DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Syria and Lebanon agreed on Thursday to resume work towards formally demarcating their borders but Damascus said the boundaries of the disputed Shebaa Farms would not be drawn until Israel withdrew from them.
Demarcation of the borders between Syria and Lebanon would be a major step towards meeting international demands on Damascus to formalize ties with its smaller neighbor.
President Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad also agreed at a two-day summit to establish diplomatic relations at ambassadorial level, a move that underlined thawing of ties between the two neighbors.
Opening diplomatic ties was another step which countries including France and the United States had demanded of Syria, which dominated its neighbor until 2005 when the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri forced it to withdraw troops from Lebanon.
“The two presidents agreed on … the resumption of the work of the joint committee to define and draw the Syrian-Lebanese borders,” said a joint statement read at the end of the summit.
Asked whether that would include the Shebaa Farms, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said: “The definition of the Shebaa Farms cannot happen under occupation.”
Lebanese group Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, cites the occupation of the Shebaa Farms as one reason for keeping its arsenal.
Israel considers Shebaa Farms part of the Golan Heights, which it occupied in 1967. Syria and Lebanon say the land is part of south Lebanon, from which Israel withdrew in 2000.
The United Nations declared Israel’s withdrawal complete. A 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution urged Syria to demarcate borders, especially in areas where the boundaries are uncertain.
Officials did not say how long the process would take. Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh, speaking alongside Moualem, pointed out that the border committee had been established in the 1940s.
Demarcating borders has also been a demand of Lebanese leaders who have sought to curb Syrian influence in the country since the Hariri killing — which they blame on Damascus. Syria has denied involvement.
Saad al-Hariri, Rafik al-Hariri’s son and political heir, welcomed the establishment of diplomatic ties, describing it as an accomplishment for the Lebanese people.
The presidents also pledged to step up the efforts of a Lebanese-Syrian committee tasked with determining the fate of Lebanese who went missing in the 1975-90 civil war and whose relatives say were taken to Syria.
Suleiman’s election was sealed as part of a Qatari-mediated deal that ended 18 months of bitter political conflict between Hariri and his allies and an alliance led by Hezbollah.
Suleiman, who was army chief before his election, has good ties to Damascus.