|Sleiman and Assad agree to exchange embassies
|Leaders also plan mutual visits to each other's capitals
Lebanese and Syrian presidents Michel Sleiman and Bashar Assad exchanged visits in Paris over the weekend as Lebanon and Syria agreed on opening embassies in each others' capitals for the first time since their independence from colonial rule.
The two leaders were in Paris to participate in the Mediterranean Union summit.
Sleiman, accompanied by Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh, Lebanese Ambassador to Paris Butros Asaker, and other members of the Lebanese delegation, held a 50-minute meeting with Assad at his private suite in the Intercontinental Le Grand Hotel in the presence of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and other members of the Syrian delegation.
A statement released by Sleiman's office Sunday said the two leaders discussed bilateral ties, namely the measures that needed to be taken to establish diplomatic ties between the two neighboring states.
It added that Sleiman and Assad agreed on exchanging visits to Beirut and Damascus in a bid to further discuss the establishment of diplomatic ties as well as other bilateral issues.
Moallem will soon visit Beirut to deliver an invitation for Sleiman to visit Damascus, the statement added.
At a new conference that followed the meeting, Assad said the establishment of diplomatic ties would be announced both from Beirut and Damascus.
"When President Sleiman visits Damascus, we will announce it from there and the same will happen when I visit Beirut," Assad told reporters.
Sleiman confirmed that he was planning to visit Syria, but did not specify a date.
"We are not normalizing relations with Syria ... We already have normal relations and establishing diplomatic ties will further develop the existing relations," he added.
Asked whether Premier Fouad Siniora would attend the expected meeting with Assad, Sleiman said the invitation to visit Damascus would only be delivered to the president.
Sleiman also told reporters that he was planning to discuss the status of the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms during his expected visit to Syria.
Both Lebanon and Syria have repeatedly said the territory was Lebanese, but the UN has requested that both states demarcate border in order to officially determine the Farms' identity.
When asked how Lebanon planned to liberate the Shebaa Farms, Sleiman said Lebanon would resort to military means if diplomatic procedures failed to achieve the desired goal.
"We will try to liberate the occupied territory through diplomatic means, namely through the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1707, but if such means fail, we will resort to military operations," he said.
For his part, Assad confirmed that Moallem would soon visit Beirut to formally invite Sleiman to visit Damascus.
Asked if Lebanon would have any role in the indirect peace negotiations between Syria and Israel, Assad said all the details of such negotiations would be discussed between Lebanon and Syria, adding that Lebanon would undoubtedly have a major role in the peace process.
Separately, a statement from Sleiman's information office said the two leaders had also discussed the issue of Lebanese detainees in Syrian jails.
The statement said Assad promised Sleiman to work on resolving this issue.
Although many Lebanese families claim they have relatives in Syrian jails, Damascus has repeatedly denied such claims.
Later on Sunday, Sleiman met with UN chief Ban Ki-moon on the sidelines of the Mediterranean Union summit.
After the meeting, Sleiman thanked Ban for all his efforts to help Lebanon.
"As we draw closer to the expected prisoner swap between Lebanon and Israel, I would like to thank the UN for its efforts to facilitate such a swap as well as its past efforts to end the July war of 2006," Sleiman said, referring to the 34-day conflict between Lebanon and Israel.
Lebanon's Hizbullah is expected to exchange prisoners with Israel Wednesday.
Sleiman also said he had discussed with Ban the implementation of Resolution 1701, namely the efforts being made to resolve the Shebaa Farms issue.
"I am positive that the process by which the Shebaa Farms will be returned to Lebanese sovereignty has already kicked off," Sleiman said.
For his part, Ban told reporters that he was optimistic about the situation in Lebanon following the election of Sleiman and the formation of a national unity government.
Ban promised to intensify his efforts to reach a solution for the Shebaa Farms issue.
On Lebanese-Syrian relations, the UN chief said both Assad and Sleiman have vowed to work on establishing diplomatic ties between their countries.
On the international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri, Ban expressed hope that the tribunal would convene soon, but did not specify a date.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the landmark decision Saturday after talks with Assad and Sleiman.
"For France, this is historic progress," Sarkozy said at a press conference. "Of course there are a number of legal questions that have to be settled ... but for us ... this announcement is absolutely historic."
Assad and Sleiman confirmed the news at a joint press conference later on Saturday.
Sleiman said the two governments were going to "work together to put everything in motion as soon as possible."
The Lebanese president added that he had discussed with Assad the establishment of diplomatic relations as well as the demarcation of borders between Lebanon and Syria.
For his part, Assad said Syria did not mind establishing diplomatic ties with Lebanon.
"Some in Lebanon claim not establishing such ties means that Syria does not recognize Lebanon ... I would like to say Syria has no diplomatic representation in 130 countries around the world ... Does this necessarily mean Syria does not recognize such states?" he asked.
"Our position is that there is no problem for the opening of embassies between Syria and Lebanon ... If Lebanon is willing to exchange embassies, we have no objections," he added.
The Syrian and Lebanese leaders met at the French presidential palace in the presence of Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, whose country brokered the power-sharing deal that led to Sleiman's election.
Immediately after Sarkozy announced the diplomatic breakthrough between Lebanon and Syria, he said he would be visiting Damascus in September, taking a further step in ending Syria's diplomatic isolation.
Franco-Syrian ties went into a deep freeze after the 2005 assassination of Hariri, who was a personal friend of Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac.
Chirac cut off all high-level contacts with Syria after repeatedly accusing it of having a hand in the killing, a charge Damascus has consistently denied.
After Sleiman's election, Sarkozy moved to reward Assad by renewing high-level contacts.
Meanwhile, Sleiman on Sunday gave a speech at the Mediterranean Union summit, highlighting the importance of reaching a comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
"The continuing postponement of solution-finding processes to the Middle East crisis had made the clashes the main reason for instability in the region, which threatens stability in the Mediterranean and the world," Sleiman said.
The president called for building a culture of mutual respect, stressing that Lebanon's message was to struggle for freedom and social justice.
"Lebanon's message was, and is until now, to struggle for the spaces of freedom to be bigger, the social injustice to decrease and the dignity of everybody to be restored."
"Let us build together a culture of mutual respect, for a harmonious Mediterranean society," he added.
Sleiman called for paying attention to environmental issues as well as for education.
"It is time to reconcile the man and his environment ... let us be committed to make education a priority."
"Our destinies are interlinked, and no country can pretend to be able to confront alone all the challenges of this century. This is the message of Lebanon and this is, I think, our common aspiration in this summit," Sleiman said.
The Daily Star