August 4, 2008 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 459

Has Syrian President Assad Promised to Establish Diplomatic Relations with Lebanon?

August 4, 2008 | By Ofir Winter*
Syria, Lebanon | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 459

On July 12, 2008, on the eve of the Mediterranean Conference in Paris, a quadripartite meeting took place at the Elysee Palace among French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Aal Thani. At the press conference following the meeting, Sarkozy announced that the Syrian president was willing to establish reciprocal embassies with Lebanon, and called this "an historic event." French government sources also hinted that Assad had only been invited after promising to consent to a diplomatic exchange with Lebanon.

The Syrian president and his associates, however, hastened to clarify that there had been no change in Syria's policy vis-à-vis Lebanon. They explained that Syria had "no objection" to an exchange of ambassadors, but that the decision must be made by the Lebanese government alone, without the intervention of outside forces.[1] They added that establishing embassies would only become possible after the removal of certain obstacles related to internal Lebanese affairs and to the current state of Syria-Lebanon relations.

The Lebanese president, on his part, made a surprising statement to the effect that there was no need for normalization of relations between Syria and Lebanon, since these relations were already "natural."

Reticence about an exchange of ambassadors was also reflected in articles in the Syrian and Lebanese press. An editorial in the Syrian government daily Teshreen described Lebanon and Syria as "twin states" whose mutual ties could not be severed. Syrian columnists wrote that neither Syria nor Lebanon was interested in exchanging establishing, and that Sarkozy's statement was tailored to the needs of French public opinion. The editor of a Syrian daily even warned that Lebanon's insistence on establishing formal relations with Syria would cost her the economic benefits it had heretofore enjoyed.

In Lebanon, pro-Syrian dailies stressed that the establishment of a Syrian embassy in Lebanon would not have the effect that the March 14 Forces were hoping for, but would only strengthen Syria's role in Lebanon and give it international legitimacy. A columnist in the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal, which is affiliated with the March 14 Forces, wrote that Syria's moves were aimed at quashing Lebanon's demands for sovereignty and liberty, and advised Lebanese citizens to once again get used to the idea of Syrian dominance over Lebanon.

Following are excerpts from the leaders' statements and from articles in the Syrian and Lebanese press.

Sarkozy: Assad Wants to Exchange Ambassadors with Lebanon

At the press conference at the Elysee Palace following the French-Syrian-Lebanese-Qatari meeting, Sarkozy declared: "...France considers it historic progress that President Bashar Al-Assad wishes to establish a diplomatic representation [in Lebanon] alongside a Lebanese diplomatic representation in Syria. It may seem strange to you that this declaration comes from me, but this is what I agreed on with President Assad… Naturally, there are legal issues on the Syrian side that still need to be resolved, which explains the delay in implementation. [Establishing reciprocal embassies with Syria] is in the interests of Lebanese society as a whole, and President Suleiman will explain this better than I... This declaration, and [Assad's] willingness [to establish an embassy and to have Lebanon establish an embassy], are historic and good news for everyone. There are many in France who love Lebanon and care about everything that is happening there."[2]

Bashar Al-Assad: Only the Lebanese Have the Right to Decide Their Future

Following Sarkozy's declaration, President Al-Assad confirmed that Syria "has no objection" to establishing embassies if that was what Lebanon wanted. At the same time, he stressed that the current lack of embassies did not mean that Syria did not recognize Lebanon, and added that there were many countries that Syria recognized but had no embassies in.

Al-Assad said: "In principle, we have no problem [with the notion of] opening embassies in Syria and Lebanon. Of course, some interpret the lack of embassies as lack of recognition, [but] Syria currently has only 50 embassies worldwide. Does this mean that there are 131 countries that we refuse to recognize? That does not make sense. But if Lebanon wants to open embassies, we have no objection."

In contrast to Sarkozy, who described his consent to the opening of embassies as "historic," Al-Assad himself stressed that it was nothing new, saying: "I have emphasized this several times [in the past], [including] in recent interviews with the French press and media."[3] Al-Assad added that the establishment of diplomatic relations with Lebanon was likely to be delayed for bureaucratic reasons: "Today we spoke of this, and said that there were legal steps that must be initiated by President Suleiman and by the Lebanese government, which we have not yet contacted [about this]. We will decide what the required steps are."

