DAMASCUS // A Lebanese embassy opened in Damascus today after international pressure on the Syrian government to establish diplomatic ties and treat its smaller neighbour as a fully sovereign country. The Lebanese flag was raised on the premises in the centre of Damascus and the embassy is now staffed with a charge d'affaires, a Lebanese official said. The two countries have not had diplomatic relations since Britain and France carved them out of the remnants of the old Ottoman Empire in 1920. Syria, which withdrew its forces from Lebanon after a 29-year presence in 2005, opened an embassy in Beirut last year but has not named an ambassador. Lebanon has named Michel Khoury as its ambassador. The Damascus government has in the past resisted establishing diplomatic ties with Lebanon, saying the two countries had an especially close relationship.
But Syria's critics, including France and the United States, said by resisting normal diplomatic relations with Lebanon, Syria was trying to undermine its sovereignty. Syria dominated Lebanese politics for 30 years until the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri in 2005, which led to popular protests and the eventual withdrawal of Syrian forces. Anti-Syrian politicians, including Mr Hariri's son, Saad, have blamed Damascus for the killing of Mr Hariri. A United Nations investigation implicated high-level Syrian security officials in the incident but Syria denies involvement. "Opening the embassy puts the onus on the Syrians now to proceed with naming an ambassador. It is more than a symbolic step. Relations would have to go through official diplomatic channels, at least partially", said one Western diplomat in the Syrian capital. The Syrian foreign minister Walid al Moualem said Damascus would name an ambassador to Lebanon "very soon" but he did not indicate exactly when. The two countries also agreed last year to demarcate the border between them, but a committee to work on the issue has been slow in getting off the ground. The Syrian president Bashar al Assad issued a decree in October to open diplomatic relations with Lebanon after a Lebanese political crisis ended in May and relations improved between Syria and the new Lebanese government. *Reuters