DAMASCUS, Syria – Syria formally recognized Lebanon for the first time Tuesday by establishing diplomatic relations with its neighbor — a move that reflects Damascus' readiness to meet key U.S. demands to do more for regional stability, even as it pursues indirect peace talks with Israel.
The move by President Bashar Assad — a long-standing demand of the West and Lebanese politicians opposed to Syria's influence in the country — ends six decades of nonrecognition of its neighbor's sovereignty. The two countries have not had formal diplomatic ties since both gained independence from France in the 1940s.
In August, Lebanon and Syria agreed to establish ties and demarcate their contentious border. That landmark agreement, which came during an official visit by Lebanon's president to Damascus, and Assad's formal decree Tuesday, also mark a final break in Syria's longtime dominance over its smaller neighbor.
Damascus had controlled Lebanon for 30 years before it was forced to withdraw troops in 2005.
Shortly after the announcement in Damascus Tuesday, Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh said a similar decree has been issued in Lebanon for the establishment of a Lebanese embassy in Syria.
"This step indicates a new era in Lebanese-Syrian relations marked by brotherhood and cooperation," he said.
Salloukh said he would travel to Syria Wednesday for discussions with his Syrian counterpart and to jointly announce the start of diplomatic relations.
Lebanon's Western-backed prime minister, Fuad Saniora, praised the development as an "advanced and historic step on the road to confirming Lebanon's independence, sovereignty and its free decision-making."
"It is the situation which Lebanon and the Lebanese have long hoped for," he said.
Some observers think Syria is more comfortable dealing with Lebanon's government now that its ally Hezbollah has gained veto power in a Lebanese unity government that was formed in July. In May, Lebanon installed a president sympathetic to Syria.
The development could help Syria with its aspirations to build trust with the West as it pursues indirect talks with Israel, mediated through Turkey.
The two nations have held four rounds of indirect talks so far and Assad recently said he is looking to have direct, face-to-face talks next year. The talks, however, have not made any significant headway, and Syria said last month that a fifth round of talks was postponed at the Jewish state's request.
Ibrahim al-Darraji, a professor of international law at Damascus University, said diplomatic relations with Lebanon "could potentially make it easier to coordinate" between two countries in future peace negotiations with Israel. "But the nonexistence of diplomatic relations was never an obstacle in the past," he added.
In Jerusalem, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official said any step likely to contribute to the region's stability was welcome.
"We hope that this first step will lead in future to Syria honoring its other international obligations," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to make an official statement. "First and foremost ceasing its support for terror and its aid to Hezbollah."
The West is slowly changing its policy of the past three years of isolating Syria and has instead tried to engage it more in Mideast issues.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack welcomed Tuesday's development as "a positive step" but noted that important tasks remain, such as defining the countries' border.
Assad's decree, carried by Syria's official SANA news agency, said a "diplomatic mission for the Syrian Arab Republic at the embassy level will be established in the Lebanese capital."
The foreign ministries of both countries said embassies would be set up in Damascus and Beirut before the end of the year.
Relations between the two Arab nations have been lopsided in Syria's favor since the 1970s, when Syria sent its army into Lebanon and retained control there for nearly 30 years. Ties unraveled when former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a 2005 car bombing that many Lebanese blame on Syria — a charge Syria denies.
After Hariri's assassination, Syria caved to U.S.-led international pressure and withdrew its troops from Lebanon.
Establishing diplomatic relations remained a pressing demand by the anti-Syrian majority in Lebanon's parliament, which contended that the lack of official ties reflects Syria's refusal to recognize Lebanese sovereignty.