March 24, 2009 / 12:27 PM / 10 years ago

Syria appoints first ambassador to Lebanon

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria has appointed its first ambassador to Beirut, a move welcomed by a senior U.N. official who said it would contribute to Lebanon’s stability.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (R) meets his Lebanese counterpart Michel Suleiman in Damascus, August 13, 2008. REUTERS/Arij Nakad

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman accepted the diplomatic credentials of Ali Abdul Karim Ali on Tuesday, according to a statement from the Lebanese presidency.

Syria has faced international pressure to establish formal diplomatic ties with Lebanon, the smaller neighbor it dominated for decades until the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri led to a Syrian troop pullout.

Michael Williams, the U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon, said the appointment was “a really welcome development.”

“It’s very timely and completes the process of establishing diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon,” he told Reuters. “I’ve no doubt that this will further contribute to stability in Lebanon,” he added.

Lebanon opened its first embassy in Damascus last week and named Michel Khoury as ambassador. Syria opened its Beirut embassy last year, but without appointing an ambassador.

The United States and France had led pressure on Syria to establish formal ties with Lebanon. Syria had always resisted this, citing the countries’ shared history and close ties. Syria and Lebanon were carved out of the Ottoman Empire by imperial powers France and Britain in the 20th century.

Establishing formal relations had also been a central demand of anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians who won an election in 2005 after the Hariri killing and the withdrawal of Syrian troops that had entered Lebanon in 1976.

Political strife between the anti-Syrian “March 14” alliance, supported by the United States and its Arab allies, and Damascus-backed factions has contributed to Lebanon’s instability.

Lebanon has also been at the heart of a crisis in Syrian-Saudi relations, which recently began to thaw. Williams said the Syrian envoy’s appointment was “a positive contribution in a wider regional process of Arab reconciliation.”

Syria still faces international demands to demarcate its border with Lebanon.

Syria dominated politics in Lebanon until the Hariri assassination, which led to intense, and successful, pressure on Damascus to withdraw its troops from the country.

Damascus still has powerful allies in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shi’ite party with a powerful guerrilla army.

Anti-Syrian politicians have accused Syria of orchestrating the assassination of Hariri and several other anti-Damascus figures. Syria has always denied the accusations.

Writing by Tom Perry, editing by Tim Pearce

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