon became independent in 1943 and Syria in 1945. Syria dominated Lebanon for almost three decades until 2005, keeping tens of thousands of troops stationed in its smaller neighbor. Syrian President Bashar Assad said last month that establishing diplomatic ties with Lebanon would be possible if a national unity Cabinet were formed in Beirut between the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority and the opposition led by Syrian ally Hezbollah. The unity government was formed Friday after weeks of haggling. "President Bashar al-Assad's will to open diplomatic representation in Lebanon is historic progress," Sarkozy told reporters at a news conference after he met Assad and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman separately. But Assad was more cautious on the opening of embassies, saying both countries must "define the steps to take to arrive at this stage." "Naturally, there are a certain number of legal questions to be resolved on the Syrian side. ... That explain delays on the road to realization," Sarkozy said. He did not suggest a time frame. Suleiman said he wanted to upgrade ties. "We want an exchange of ambassadors and diplomatic relations with Syria," he said before meeting Sarkozy. He told reporters not to speak of normalizing ties between Lebanon and Syria because "they are completely normal." "I am very satisfied with relations between the two countries," Suleiman said. The leaders met on the eve of a summit bringing together heads of state or government from 43 nations in Europe and around the Mediterranean rim. Sarkozy sees the initiative as a way of seeding peace in an often hostile region. Talk of embassies marks an important shift in relations between Syria and Lebanon and serves as a boost to Sarkozy. France holds the rotating European Union presidency, and Sarkozy wants to create a consequential role for Europe, and his country, in the process toward Middle East peace. Sarkozy also asked Assad for help in easing the international standoff with Iran over its nuclear program. Assad, in his turn, asked France to help facilitate a peace deal between Syria and Israel. Sarkozy also called for reviving efforts toward an EU cooperation deal with Syria that stalled in 2005. He said he plans to visit Damascus in September but did not set a date. Syria's relations with Lebanon - and much of the western world - deteriorated in 2005 when former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated by a massive car bomb in Beirut. Syria's critics accuse Damascus of having a role in the slaying, a charge Syria denies. France and the United States led the push for a UN tribunal investigating Hariri's killing, and have accused Syria of backing Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and Hamas militants in the Palestinian territories.