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Assad orders formal ties with Beirut

Special to The Times

The president of Syria ordered his government Tuesday to establish formal diplomatic relations with Lebanon, a move that could pave the way for normalizing decades of tangled ties between the two countries.

President Bashar Assad issued a decree to establish Syria’s first diplomatic mission in Lebanon, a small mountainous country carved out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire and long dominated by its larger neighbor.

Assad has promised before to open an embassy but rarely followed through with anything formal. Establishing a Syrian mission in Beirut would mark a turning point if it leads to more transparency in the long-troubled relations between the two countries, analysts said.

“This draws a historical line,” said Sami Moubayed, a journalist and political analyst based in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

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The decree included no timetable. But a Syrian diplomatic source told The Times that the foreign ministers of the two countries were scheduled to meet this week in Damascus to work out a mechanism for establishing embassies in each other’s capital by year’s end. The source spoke on condition of anonymity.

Many Lebanese doubt Syria’s motives. Those within the pro-U.S. March 14 coalition consider suspect any move by Syria, which has strong ties to the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah.

Leaders of the March 14 camp welcomed the decision but said important issues remained unresolved, including the fate of Lebanese believed to have been jailed in Syria.

Damascus has for months promised Western leaders it would open the embassy, a move aimed at breaking Syria’s international isolation. But a diplomatic mission alone won’t fix all the problems between the two countries, said Oussama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, a Beirut think tank.

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“It remains to be seen whether this entails real change in Syrian attitudes and not just window dressing,” he said. “Establishing an embassy is good. But who will the ambassador be?”

Like a dysfunctional couple unable to break free of each other, Syria and Lebanon have long had a complicated relationship. Some people on both sides of the border have never recognized the partitioning of the region once called Greater Syria into two nations.

Syria, with five times the population and 18 times the land area of its small neighbor, for decades has secretly and overtly exercised its political and economic levers of power over Lebanon. But only once, from 1958 to ’61, when Syria and Egypt were unified as the United Arab Republic, did Damascus have anything like an ambassador to Beirut -- and he was an Egyptian.

Syria was a major player in Lebanon’s civil war from 1975 to ’90, a role that culminated in an outright military occupation of Lebanon. A popular uprising in Lebanon and international pressure after the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces and three years of chilly relations.

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But the ascent of Syria’s Lebanese allies after Hezbollah acquired veto power over major government decisions this year made rapprochement more palatable, analysts say.

Assad promised Lebanese President Michel Suleiman during the summer that he would establish a diplomatic outpost in Beirut “to consolidate” ties between the two countries “based on reciprocal respect of sovereignty and independence,” according to the official Syrian news agency.

Under Suleiman’s nearly 5-month-old presidency, Lebanon has softened its tone on Syria, which was widely suspected of being behind Hariri’s assassination.

“There is a shift in the official stance toward Syria in Lebanon from accusation of fostering instability to an understanding that both countries are facing common dangers” such as violence by Islamic extremists, said Fadia Kiwan, a political scientist at Beirut’s St. Joseph University.

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Analysts say international political shifts contributed to the Syrian move.

France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy has a much less harsh attitude toward Syria than his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who was close to the Hariri family. Sarkozy has welcomed Assad to Paris and visited Damascus, where his entourage cut business deals.

The Bush administration, which is bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, preoccupied with Iran and North Korea, and suffering through a financial crisis, appears to have abandoned its goal of pressuring the Syrian regime to aid friends of the U.S. in Lebanon.

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daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondent Rafei reported from Beirut and Times staff writer Daragahi from Amman, Jordan. Special correspondent Ziad Haidar in Damascus contributed to this report.


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