He added that the Doha agreement was not a sufficient basis for the establishment of relations, and that before embassies could be opened, Lebanon had to pass a new elections law, hold the elections (scheduled for May 2009), and conduct a national dialogue aimed at deciding its future and reaching a national accord that would be acceptable to Syria: "The Doha agreement, sponsored by the Qatari Emir, was a great achievement, but it is not sufficient and needs to be reinforced. A president has been elected and a government has been formed. For the present, what remains is the elections law, the elections [themselves], and the national dialogue among the Lebanese, which will guarantee that Lebanese history, which has known many conflicts, will not repeat itself... The Doha agreement put Lebanon on the right track, and brought it from the brink of civil war to a [situation] in which the Lebanese can hold a mutual political dialogue about the future of their country. Only they have the right to decide this future... Our duty is to support Lebanon in this new era – both in the near future, until the next elections, and in the more distant future, after the elections."[4]

On July 13, 2008, the day after the press conference, Al-Assad met with his Lebanese counterpart President Suleiman. According to reports, "the two agreed that all issues pertaining to their countries were to be decided bilaterally... by Lebanon and Syria [alone]."[5]

Al-Assad: No Change in Syrian Policy

In a July 15, 2008 interview with Dubai TV, Al-Assad denied that the warm welcome he had received in France was due to a change in Syrian policy, saying: "The only thing that has not changed is Syrian policy... The main thing that has changed is U.S.-Europe relations. About a year ago, many European leaders began to form a vision [different from that of the U.S.]. In private meetings, they told us that they had lost their faith in the vision of the current [U.S.] administration, which had placed the Europeans in a difficult situation and had undermined Western interests in the Middle East and in other parts of the world... The Western countries tried to present a united front on various issues, but that was not the [true] face of things... We knew this, and then the French president came and declared it [openly]."

Asked about the price demanded of Syria in return for the rapprochement with France, Al-Assad said: "We did not pay any price. Our positions remained unchanged. I explained to President Sarkozy and to the other leaders whom I met that I was not the kind of person who hands out favors in hope of receiving a reward... We have always explained that we do not deal out favors. We have rights, and these rights do not belong to me but to Syria. They do not belong to the president or to any [other] leader – and therefore we cannot waive them in order to enable [various parties] to say that we had backed down [from our positions]... There is a certain situation in the Middle East, and anyone who wants to play a role in the region must negotiate with certain countries, including Syria."[6]

Syrian Information Minister Muhsin Bilal likewise stressed, in an interview with a Syrian satellite channel, that "Syria's attitude towards Lebanon has not changed, despite what has happened." He called Lebanon "[our] neighbor twin state, which is stable and united under a national unity government," and added that Lebanon's relations with Syria were "special, on all levels."[7]

Suleiman: No Need for Normalization with Syria

In a talk with reporters in Paris, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman stated that Lebanon was determined to [establish] diplomatic relations with Syria, but at the same time stressed that "this was not normalization, since relations [between the two countries] were already natural and did not [require] normalization." Asked whether Lebanon and Syria had turned over a new page in their relations, he stated that it was an "old-new page," and that he had been very pleased with the relations that had heretofore existed between the two countries.[8]

At the press conference following the quadripartite meeting, he too mentioned the bureaucratic and administrative difficulties that were bound to delay the establishment of diplomatic relations with Syria: "Lebanon and Syria will work in coordination in order to take the necessary legal and administrative steps and implement the agreement [on establishing relations] as soon as possible."[9]

At a July 26, 2008 meeting with the Syrian-Palestinian Legal Committee for the Right of Return, Suleiman expressed his objections to foreign intervention in Lebanon-Syria relations, saying that all issues related to them "must be resolved in Beirut or in Syria, and not [anywhere else]." He added that Lebanon and Syria were linked "in every way": "We have a common enemy, common family ties, shared ideas, common interests, a shared coast... [and shared] spiritual, moral, religious and cultural [values]... and we can achieve much through close ties and cooperation."[10]

Syrian FM: I Don't Know Whether Lebanon Wants to Establish Embassies

In an interview with the daily Al-Safir, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem mentioned a series of additional obstacles that were delaying the establishment of a Syrian embassy in Lebanon: "We must first of all see what is happening with the Higher Syrian-Lebanese Council, with the Brotherhood and Cooperation Treaty, and with the mutual contracts,[11] and only then can there be a diplomatic exchange, if both governments agree to it."[12]

At a Beirut press conference on July 12, 2008, following his meeting with Lebanese President Suleiman (during which he invited him to Damascus), Al-Mua'llem discussed numerous issues related to the establishment of diplomatic relations, and stressed that there was no room for foreign intervention in this matter: "Syrian-Lebanese relations are [a subject for] bilateral [talks] between these two twin states, and we will not agree to any interference by a third party... I do not know whether you [Syrians] are interested in opening embassies... We are determined [to take this step] and to exchange diplomats, but this willingness must exist on both sides."

