Two Lebanese ministers are to travel to Damascus next week to attend an industrial fair, they announced today, in the first high-level visit since the outbreak of Syria's war.
Industry Minister Hussein al-Haj Hassan said he and Agriculture Minister Ghazi Zeaiter had received invitations to the Damascus International Fair, which opens on August 16.
"I will take part in the expo as the minister of industry in order to hold talks... I am going to Syria first and foremost as part of my vision for Lebanon's national interest," Hassan told reporters.
Hassan is a member of the powerful Shiite party Hezbollah, which has intervened in Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad's government.
Zeaiter belongs to Amal, an allied Shiite movement.
"There are some issues that need to be dealt with on the trade and industry levels between the two countries," Hassan said.
"The ties between Lebanon and Syria are still in place politically and diplomatically. We have an ambassador (in Damascus) and they have an ambassador (in Beirut)," he added.
Syria's conflict broke out in March 2011 with protests demanding Assad's ouster.
The following year, Lebanon's government adopted a policy of "disassociation" -- preferring to maintain a neutral stance towards the complex war in a bid to avoid spillover.
Lebanon's political parties are bitterly divided between those opposing Syria's regime and factions like Hezbollah and Amal which support it.
The announced visit sparked controversy today.
"If the minister wants to visit Syria, it will be on his own and not through a decision from the council of ministers," said Information Minister Melhem Riachi.
Many Arab countries cut off ties with Syria when its crisis erupted six years ago, but Lebanon maintained diplomatic relations.
Still, official visits between the two countries have remained rare.
In November, Damascus dispatched its minister of presidential affairs, Mansour Azzam, to Beirut to congratulate newly-elected Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
The trip was the first by a Syrian official to Lebanon since 2010, when Assad and then-Saudi King Abdullah visited the country in a bid to ease rising political tensions.
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