The Syrian government has announced that it will open an embassy in Beirut for the first time ever, implicitly recognizing the independence of its neighbor to the west, which is no small matter, as Lebanon has always been at the heart of the Syrian ambition to create a Greater Syria.
Comments: (1) This change complements Bashshar al-Asad's apparent recognition of Hatay as Turkish territory, which I document at "Is the Hatay/Alexandretta Problem Solved?" (2) It points to a larger shift in Syrian politics, away from the Greater Syria ambition of Hafiz al-Asad and to the constraints of an ordinary small state. (July 22, 2008)
Aug. 5, 2008 update: A survey of statements out of Syria by MEMRI suggests that this announcement is less than appears. As with the Hatay issue, the Lebanon one is mired in contradiction and obscurity – reflecting how business is still done in Damascus.
Aug. 14, 2008 update: The Associated Press reports that Damascus yesterday agreed to establish diplomatic relations and today agreed to demarcate their joint border. These steps immediately follow on the formation of a Lebanese unity government on Aug. 12, giving the Syrian-backed Hezbollah party a strong voice in Lebanese politics, and during a two-day visit by Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman to Damascus for talks. Hoever, no date was set for either the opening of embassies or for border talks to begin.
Saad Hariri, head of the anti-Syria faction in Lebanon's parliament, welcomed the announcement as a "historic step toward rectifying relations," adding that "It is time ... for [Syrian] tutelage to end once and for all." Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah praised the agreements, saying they usher in "a new phase and signals a qualitative development" in the two countries' relations. "I hope no one will try to obstruct these endeavors."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed the move: "We have long stood for the normalization of relations between Syria and Lebanon on the basis of equality and respect for Lebanese sovereignty."
Aug. 17, 2008 update: The Washington Post ran a curious piece today, "Lebanon's Blended Border Zone: Demarcation of Syrian Line Will Disrupt Lives, Villagers Say," that looks at the impact of a demarcated Lebanese-Syrian border in terms of its impact on a village, Knaisseh, deeply involved in smuggling. For those of you concerned, the Knaissites are not perturbed, confident in their ability to get around walls.
May 29, 2009 update: It took many decades, but today Ali Abdul Karim Ali presented his credentials as the first Syrian ambassador. Curiously, this comes a full month after Michel Khoury took up his post in Damascus as Lebanese ambassador.
Sep. 6, 2009 update: Not so fast. Ambassador Ali may be in place but he is not exactly fulfilling his duties. Here's a MEMRI summary of press accounts about him:
Recent articles in Lebanese newspapers, particularly in the daily Al-Akhbar which is known to be pro-Syrian, have criticized newly appointed Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon 'Ali 'Abd Al-Karim 'Ali for shunning his official duties, contending that this conduct reflects Syrian government policy - i.e. that the establishment of diplomatic relations with Lebanon is no more than a perfunctory gesture. The writers pointed out that 'Ali 'Abd Al-Karim 'Ali spends hardly any time in Lebanon, avoids meeting with Lebanese officials, and plays practically no role in Syria-Lebanon relations, and that these relations are still run by prominent Lebanese figures associated with Syria, foremost among them former Lebanese MP Wiam Wahhab.
One article concludes that
the establishment of the Syrian Embassy in Beirut has not ended Damascus' interference in Lebanon's political affairs, nor caused any change in Syria's supercilious attitude towards Lebanon. Accordingly, elements monitoring the Syrian-Lebanese relations believe that the bypassing of the Syrian ambassador's authority by certain elements… may undermine Syrian-Lebanese relations and render them meaningless and empty."