|President Nicolas Sarkozy of France (right) welcomed Bashar Assad, his Syrian counterpart, at Elysee Palace in Paris. (Thibault Camus/Associated Press)|
Sarkozy says Syria and Lebanon agree to open embassies
Exchange would be 'historic'
PARIS - France's president said yesterday that Syria and Lebanon have agreed to open embassies in each other's countries. However, Syria's leader was cautious about how quickly it would happen.
Syria and Lebanon have not had full-fledged embassies in each other's countries since Lebanon became independent in 1943 and Syria in 1945.
President Bashar Assad of Syria said last month that establishing diplomatic ties with Lebanon would be possible if a national unity Cabinet were formed in Beirut. Such a government, including members of Syria's ally Hezbollah, was formed Friday after weeks of haggling.
President Nicolas Sarkozy met with Assad and with President Michel Suleiman of Lebanon, who said yesterday that he wanted an exchange of ambassadors with Syria.
At a joint news conference later, Sarkozy affirmed that the establishment of embassies in Beirut and Damascus was in the works, which he called a "historic" development.
"Naturally, there are a certain number of legal questions to be resolved on the Syrian side . . . that explain delays on the road to realization," Sarkozy said. He did not suggest a timetable.
Assad was guarded on how quickly the plan might advance. He said he and the Lebanese president discussed the issue but still need to define the next steps.
The Lebanese president arrived at Elysee Palace with an optimistic tone.
"We want an exchange of ambassadors and diplomatic relations with Syria," he said before a separate meeting with Sarkozy. He told reporters not to speak of normalizing ties between Lebanon and Syria because "they are completely normal."
"I am very satisfied with relations between the two countries," Suleiman said.
Sarkozy, who wants to create a consequential role for Europe, and France, in the process toward Middle East peace, said he would visit Damascus in September.
The leaders met on the eve of a summit bringing together heads of state from 43 nations in Europe and around the Mediterranean rim. Sarkozy sees the initiative as a way of seeding peace in an often hostile region.
At tomorrow's launch of the Union for the Mediterranean, the president of Syria and the prime minister of Israel are to sit down at the same table for the first time. But French officials say no group photo is planned.
Sarkozy's ambitious project to join the nations around the Mediterranean Sea in a cooperative union based on shared projects has been so watered down over the past year that critics now deride it as "Club Med" - suggesting it will be big on blather and low on substance.
The burning question surrounding the inaugural meeting is whether Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will talk or even shake hands.
Optimists see the union's launch as an unprecedented occasion to propel recently resumed peace talks between the two nations, conducted indirectly through Turkey, with a one-on-one meeting or an announcement of direct negotiations between the leaders.
Sarkozy has said that any meeting between the two leaders would mark "formidable progress" in Israel-Syria relations. Alon Liel, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry director and lobbyist for Israeli-Syrian peace talks, said even a handshake "would be a sensation."
But Syrian officials have not spoken encouragingly of a handshake or a meeting. Israeli officials aren't expecting much, because of Syria's traditional resistance to holding talks at the very highest level before a sound basis for success emerges.
It is considered unlikely that Olmert and Assad would be seated together or even face each other across the table.
The two nations have a long, bitter divide. Syria wants Israel to return the Golan Heights, seized in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel wants Syria to sever its ties with Iran and stop backing Lebanese and Palestinian militants committed to the Jewish state's destruction.
Other tensions underpin the summit. Algeria's president and Morocco's king are coming, despite the long rivalry between their nations.
Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy, who issued a passionate denunciation of Sarkozy's initiative, declined to come.
A grandiose venue, the glass-domed Grand Palais, has been chosen for the gathering with rooms set aside for private talks.
The event will be capped tomorrow with dozens of leaders attending France's national Bastille Day military parade as special guests.