August 15, 2008

Syria, Lebanon to Establish Diplomatic Ties Deal Might Help Ease Tensions Between Factions

By Albert Aji

Syria and Lebanon agreed Wednesday to establish full diplomatic relations for the first time, taking a step toward healing tensions that have fueled decades of turmoil in Lebanon.

Many Lebanese had long seen Damascus' refusal of ties as proof it had not given up claims that its smaller neighbor is part of Syrian territory and still aimed to dominate Lebanon. The deal is a significant symbolic victory for them, acknowledging Lebanon as an independent state.

Syria, however, only agreed to relations after its influence in Lebanon was guaranteed by the creation on Tuesday of a unity government in Beirut that gives Damascus-allied Hezbollah a strong say in Lebanese decision-making.

Still, the agreement - along with the unity government - could go a long way to easing three years of continuous crisis in Lebanon, where the power struggle between pro-Western and pro-Syrian factions brought the country to the brink of a new civil war. But the rivalry remains uneasy, and any attempt by either to dominate could spark new unrest.

Meanwhile, a roadside bomb in Tripoli packed with nuts and bolts exploded near a bus in this northern city Wednesday, killing 18 soldiers and civilians in Lebanon's deadliest bombing in more than three years.

Many suspected the attack was staged by an al-Qaida-inspired group to avenge a 2007 military offensive. Some questioned whether it was an attempt to disrupt a trip by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to Syria later in the day to patch up relations between the neighboring nations.

Syria controlled Lebanon for nearly 30 years, after sending its army in as peacekeepers during the 1975-90 civil war.

Its direct hold was broken in 2005, when anger over the slaying of ex-Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri - blamed by many on Damascus - forced the troops to leave.

Even after the withdrawal, anti- Syria Lebanese accused Damascus of trying to maintain its influence, saying it was egging Hezbollah to topple the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. They also accused Syria of being behind a string of assassinations of anti- Syria figures since 2005 to intimidate Beirut and destabilize the country.

Syria denies any role in the Hariri killing or the other attacks.

The decision to open embassies in each other's capitals came during a landmark visit to Syria by Suleiman, the first such visit by a Lebanese head of state since the Syrian troop withdrawal.

Suleiman and his Syrian counterpart, President Bashar Assad, decided Wednesday "to establish diplomatic relations . . . on the level of embassies in accordance with the United Nations charter and international laws," said Assad's adviser, Buthaina Shaaban.

No date was given for opening the embassies.

The United States, which backs Saniora, welcomed the decision but pushed for Syria to stay out of Lebanese affairs.

Originally published by Albert Aji, Associated Press.

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