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Syria, Lebanon Formalize Diplomatic Ties; Border Issue Remains

BY Admin  October 15, 2008 at 5:50 PM EDT

Lebanon's Fawzi Salloukh, Syria's Walid al-Moallem

The agreement, signed by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and his Lebanese counterpart Fawzi Salloukh, marks a significant step in the countries’ historically tumultuous relationship, though the ongoing issue of border demarcation remains, analysts said.

“We hope that the exchange of diplomatic representation will be a window to bolster bilateral relations,” Al-Moallem said, reported the Associated Press. He added that embassies will be set up in Damascus and Beirut before the end of the year.

When Syria and Lebanon were granted their independence from France in the 1940s, some Syrians never accepted Lebanese independence but considered it a place linked historically and through family ties, explained Tamara Wittes, senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Syria occupied Lebanon from the mid-1970s through 2004, causing strife, which crested when Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a car bombing in 2005. Many Lebanese blamed Syria for the bombing, though Syria denies the charge.

“There’s a lot of baggage between these two states, and because of that today’s agreement and the recognition by Syria explicitly of Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence by establishing formal relations and opening an embassy is significant,” Wittes said.

The signing of Wednesday’s agreement came a day after Syrian President Bashar Assad issued a decree establishing diplomatic relations with its neighbor. In August, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman made an official visit to Damascus, where he and Assad agreed to solidify ties and demarcate their contentious border.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the development “a positive step” but said important tasks remain, such as defining the countries’ border, according to the AP.

Several factors stand in the way of an agreement on the border issue, including economic ones, said Wittes. Once the border is demarcated, the burden falls more heavily on both sides to police it, but both sides engage in and benefit from smuggling, she said. Syria also sends weapons over the border to Hezbollah, a paramilitary organization based in Lebanon.