DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said on Sunday he agreed with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on practical steps to open up “new horizons” in ties between the two Arab neighbors.
Hariri was speaking at the end of a two-day visit to Syria that marked the end to nearly five years of animosity between Damascus and the broad political alliance led by Hariri.
“We want to open new horizons between the two countries,” Hariri told a news conference at the Lebanese embassy in Damascus.
He said his three rounds of “excellent” talks with the Syrian leader were frank and based on clarity.
“There will be serious steps from our side and on the part of President Bashar al-Assad to translate this cordial and serious relationship into steps on the ground in several fields,” Hariri said, without giving details.
A senior Syrian official, Buthaina Shaaban, had described the talks as constructive, cordial and transparent. Assad had extended a warm welcome to Hariri upon his arrival in the Syrian capital on Saturday.
Hariri said the talks did not cover the 2005 assassination of his father, statesman Rafik al-Hariri, but that Assad had agreed the issue now was in the hands of a special court set up in The Hague to indict and punish the killers.
Lebanon’s ties with Syria hit rock bottom after Hariri’s “March 14” alliance accused Syria of assassinating Rafik al-Hariri, in February 2005. They also blamed Damascus for attacking and killing other politicians and journalists.
Syria denies the allegations. The special court has yet to indict anyone for the killing.
Outrage in Lebanon over the assassination and international pressure forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in April 2005, ending three decades of military presence in its smaller neighbor.
Lebanese analysts say an improvement of ties with Damascus would bridge a political divide in Beirut, easing sectarian tensions and providing Hariri with the necessary clout to push through long-delayed economic and other reforms.
Saad al-Hariri’s coalition has often clashed in the past with Syria’s allies in Lebanon, led by the powerful Iranian-backed group Hezbollah, and the political crisis has threatened to plunge Lebanon into a new civil war.
Rapprochement between Syria and Saudi Arabia, which backs Hariri, earlier this year eased tension and allowed Hariri, who won a parliamentary election in June, to form a unity government that included Hezbollah and other Damascus allies.
Hezbollah, which fought a war against Israel in 2006, is the only armed group in Lebanon. It is considered a terrorist group by Washington but Hariri’s government has said it is a legitimate force whose aim is to end Israeli occupation of some Lebanese territory.
Lebanon and Syria exchanged embassies over the past year for the first time since both countries gained independence in the 1940s.
Thorny issues between the two countries include demarcation of borders, the fate of hundreds of Lebanese missing since the 1975-1990 civil war, and the military presence of Syrian-backed Palestinian militant groups outside refugee camps in Lebanon.