About the issue of drawing the border between Syria and Lebanon, Al-Mua'llem said: "Nothing is preventing us from drawing the border, but we must consider the [interests of the Syrian and Lebanese] population in the villages on the border. Will the border benefit them or not? We know that many Lebanese villagers study, work, and have fields on the Syrian [side of the border]. But if there is no choice but to draw borders, we are willing to do so."

Al-Mu'allem stated that "the Shab'a Farms are Lebanese," and that "it is a mistake to think that there is any Lebanese-Syrian [conflict] regarding them. The problem is the Israeli occupation of Lebanese soil there, as well as in Ghajar and the Shuba Hills. This Israeli occupation must end, just like the Israeli occupation of the Golan. A U.N. presence in the Shab'a Farms will not put an end to the occupation, but will only... replace [the Israeli occupation] with a U.N. occupation."[13]

Al-Mua'llem also said that the drawing of borders between Syria and Lebanon "will not change anything." He added that no passports would be needed, and that "if things progressed well, [crossing the border] would be even easier [than before]."

As for the status of the Higher Syrian-Lebanese Council after the establishment of formal relations, Al-Mu'allem said that "the legal status [of the relations between the two countries] must be examined and adapted to the changing circumstances," and mentioned the Gulf Cooperation Council as a possible model for the future of the Higher Syrian-Lebanese Council."[14]

Higher Syrian-Lebanese Cooperation Council Sec.-Gen.: The Lebanese Must Reach a Unanimous Decision Regarding the Contracts with Syria

Higher Syrian-Lebanese Council secretary-general Nasri Khouri explained in an interview held at his office in Damascus that the issue of the council must be decided by the Lebanese government: "Some in Lebanon demand the cancellation of the contracts [between Syria and Lebanon] and the [dismantling of] the Higher Syrian-Lebanese Council – a position that means going back to square one [in Syrian-Lebanese relations]. Is this what the Lebanese government officially wants? Will this benefit the bilateral relations between the two countries?... [The Lebanese] must reach a unanimous decision. There is no doubt that they must [adopt] a clear and official stance [on this issue]."[15]

In another interview, Khouri stressed that the council's achievements should be preserved, and warned Lebanon that "if the cooperation [agreements with Syria] are revised, it might lose all the benefits it has gained."[16] Khouri also emphasized that in deciding to establish embassies, Lebanon will have to follow a different procedure than the one followed by Syria. While in Syria the decision will be made by the president, in Lebanon it must be made by the government, and must be "unanimous." It should be remembered that the new Lebanese government includes a strong pro-Syrian bloc that can prevent this unanimous decision.

Asked about establishing embassies, official Syrian sources stated that "there would be no delay," but that it was "difficult to say when the move would take place."[17]

Teshreen: No One Can Sever Syria from Lebanon

In an editorial in the Syrian government daily Teshreen, editor 'Issam Dari described Syria and Lebanon as "twin countries," stressing that nothing could drive them apart: "When the Lebanese president arrives in Damascus, a new page will be opened [in Syrian-Lebanese relations], which will be built on trust, dialogue and brotherhood, and will draw on historical ties, which have endured by mutual consent of both sides. We must not forget that for decades hundreds of families have been split between the twin countries, and that the connection between them cannot be severed – nor will anyone be able to do this, no matter what tools of destruction and schemes he has at his disposal.

"There is no subject that cannot be discussed between brothers, and no issue that cannot be solved. All this has nothing to do with outside interference, which will bring nothing but trouble, disaster, and destruction. The [Syrians and Lebanese alone] know what their interests and wishes are, and only they will determine their present and future and defend their history."[18]

Syrian Columnist: Sarkozy's Announcement Was Staged For French Public Opinion

Columnist Waseem Al-Ahmar wrote in the Syrian daily Al-Watan: "Sarkozy thinks that he has achieved a great victory regarding the Lebanese issue by arranging a summit between the two presidents, Assad and Michel Suleiman… and announcing that Beirut and Damascus intend to establish diplomatic relations. The headlines have at times blown this announcement out of proportion, going so far as to claim that Syria has, for the first time, under French sponsorship, recognized Lebanon's independence.

