BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad issued a presidential decree on Tuesday ordering the establishment of diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon and announcing the opening of an embassy-level diplomatic mission in Beirut, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency. Presidential Decree Number 358 declared that "diplomatic relations are established between the Syrian Arab Republic and the Lebanese Republic" and "a diplomatic mission of embassy level is created in the capital of the Lebanese Republic."
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem (R) and his Lebanese counterpart Fawzi Saloukh exchange documents after signing an agreement to open diplomatic ties between the two countries in Damascus October 15, 2008. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri
Following the announcement, Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh told The Daily Star that he would visit Damascus on Wednesday to finalize the agreement.
"Tomorrow I will be in Damascus to meet with my colleague [Syrian Foreign] Minister Walid Moallem," he said, adding that the purpose of the trip was "to finalize the necessary measures to establish diplomatic relations between the two countries" and discuss issues of bilateral, regional and international importance.
Salloukh said a joint communique would be issued Wednesday, according to the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
"My visit will be a crown to the excellent relations between the two countries," he said.
Lebanese Premier Fouad Siniora called the establishment of diplomatic ties "a historic step, a further step to bolster Lebanon's sovereignty and independence," and added: "This is a step that Lebanon and the Lebanese have always supported."
Lebanese President Michel Sleiman said in a statement from the Presidential Palace that he hoped the decree would facilitate a restoration of Lebanon and Syria's unique relationship.
In a landmark visit to Syria in August, Sleiman and Assad agreed to formalize diplomatic relations between the two countries and exchange ambassadors for the first time in 60 years.
A number of high-level diplomatic meetings in recent months have added to speculation that Lebanon and Syria would exchange ambassadors by year's end and that ties between Syria and the West may be thawing.
Last month, Syria hosted a four-way summit with France, Turkey and Qatar in which relations with Lebanon featured prominently. And, in a highly touted tete-a-tete, Moallem met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in late September at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
U.S. President George W. Bush called on Monday for the creation of diplomatic ties between Lebanon and Syria after meeting with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi in Washington.
"We discussed the need for Syria to respect Lebanon's sovereignty, to cease its support for terror, and to open full diplomatic ties with Lebanon's elected government," he said after his meeting with the Italian leader.
Assad's decree came a day after Bush's comments.
On Tuesday, however, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack welcomed the development as "a positive step" but noted that important tasks remain, such as defining the countries' borders.
Tensions between Syria and Lebanon escalated in September following two bombings in Tripoli and one in Damascus, and the deployment of 10,000 Syrian troops to the Lebanese-Syrian border in what was called an effort to combat smuggling.
The deployment, along with statements from Assad decrying the alleged growth of Islamic extremism in Tripoli, stoked fears in Lebanon of a potential Syrian incursion in the north, although both governments and a number of political analysts dismissed the prospect.
Assad's decree and Wednesday's meeting between Moallem and Salloukh might well defuse tensions between the neighbors, particularly within the anti-Syrian March 14 alliance.
March 14-aligned Progressive Socialist Party head Walid Jumblatt told the BBC Tuesday that the presidential decree was a positive development that could play a role in Lebanese-Syrian reconciliation.
He suggested that the decree stemmed, in some way, from French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to Syria last month.
Assad's decree was also applauded by a Lebanese Christian leader who has been a longtime critic of Syria's role in Lebanon. Speaking during a visit to Cairo, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea expressed hope that diplomatic ties "will be the start of other needed steps, especially that concern the missing and detained Lebanese in Syria's prisons and most importantly the demarcation of borders."
"I think this is an important development," Osama Safa, head of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, told The Daily Star. By the end of the year there will likely be ambassadors in each capital, he added.
But Safa said that it remains to be seen what the agenda of a Syrian embassy in Lebanon will be, or how "the [Syrian] attitude to Lebanon will change."
A Syrian embassy in Beirut could be an outpost of Syrian policy or a genuine diplomatic station "worthy of a sovereign nation," he said. Safa contended that "actual change" meant "you no longer use troops on the border to send a message."
He cited the importance of the Moallem-Rice meeting in New York, but added that Assad has his own timeline.
Fadia Kiwan, political science department chair at Saint Joseph's University, also saw the decree as an important development. "We have to normalize relations between Lebanon and Syria," she said.
She noted a change of tone following the arrest of a terrorist cell in Tripoli this week. Rather than implicating Syria in attacks on Lebanon, she said, Lebanese security forces asked for Syria's assistance in patrolling the border and combating terrorism.
"It means they are no longer accusing Syria of perpetrating [attacks] in Lebanon," she said.
She also spoke of a policy change in the West vis-a-vis Syria, spearheaded by France's new Middle East strategy.
She suggested that on a visit to the U.S. two years ago, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun recognized that U.S. officials were looking for "behavioral change [in Syria], not regime change."
This change of tack, she added, establishes Syria "as a potential arbiter" in a number of disputes, including the Palestinian political divide between Fatah and Hamas.
Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri and a series of large demonstrations in Beirut, ending three decades of military domination.
Reprinted from The Daily Star.