AFP - Syria and Lebanon formally established diplomatic ties on Wednesday for the first time since independence 60 years ago, turning a new page in relations between Beirut and its powerful neighbour.
A statement signed by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and visiting Lebanese counterpart Fawzi Salloukh announced "the launch of diplomatic relations between the Syrian Arab Republic and the Lebanese Republic effective today, October 15, 2008."
The two neighbours will open embassies in each other's capitals before the end of the year, Muallem told a joint news conference with Salloukh, adding: "We hope that our brotherly and historic relations will be strengthened."
They had announced in August their intention to establish ties following a pledge by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Lebanese opposite number Michel Sleiman in Paris in July.
Syria had long held back from recognising the hiving off of some of its territory by colonial power France before World War II to form a separate Lebanese state with a privileged position for its French-protected Maronite Christian community.
France welcomed the establishment of diplomatic ties between Lebanon and Syria. "This is an important step for the stabilisation of the region," French foreign ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier said in Paris.
"We now expect ambassadors to be named and the opening of two embassies before the end of the year," Chevallier said.
Syria was the main powerbroker in Lebanon for three decades until it was forced to withdraw its troops in 2005. But since then ties have been often fractious with accusations by the anti-Damascus parliamentary majority in Lebanon of Syrian meddling in the country's affairs.
Salloukh said that outstanding issues such as the fate of Lebanese prisoners in Syrian jails and the demarcation of the common border, would be settled as quickly as possible.
"Joint committees need to meet in a more intensive manner," he said, adding that there must be greater coordination between the two militaries to stem a wave of deadly violence in north Lebanon.
"We need to rid ourselves of the smugglers and those who are sowing conflict and bombs."
Muallem agreed that "security cooperation needs to be strengthened" and said the recent deployment of an additional 10,000 Syrian troops along the border had that end in mind.
The troop reinforcements had drawn criticism from both Washington and Damascus's foes in Beirut but in recent days several key Syrian critics in Lebanon have said they are ready to accept the deployment.
Since 1991, a year after the end of Lebanon's 15-year civil war, Damascus and Beirut have been tied by a treaty of friendship and cooperation.
The anti-Syrian camp which forms the majority in Lebanon's parliament has long been critical of the treaty as sacrificing the interests of Beirut.
Salloukh said all past agreements between the two countries were now "under review" and could be amended.
Muallem said ordinary Lebanese had no reason to fear the opening of a Syrian embassy, four years after the closure of Syrian military and intelligence facilities that had long been a source of fear for Damascus critics.
The embassy would not become a "new Anjar" he said, referring to the longtime Syrian intelligence headquarters in the town of the same name in eastern Lebanon.
"Such worries exist only in the mind of some Lebanese."
Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2005 under a wave of pressure following the assassination in a massive Beirut bombing of billionaire former premier Rafiq Hariri.
Damascus has consistently denied charges of involvement in the murder, although a UN commission of inquiry continues to investigate suspicions of Syrian involvement.