In a diplomatic coup for French President Nicolas Sarkozy on the eve of his Mediterranean Union launch, the leaders of Syria and Lebanon have agreed to normalize their often fraught relations.
Syria and France shake on the deal
Seeking to end decades of tension, Syria and Lebanon announced in Paris on Saturday that they would normalize relations and set up diplomatic representations in each other's countries.
"It's historic progress that Syria intends to have a diplomatic representation in Lebanon and that Lebanon plans to have a diplomatic representation in Syria. It's never happened before," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who presided over the first face-to-face talks between the new Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, and Syria's Bashar al-Assad.
The meeting in Paris was also attended by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Qatar emir who had helped broker a peace deal in Lebanon.
It took place a day before leaders of the European Union and its southern neighbours were due to meet for the formal launch of a Union for the Mediterranean, a project conceived by Sarkozy to strengthen ties between the EU and its southern neighbors.
Smiles all round at a press conference after the meetings
During the talks in Paris, Assad asked France to assume, together with the United States, the role of mediator in future direct talks between Israel and Syria, adding however that the time for such talks was "not yet ripe."
Sarkozy accepted an invitation to visit Syria in early September and vowed to help secure closer ties between the EU and Syria in his capacity as current holder of the bloc's rotating presidency.
In a joint French-Syrian statement held after the talks, Sarkozy "commended the strong determination of the Syrian president to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon."
Syria held a strong military presence in its smaller neighbor for decades, but finally pulled out its troops in 2005.
Saturday's meeting took place a day after the formation of a unity government in Lebanon. This followed an agreement in May between Lebanon's pro-Western and Syrian-backed factions to end the country's worst political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Suleiman arrived first at the Elysee Palace, where he met with Sarkozy before sitting down with Assad and the Emir of Qatar.
Sarkozy hopes to focus more EU attention on the troubled Middle East
Saturday's meeting was seen as a diplomatic victory for Sarkozy, who is keen to push the Middle East high up the EU's agenda.
Earlier Saturday, the French president also held talks over lunch with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who will serve as co-chairman of the Mediterranean union with Sarkozy.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are also due to attend Sunday's launch of the union, which it is hoped will link more closely the 17 non-EU nations along the Mediterranean Basin and the EU's 27 member states.
The project was initially resisted by Turkey, which had feared that it was meant to serve as an alternative to EU membership. But Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan endorsed it on Saturday, saying it would promote "peace, stability and development in the region."
During his talks with Assad, Sarkozy also said he would work to sign a long-awaited association agreement between the EU and Syria. Discussions on the text ended in 2004, but there has been little progress since then.
In March, Lebanon boycotted a summit in Syria
The EU has already signed association agreements with, among others, Jordan and Israel. Such agreements envisage trade deals and EU technical assistance in return for reforms on human rights.
"We talked about human rights. And I encouraged Assad to make supplementary steps in this respect," Sarkozy said Saturday.
Asked about his role in helping diplomacy move forward in the Middle East, Sarkozy said: "France wants to be a messenger of peace. And to be a messenger of peace you have to talk with everyone."