Syrian FM to visit Lebanon to further ties

By Xinhua,

Damascus : Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem will pay a visit to Beirut on Monday in a sign of a further thaw in ties between the two neighbors, less than 10 days after the two countries announced that they had agreed to establish diplomatic ties.

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It will be Muallem’s first official visit to Lebanon since early 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, which was blamed on Syria by many. Damascus, however, denied any involvement.

Muallem paid a visit to Beirut in August 2006, but only as part of an Arab foreign ministers’ meeting on the Israeli war against Lebanon.

Muallem would carry an official message from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to his Lebanese counterpart Michel Suleiman, inviting him to visit Damascus, according to the independent Arabic newspaper al-Watan on Sunday.

If Suleiman takes the invitation, it would be his first visit to Syria after he took the presidency. It would also be the first by a Lebanese President to Damascus since March 2005, when then Lebanese President Emile Lahoud came here.

It was expected that Muallem would discuss the exchange of diplomatic representation between the two countries, the paper said, adding that “it is hoped that this visit will mark a new phase of Syrian-Lebanese relations.”

Muallem would also discuss “ways of improving relations given the favorable circumstances with the election of a consensus president in Lebanon and the formation of a national unity government,” said the paper.

Bilateral ties between Syria and Lebanon have been chilled since the Hariri killing in 2005 and Syria, a former power-broker in Lebanon, was forced to withdraw its forces from its smaller neighbor shortly after the murder, ending its three-decade-old military presence there.

Damascus was accused of interfering in the Lebanese affairs and being responsible for a series of assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon afterwards, which Syria denied.

Syria supports the Lebanese opposition in the parliament, led by the Shiite Hezbollah movement, which has been competing for power with the majority, backed by the west.

The tensity of ties between Syria and Lebanon abated after rival Lebanese parties secured an agreement in Doha in May to elect Michel Suleiman as president and establish a new government. Damascus was deemed to have played a constructive role in helping reach the agreement.

On July 12 in Paris, Assad and Suleiman announced after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy that they have agreed to establish diplomatic ties and open embassies in each other’s territory.

“Our position is that there is no problem for opening embassies in Syria and Lebanon,” Assad told a press conference.

“If Lebanon is willing to exchange embassies, we have no objections to doing that,” he said.

Suleiman meanwhile confirmed that Lebanon and Syria would “work together to put everything in action as soon as possible.”

Syria and Lebanon have not established diplomatic relations since their independence from the French colonial rule in the 1940s.