"In reality, there is nothing new in the announcement of a diplomatic exchange between Syria and Lebanon, except for the fact that it was made publicly, in front of the international media, and was accompanied by stage [effects] ultimately aimed at French public opinion – since there had been objections to the inviting of President Assad [to France]. Essentially, however, even before the summit, Damascus had on many occasions announced its intention to discuss a diplomatic exchange with the Lebanese national unity government."[19]

Another Al-Watan columnist, 'Issa Al-Ayyoubi, wrote: "Some Arabs thought that the real breakthrough [in Paris] was the announcement of the imminent [establishment of] diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon, as if this were the most urgent demand of the Lebanese and the Syrian people. They forget that this demand is unimportant to both the Lebanese and the Syrians. Moreover, an exchange of ambassadors by these two countries could cause a problem for the Lebanese, the Syrians, and the Arabs in general."[20]

Editor of Syrian Daily: Relations with Lebanon Will Not Come at the Expense of Syria's Interests

Al-Watan editor Wadhah 'Abd Rabbo warned the Lebanese that insisting on relations with Syria that are based on equality would lead to the elimination of the benefits that Lebanon had enjoyed up to this point: "Under the pretext of normalizing relations, some Lebanese are planning to take advantage of Syria; however, this will not happen – no matter how much they demonstrate, curse, threaten, or incite [against it]. Aren't they asking for relations of equality? If so, they must be equal in the full sense of this word – [i.e.] they must be based on common interests rather than come at the expense of Syria. Syria has paid enough – in blood, in economic [loss] and in foreign policy. The time is ripe for real equality, which will first be manifested in [the exchange of] ambassadors and [the establishment of] diplomatic representations, and will then extend to economic relations as well."

'Abd Rabbo explained: "This means that Lebanon will have to take steps to combat border smuggling instead of encouraging it. Furthermore, Syria will tax non-Lebanese products that enter the Syrian market via the [Lebanese] border, end the smuggling across the Syrian-Lebanese border, and commit to implementing the [regulations] of the Arab common market, instead of [following the rules] of Lebanese smugglers, taxi drivers, and wheelers and dealers. This [must be done] in order to achieve equality in other areas [as well], in preparation for the elimination of all the benefits that Lebanon has so far enjoyed."[21]

Articles in Pro-Syrian Lebanese Dailies: Syria Is Re-Entering Lebanon Through the Front Door

In an article in the pro-Syrian Lebanese daily Al-Safir, columnist Ghaseb Al-Mukhtar claimed that a Syrian embassy in Beirut would enhance Syria's role in Lebanon: "A diplomatic exchange between Syria and Lebanon would make the Syrian embassy in Beirut into a source of authority – possibly one of the strongest [in Lebanon] – for some of the Lebanese political forces, both those that [operate] in the open and [those that operate] behind the scenes. This will resemble [the position of] the embassies of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar, as well as those of France and especially the U.S., whose ambassadors are always interfering in [Lebanon's] affairs, having been granted 'the power of attorney to safeguard its sovereignty, freedom and independence.'

"Contrary to what the March 14 Forces and their followers believe, if a Syrian embassy is established in Beirut, this would mean enhancing Syria's role in Lebanon, mainly the political role, which will obtain legitimacy and the protection of international law. Other roles [will likewise be augmented], depending on the situation in Lebanon in 2009, following the end of the present U.S. administration and the [Lebanese] parliamentary elections."[22]

Columnist Ghassan Sa'ud wrote in a similar vein in the Hizbullah-affiliated Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar: "In three years, the Syrians have managed to reorganize their home [base] in Lebanon… Today, they have [finally] completed an exhausting three-year effort, and are entering [Lebanon] through the front door – using influence rather than people – after having left [it in 2005] through the back door."[23]

Another Al-Akhbar columnist, Nicolas Nassif, claimed that by renewing diplomatic relations, Lebanon would be expected to make concessions to Syria: "It is inconceivable that following Suleiman's visit, Syria will be prepared to give Lebanon everything [it] is asking for, all at once – [and all] in order to normalize relations between the two countries. In Paris, President [Suleiman] gave Syria a valuable gift when he said that Syria-Lebanon relations were natural and required no normalization – implying that the next stage would demand only reorganization.

"It is equally inconceivable that Lebanon would insist that Syria fulfill all its demands, while rejecting all [of Syria's] requests pertaining to reorganizing the relations between them. Accordingly, any attempt to reestablish bilateral relations will require compromise, with each side making concessions to the other equally… Syria is also eager to receive from Lebanon an assurance and guarantee regarding the future of Hizbullah's weapons, as well as regarding Lebanon's position in the regional and internal conflict."[24]

Al-Mustaqbal Columnist: The Lebanese Must Again Learn to Say, Good Morning, Damascus!

