Syria to establish ties with Lebanon


SYRIA'S PRESIDENT Bashar al-Assad yesterday issued a decree establishing diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon, recognising Lebanon's sovereignty as an independent state and turning a new leaf in the fraught history of the two countries.

Both states were carved from the Ottoman Empire by France after the first World War. Damascus has refused to accept the separation since they became independent in the 1940s.

Dr Assad declared his intention to open relations when Lebanese president Michel Suleiman visited Damascus in August. Lebanese foreign minister Fawzi Salloukh is set to travel to Damascus today to discuss arrangements for the exchange, which is due to take place before the end of 2008.

The agreement also provides for demarcation of undelineated stretches of the border between the two countries.

However, former adviser of the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon Timor Goksel said there is no point in marking the frontier. He observed that it is impossible to police the border in mountainous regions where local clans control lucrative cross-border smuggling.

Relations between the two countries have been strained since Syria intervened in 1976 to support right-wing Christian militias fighting secular nationalists who sought to transform the sect-based Lebanese political system. Syria's 30,000 troops only intervened to end the civil war in 1990 after receiving a green light from Washington in exchange for Damascus's participation in the US-led war to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Syrian troops finally withdrew from Lebanon in 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq al-Hariri. Damascus was blamed for the murder by Lebanon's governing coalition, the US and France but Syria has repeatedly denied involvement.

It is significant that Syria, the larger country and senior partner in the relationship, was first to take action on recognition. The promulgation of the decree coincided with an accusation that the Syrians, who have massed several thousand troops along the border in the north, intended to send their forces back into Lebanon to tackle the Sunni fundamentalist Fatah al-Islam movement based in the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli.

This al-Qaeda affiliate was blamed by Damascus for a car bombing on the outskirts of Damascus which killed 17 people and wounded 50 last month. Although these accusations were given credence when US president George Bush warned Syria to respect Lebanon's sovereignty, analysts dismissed the allegation which, they say, was exploited by the right-wing Lebanese Forces party with the aim of stirring anti-Syrian feeling.

French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said the Syrian troops, which Damascus says are combating smuggling, "are not threatening anyone".