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Embassies Won't Change Much in Syria-Lebanon Ties

Analysts in Syria say they do not expect a seismic shift in relations with Lebanon now that the two countries are establishing embassies in each other’s capitals.

They say that while diplomatic ties signify a stronger relationship, they will have little impact on cooperation on important matters like politics and security.

In December, diplomats began working at the first ever Syrian embassy in Beirut, and the formal opening is expected to take place in the next few weeks.

The mission has been widely interpreted as a sign that Damascus, which used to control Lebanese politics, finally recognises its neighbour’s sovereignty.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese government announced last month that it had appointed an ambassador to Syria. The envoy’s name has not yet been released, and the embassy inauguration has been delayed due to the Israeli incursion into Gaza.

In mid-October, Syrian and Lebanese leaders signed an agreement to establish diplomatic ties at ambassadorial level for the first time since both countries became fully independent in the 1940s.

The move came amid western – specifically French – pressure on Syria to acknowledge its smaller neighbour as an independent country.

Relations between Syria and Lebanon have been turbulent in the past, and reached a low point in February 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Although Damascus denied any involvement, it was widely blamed for the murder.

Massive anti-Syrian protests in Beirut coupled with international pressure forced the Syrians to withdraw their troops from Lebanon in May 2005, after almost 30 years of military and political interference.

A number of issues still remain unresolved. The two countries have failed to reach agreement on the demarcation of their common border, and anger remains over the fate of hundreds of Lebanese believed to have gone missing in Syria during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.

However, observers say that while the existence of embassies pave the way for improving relations between the two, they are largely a symbolic gesture that will effect little practical change.

“The most important concern for Syria is the issue of security, and this will not be handled by the embassies,” said Ahmed al-Hussein, a Damascus-based political analyst and academic.

In recent months, officials from Lebanon and Syria have established a joint committee to work on combating security threats to both states, coming mainly from Islamic fundamentalist groups.

Officials in Damascus say bilateral relations will continue to be managed at least in part by the Lebanese-Syrian Higher Council.

The institution was formed in the early Nineties to establish policies for coordination between the two states. It has oversight over at least 20 agreements on issues like security and economics, and its decisions are binding for both governments.

Many Lebanese regard the body as a vestige of Syrian influence over their country.

The council’s general secretary, Nasri Khouri, a Lebanese national, told local newspapers that economic, commercial, and customs agreements established by the council would not change now that embassies were in place, although they might be reviewed in future.

Nor do officials expect diplomatic ties to lead to major changes to border crossing procedures.

Syrian and Lebanese nationals do not require visas to visit the other country, and need only carry an identity card. Syrians have to pay a fee equivalent to 10 US dollars on entering Lebanon.

In Lebanon, some suspect that Syria will try to maintain political leverage in their country.

“No one doubts that Damascus wants to restore its influence in Lebanon, but it intends to do that within the framework of its new diplomatic strategy,” said Beirut-based political analyst Saad Muhayo.

“This diplomacy is based on exercising soft power.”

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)