In an article in the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal, which is owned by March 14 Forces leader Sa'd Al-Hariri, columnist Assaf Haider wrote that Syria's moves would make Lebanon's demands for sovereignty and freedom a thing of the past: "Formally, there has been a change in Lebanese-Syrian relations… In content, [however,] there has been no change at all. Damascus is still dreaming of returning to Beirut, and is confident that we will pave its way there…

"Syria's recognition of Lebanon as an independent state rather than as a temporary entity was 'the great boon' granted by the Syrian president to his [Lebanese] counterpart in France. Assad promised and delivered, for he wanted to rehabilitate his status and safeguard his regime from investigation and isolation. His move was successful, since the French president rushed to normalize [relations with Syria], in hope of gaining a standing in the Middle East…

"The important question is: When will this recognition be implemented by resolving all the outstanding issues [between Syria and Lebanon] – many of which have been poisoning the relations between these '[two halves of] one people,' to the extent that they have become 'two peoples?'

"At present, Damascus can take its time before beginning implementation – but [I fear that] it will never actually take place… This conclusion emanates neither from pessimism nor from a sense of helplessness. Damascus [adopted this policy] three years ago, and has adhered to it on all fronts, expertly and thoroughly…

"At the end of his visit to the [presidential] palace in Ba'abda, Al-Mu'allem turned every problem into a whole chain of problems, which will require interminable discussions to solve… Damascus is trying to 'buy time,' as it has done in the past… The results of the 2009 parliamentary elections in Lebanon will decide the issue, [especially] if the [present] opposition, headed by Hizbullah, manages to strengthen its positions, and even more so if it becomes an overwhelming majority [in the government] with the future opposition having no right of veto. Damascus hopes that in this event, it will be able... to change all the equations and to turn most of the current demands for sovereignty and liberty into a thing of the past…

"What about Lebanon and the Lebanese? The Lebanese still retain the freedom to disagree and to butcher one another. In addition, they will bear the responsibility for what happens [in the future], since Damascus, by regaining international legitimacy, has rendered itself 'innocent.' As for Lebanon, it has no option but to again learn to say, Good morning, Damascus!"[25]

*O. Winter is a research fellow at MEMRI.

[1]It should be remembered that, in the new Lebanese government, the pro-Syrian opposition commands a majority that can block this decision – namely the "one third+one" majority that the opposition demanded for two years and received as part of the Doha agreement.

[2], July 12, 2008.

[3] Al-Assad indeed made such a statement in a recent interview with the Indian press. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1966, "Syrian President: Doha Accord - Victory for Syria and Lebanon; Economic Reform in Syria More Urgent than Political Reform; Syria Has an Opposition that Can Criticize the Government – It Is Just Not Legal Yet," June 19, 2008, Syrian President: Doha Accord - Victory for Syria and Lebanon; Economic Reform in Syria More Urgent than Political Reform; Syria Has an Opposition that Can Criticize the Government – It Is Just Not Legal Yet.

[4] Al-Thawra (Syria), July 13, 2008.

[5] Al-Thawra (Syria), July 14, 2008.

[6] Al-Ba'th (Syria), July 16, 2008.

[7] Al-Thawra (Syria), July 16, 2008.

[8] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), July 13, 2008.

[9] Al-Thawra (Syria), July 13, 2008.

[10] Al-Watan (Syria), July 27, 2008.

[11] The Brotherhood and Cooperation Treaty, signed on May 22, 1991, effectively turned Lebanon into a Syrian protectorate. The Higher Syrian-Lebanese Council was established as part of this treaty. Its task was to formulate policy on Lebanese-Syrian coordination and cooperation, and to supervise the implementation of this policy.

[12] Al-Safir (Lebanon), July 14, 2008.

[13] March 14 Forces leader Samir Geagea said in response that Mu'allem's statements were "illogical," because what is preventing the return of the Shab'a Farms to Lebanon is Syria's refusal to draw the borders between the two countries. Al-Nahar (Lebanon), July 23, 2008.

[14] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), July 22, 2008.

[15] Al-Watan (Syria), July 24, 2008.

[16] Al-Thawra (Syria), July 29, 2008.

[17] Al-Watan (Syria), July 21, 2008.

[18] Teshreen (Syria), July 23, 2008.

[19] Al-Watan (Syria), July 16, 2008.

[20] Al-Watan (Syria), July 15, 2008.

[21] Al-Watan (Syria), July 22, 2008.

[22] Al-Safir (Lebanon), July 23, 2008.

[23] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 23, 2008.

[24] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 22, 2008.

[25] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), July 24, 2008.

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