Syrian envoy arrives in Lebanon

Damascus sends an ambassador to Beirut for first time to formally establish formal diplomatic ties.

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BEIRUT // Syria's first ambassador to Lebanon arrived at his post in Beirut yesterday, establishing formal diplomatic ties between the two neighbours for the first time since both countries gained independence. While occupying Lebanon from 1976 to 2005, Syria refused to recognise Lebanon's formal sovereignty and never established an embassy in Beirut, preferring to manage its smaller neighbour through the use of a military intelligence apparatus based in eastern Lebanon.

But after Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon in the aftermath of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri's assassination in 2005, the two countries were forced to revamp their relationship into a formal diplomatic one, ending years of Syrian claims that Lebanon was a wayward part of greater Syria. Ali Abdel Karim Ali arrived at the Masnaa Border crossing yesterday afternoon where Lebanese officials from the foreign ministry formally greeted him.

He is expected to present his credentials to the Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, tomorrow, according to the National News Agency. On May 7, President Bashar Assad recognised Michel al Khoury as the first Lebanese ambassador to Syria in a ceremony in Damascus. Mr Karim Ali has served as Syria's ambassador to Kuwait since 2004. Prior to that posting he had managed the Syrian Arab News Agency, the state-run media platform of the Syrian government.

Syria and Lebanon do not require visas for travel between the two countries and as many as 500,000 Syrian workers are employed in Lebanon, making the tense relationship economically critical to both countries. But the establishment of formal ties has alarmed Syrian workers who fear that the embassies will be used as a way to limit travel between the two countries. "I think it's a good sign that we are officially recognised in Lebanon, but I don't know how this would benefit us Syrians in Lebanon," said Jassim al Khodor, 26, as he took a break from work at a West Beirut construction site.

"What good would it be for us? Does it mean I will need a visa from the Lebanese embassy each time I want to come to Lebanon?" There has been no announcement of a change to the current policy of allowing free travel between the two countries. Many Lebanese expressed scepticism that the move indicates a true recognition of Lebanese sovereignty, as much of Beirut continues to view its former occupiers with suspicion.

"A Syrian ambassador to Lebanon?" asked Ibrahim Itani, the owner of a clothing store in Beirut. "They finally decided to send one. We know the Syrians though; they will continue to manipulate us whenever it is possible. "It's true they left, but they left behind many people who are their tools. They always thought Lebanon belongs to them." With closely contested parliamentary elections just 12 days away, both the pro-western government and an opposition coalition led by Hizbollah and other pro-Syrian parties are in a tight race, the outcome of which is likely to determine the future direction of relations between the two neighbours.