Rice welcomes Syria's decision on ties with Lebanon

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed Syria's decision to establish diplomatic relations with Beirut at an ambassadorial level as a very good first step. Damascus has been under pressure to treat Lebanon as a sovereign state.



US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed Syria's decision to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon at an Ambassadorial Level as a very good first step.


"We have long stood for the normalization of relations between Syria and Lebanon on the basis of equality and respect for Lebanese sovereignty," Rice told a news conference. "This will prove to be a very good first step," she added.


During a landmark visit to Syria Wednesday, Lebanese President Michel Sleiman and his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, agreed to establish diplomatic relations between their countries at an ambassadorial level.


The agreement would mark the first time the two nations have full-fledged embassies in each other's countries since Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943 and Syria in 1945.


Speaking to reporters in the Syrian capital of Damascus Wednesday, an adviser to the Syrian president said the two heads of state had “instructed their foreign ministers to take the necessary steps in this regard, starting from today.”


After three turbulent bilateral years following the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Sleiman’s visit has been hailed as a landmark trip by the Arab press. Many Lebanese blame Syria for their popular leader’s killing, a claim Damascus denies


‘Syria will listen carefully’


Great hope surrounds the meeting on both sides; the Syrian government newspaper Ath-Thawra said: "Syria will listen carefully to Michel Sleiman. There will be a dialogue capable of solving all pending issues."


Diplomatic relations, which sharply deteriorated after Hariri’s murder, top the agenda during Sleiman’s visit.


Sleiman and Assad will seek to redefine borders, treaties and economic agreements struck when Syria dominated the Lebanese political scene. “Sleiman will ask Syria to reconsider the economic or diplomatic agreements which privilege the latter,” said Faten Hazimee, FRANCE 24’s special correspondent in Damascus.


Redefining roles for existing institutions


The Lebanese and Syrian leaders are also slated to discuss the fate of the Lebanese-Syrian higher council, which coordinates relations between the two neighbours.


“Syria has always used the council as an excuse to avoid normalising diplomatic relations,” said Hazimee, adding that the council had no real power in itself.


The Lebanese parliamentary majority wants the council to be scrapped. However, the council's secretary general, Nasri Khouri, said the establishment of embassies did not spell the end of the coordination body. "There will be coordination between the two countries' embassies and the council," he told the AFP news service.


A test visit for Syria


The agenda of the two-day visit also features prickly issues such as the Lebanese detainees in Syria and the future of the Israeli-occupied Shebaa farms, diplomatic sources told the AFP.


“This is a test visit for Syria to see if it will respect commitments taken during meetings with Sarkozy and the Qatari emir,” said Hazimee.


The two leaders initially agreed to establish diplomatic ties during the first Union for the Mediterranean summit hosted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris last month.


Following a deadly round of violence between Hezbollah and pro-Lebanese government factions in May, that threatened to plunge the tiny, multi-confessional country into civil war, the pro- and anti-Syrian camps in Lebanon struck a deal in Doha, Qatar, to overcome the political deadlock, paving the way for the formation of a national unity government under Sleiman’s leadership.

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