Syrian president calls for diplomatic ties to Lebanon

The president of Syria ordered his government Tuesday to establish formal diplomatic relations with Lebanon, in a move that could pave the way for normalizing ties between the two countries after decades of political tangles.

President Bashar Assad issued a decree calling for the establishment of Syria's first diplomatic mission in Lebanon.

He promised to open an embassy previously but rarely has followed through with anything formal. Establishing a mission in Beirut could mark a turning point if it leads to more transparency in the long-troubled relations between the two countries.

“This draws a historical line,” said Sami Moubayed, a Damascus-based analyst and journalist. “This is a new era.”

The decree did not establish a timetable. But a Syrian diplomatic source said the foreign ministers of the two countries were to meet in Damascus this week to work out a mechanism for establishing embassies in each other's capital by year's end.

Many Lebanese doubt Syria's motives. Those within the pro-U.S. March 14 coalition suspect any move by Syria, which has ties to the Shiite militia Hezbollah and other political parties in Lebanon.

While leaders of the March 14 camp welcomed the decision, they said important issues remained unresolved, including the fate of Lebanese prisoners believed to have been locked up in Syrian jails.

Assad promised Lebanese President Michel Suleiman during the summer that he would establish a diplomatic outpost in Beirut “to consolidate” ties in the two countries “based on reciprocal respect of sovereignty and independence,” according to the official Syrian news agency.