Syrian FM visits Lebanon to promote ties

Moallem says Damascus "determined to open an embassy and exchange diplomatic representation."

Walid Moallem 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Walid Moallem 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Syria is determined to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon for the first time since the two neighbors gained independence from France more than 60 years ago, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Monday. Moallem made the announcement after talks with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman on relations between the two Arab nations, strained since the 2005 assassination in a car bomb of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri, which many Lebanese blame on Syria. Moallem's official visit here, the first by a top Syrian official in at least three years, came amid growing calls on Damascus to establish diplomatic relations and demarcate its border with Lebanon, moves that would put the two neighbors on equal footing after decades of Syrian domination of its smaller neighbor. "We are determined to open an embassy and exchange diplomatic representation. But this determination should be shared by the two countries," Moallem told reporters after meeting Suleiman at the Presidential Palace in Beirut's suburb of Baada. Talk of embassies marks an important shift in relations between Syria and Lebanon. The US-backed anti-Syrian parliament majority is demanding the demarcation of the Lebanese-Syrian borders and the establishment of diplomatic ties as a guarantee of Syrian recognition of Lebanon as a sovereign nation. Moallem also handed Suleiman an invitation from Syrian President Bashar Assad to visit Damascus. The two presidents agreed on Moallem's visit when they met in Paris this month on the sidelines of a Mediterranean summit. Following Hariri's assassination, Syria was forced under US-led international pressure to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, ending nearly three decades of control of Lebanon. Besides blaming Syria for Hariri's death, anti-Syrian factions in Lebanon have also blamed Damascus for a series of assassinations targeting lawmakers and politicians opposed to Syria. Syria has denied involvement in any of these killings, including that of Hariri. Syria and Lebanon have not had full-fledged embassies in each other's capitals since Lebanon became independent in 1943 and Syria in 1945. Assad has said that establishing diplomatic ties with Lebanon would be possible if a national unity government was formed in Beirut, bringing together the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority and the opposition led by Syrian ally Hizbullah. After weeks of haggling, a unity government was formed July 11 in line with an Arab-brokered agreement reached in May that ended an 18-month political stalemate that nearly plunged the country into civil war.