Syria Formally Establishes Diplomatic Ties With Lebanon

Assad issues decree establishing ties for first time since countries gained independence in 1940s.

Syrian President Bashar Assad issued a decree on Tuesday establishing diplomatic relations with Lebanon for the first time since the 1940s, the official Syrian news agency reported.

The development comes after an agreement earlier this year between Lebanon and Syria to establish diplomatic ties and demarcate their contentious border. The West and Lebanese anti-Syrian politicians have long demanded Syria recognize Lebanon's sovereignty by establishing official relations.

The landmark agreement, which came during an official visit by the Lebanese president to Damascus in August, and Tuesday's formal decree reflect Syria's efforts to break with past isolationist policies, resolve tensions with neighbors, including Lebanon, and pursue a more open image for the country.

The two countries have not had formal diplomatic relations since they gained independence from France in the 1940s.

The decree, carried by the official Syrian news agency SANA, said that a diplomatic mission for the Syrian Arab Republic at the embassy level will be established in the Lebanese capital. It did not provide details or say when the embassy in Beirut would open.

A Syrian Foreign Ministry official said this will take place before the end of the year.

There will be a Syrian embassy and an ambassador in Lebanon soon and before the end of the year, the official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Relations between the two Arab nations have been lopsided in Syria's favor since the 1970s, when Syria sent its army into Lebanon and retained control there for nearly 30 years. Ties unraveled when former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a 2005 car bombing that many Lebanese blame on Syria - a charge Syria denies.

After Hariri's assassination, Syria caved to U.S.-led international pressure and withdrew its troops from Lebanon.

However, establishing diplomatic relations remained a pressing demand by the anti-Syrian majority in Lebanon's parliament, which contended that the lack of official ties reflects Syria's refusal to recognize Lebanese sovereignty.

In addition to trying to resolve the fog over relations with Lebanon, Assad has also recently sought indirect peace talks with Israel, mediated by Turkey, and says he wants direct talks next year.

For its part, the West is slowly changing its policy of the past three years of isolating Syria, and has instead tried to engage it more in Mideast issues.