Syria and Lebanon move closer to formal separation

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SYRIA/LEBANON:THE SYRIAN and Lebanese presidents ended a ground-breaking two-day summit yesterday by reiterating their intention to establish diplomatic relations, demarcate their common border and normalise relations.

If implemented, these steps will effect the formal separation of the two countries, partitioned by France 80 years ago.

Although they achieved freedom from French colonial rule in the 1940s, Syria and Lebanon have never declared their independence from each other.

Lebanese president Michel Suleiman took the road to Damascus for this meeting with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. This signified that Syria remains the senior partner in their relationship.

On matters of substance, Damascus secured Mr Suleiman's promise to revive political and defence co-operation agreements.

The Syrians are determined to make certain that Beirut will not be ruled by a pro-US government which might reach a separate peace deal with Israel (as happened in 1983) or permit Israel to use Lebanese territory to mount an attack on Syria.

In exchange, Lebanon's US-backed ruling coalition won its main demand: the formalisation of separation and normal bilateral state-to-state relations. Over the past 60 years the history of these two countries has been bedevilled by lack of clarity. Syria intervened in Lebanon during its first civil war in 1958 as well as during the prolonged 1975-90 conflict. Once Damascus had ended the second civil war, it retained 29,000 troops for 29 years in Lebanon.

Relations became strained after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. This was blamed on Syria by the West and its Lebanese allies. Damascus was compelled to withdraw its forces from Lebanon.

The presidents also agreed to examine the fate of hundreds of people who went missing in the two countries since 1975. Although Lebanese human rights organisations claim 650 Lebanese disappeared and that an unknown number remain in Syrian jails, Syria insisted on a balanced formulation since thousands of Syrians, most unskilled labourers, were killed by right-wing Maronite Christian militias. Finally, the leaders pledged to reject western pressure for naturalisation of Palestinian refugees residing in their countries.

The results of the summit were read out at a joint news conference by Syria's foreign minister, Walid Muallem, and his Lebanese counterpart, Fawzi Salloukh.

While Mr Muallem said the committee set to delineate their common frontier would begin work soon, he pointed out that it would be impossible to demarcate the frontier in a disputed area at the junction of southeast Lebanon and southwest Syria because this 25sq km tract of land is occupied by Israel.

It claims the area, agricultural land belonging to the Lebanese village of Shebaa, is in Syria. But Beirut and Damascus contend that the land, which fell on the Syrian side of the border when it was drawn by the French in 1923, belongs to the Lebanese farmers.

They continued to cultivate the land until Israel captured it along with the Syrian Golan Heights in 1967.

Lebanon demands the return of the Shebaa farms as part of its price for peace with Israel.

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