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Syrian-Lebanese Embassy Exchange Welcomed

Analysts in Syria have largely welcomed the news that Syria and Lebanon plan to open embassies in each other’s capitals.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced the development after he met Lebanese president Michel Suleiman and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in Paris last week.

Analysts say that while it is too soon to say what impact diplomatic representation might have on Syrian-Lebanese relations, the step is a significant one for two nations that have struggled to establish boundaries in their relationship.

“I never expected an embassy exchange,” said Muhanned al-Hasani, who heads the Damascus-based non-governmental organisation Sawasiya.

“Although [Syria] created security and military stability for a long period of time [in Lebanon], relations with the Lebanese people were neglected,” he said. “The Syrian presence was a security and military one rather than social and humanitarian.”

Syria, which controlled Lebanese politics and security from the early Nineties until 2005, long asserted that the bonds between the two countries were strong enough not to require formal embassies. Lebanese and international critics of Syria’s role in Lebanon have been pushing it to open an embassy there.

“Opening a Syrian embassy in Beirut is an official Syrian recognition of Lebanon’s sovereignty,” said a western diplomat based in Damascus, who did not want to be identified. “Embassies will also help create normal relations between them, like any other two independent countries.”

“Syria can and will accept an independent Lebanon, but not one that hosts a hostile regime,” Syrian political analyst and historian Sami Moubayed argued in an article published earlier this week in Common Ground News Service, a web service run by the Search for Common Ground, a non-profit group based in Washington and Brussels.

Observers say Suleiman’s election as president has helped ease tensions with Damascus. Suleiman is considered an independent figure on friendly terms with Syria, balancing the anti-Syrian Lebanese cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

The official Syrian press did not mention plans to set up embassies in its coverage of Assad’s trip to Paris. It concentrated largely on the improved diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon, reporting that Assad is to invite Suleiman to pay an official visit.

Analysts do not expect the relationship to change rapidly.

The establishment of diplomatic relations “does not mean by itself anything at all, but it is a step in the right direction,” Paul Salem, director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre, told the AFP news agency.

A Damascus-based political activist who is critical of the government speculated that the new Syrian willingness to allow diplomatic missions is a gesture to France, with which it wants to forge better ties. In reality, he argues, Damascus is unlikely to stop interfering in Lebanese affairs.

“Syrian intervention inside of Lebanon won’t be prevented by any embassy,” he said.

(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.)

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