x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Syria and Lebanon ties welcomed

Britain, Germany and the United States have welcomed a decision by Lebanon and Syria to open diplomatic relations.

The Syrian president Bashar al Assad (left) and the Lebanese president Michel Suleiman leave the Elysee Palace in Paris.
The Syrian president Bashar al Assad (left) and the Lebanese president Michel Suleiman leave the Elysee Palace in Paris.

Britain, Germany and the United States have welcomed a decision by Lebanon and Syria to open diplomatic relations, but Washington urged Damascus to end its "destabilising tactics" in the region. "We continue to support the establishment of good relations between Lebanon and Syria on the basis of mutual respect [and] we join with France in reiterating the commitment to a sovereign and independent Lebanon," Rob McInturff, a State Department spokesman, said.

But he added that Washington would "continue to limit our diplomatic engagement unless Syria takes concrete actions to end its destabilising tactics in the region". Lebanon and Syria said earlier yesterday that they had agreed to establish diplomatic relations, opening embassies in each others' capitals for the first time since their independence from colonial rule. The State Department said Syria was "showing it is eager to engage with the international community".

Mr McInturff said the United States and other Lebanon watchers "were waiting for a signal that the Syrians are ready to renounce their sponsorship of terrorism, to do more to end the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, to expel the leadership of Palestinian terrorist groups, and to end human rights violations". Washington continues to blacklist Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism. The French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced the landmark decision in Paris following talks with Syrian and Lebanese counterparts Bashar al Assad and Michel Sleiman.

Mr Sleiman's election in May ended a drawn-out political crisis in Lebanon. The two Middle East leaders confirmed the news at a joint press conference later in the day. Lebanon announced a 30-member national unity government on Friday, tasked with resolving the country's worst political crisis since a 1975-1990 civil war. Syria, the former power broker in Lebanon, withdrew its troops in 2005 in the aftermath of the assassination of the former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, ending a military presence of nearly three decades.

Syria was widely blamed for the killing but denies involvement. In London a Foreign Office spokesman said: "If it means that Syria is going to play a more constructive role in the region, that can only be a good thing." Britain broke off diplomatic ties with Syria in 1986, but restored them in 1990. However, London remains concerned about Damascus' role in Lebanon, particularly its connection with Hizbollah.

The German European affairs minister Guenter Gloser welcomed the two countries' decision to establish ties as "considerable progress", the foreign ministry in Berlin quoted him as saying in Paris where he was to attend the launch today of a union between Europe and its Mediterranean neighbours. "It shows Syria's change of perspective and contributes to stability in the region," he added. A minister in Lebanon's rump anti-Syrian cabinet, overtaken by a May power-sharing agreement with the pro-Syrian opposition, on Saturday hailed the opening of diplomatic relations as a victory.

Ahmed Fatfat, youth and sports minister in the former government, said the agreement reached in Paris ahead of the European-Mediterranean summit was a victory for the pro-Western forces which secured the pullout of Syrian troops following the 2005 assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri. It's a "coup for the forces of March 14 (2005)," he said in reference to the date of a huge anti-Syrian rally that preceded the Syrian pullout.

"We've been demanding the opening of embassies for a long time and it's something that should have happened years ago," Mr Fatfat said. "Syria needs to start conducting its relations with Lebanon on a state-to-state basis and can no longer treat us as a fiefdom." Despite the three-decade military presence in its smaller neighbour, Syria has never had diplomatic relations with Lebanon, which it has long regarded as part of its own territory wrongly separated by France, the ex-colonial power.

*AFP