Lebanon and Syria have turned one page but have they started a new one? Omayma Abdel-Latif reports from Beirut,

In February 2006, Mahdi Dakhallah, then Syrian minister of information and today serving as Syria’s ambassador to Riyadh, spoke confidently of how Lebanese politicians spearheading a campaign against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad would eventually struggle to mend fences with Damascus.

"We are used to Jumblatt’s gimmicks," Dakhallah said, referring to Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt who orchestrated the March 14 campaign against Syria. "He will eventually want to come back to Damascus."

Anyone listening to Dakhlallah then could have been forgiven for thinking that like many Syrian politicians at the time he was in a state of denial about realities on the ground.

Al-Assad’s regime was isolated regionally and internationally, and Syria had been branded a key actor in the so-called "axis of evil" by the US Bush administration. One of the goals of the so-called Lebanese Cedar Revolution was regime change in Syria, according to its main architect, Jumblatt.

The assassination of Lebanese politician Rafik Al-Hariri in February 2005 has also proved a crucial test for Al-Assad’s regime, forcing it to make painful decisions, such as ending three decades of Syrian presence in Lebanon and withdrawing Syrian troops in April 2005.

In the years that followed, Damascus’s policies towards Lebanon were improvised rather than chosen. Yet, despite its isolation the regime proved resilient. Al-Assad reconciled himself with the fact that Damascus would have to make tactical changes if it were to contain international pressure and regional isolation.

However, it was "the loss of Lebanon", as one observer described it, that really triggered struggles within the regime. If Al-Assad were able to survive internal dissensions over this loss, the argument went, then this would prove a turning point in his presidency and in his achieving his objectives.

This turning point came about last Saturday, when a more powerful, more assertive Al-Assad received Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri in Damascus for a two-day official visit that ended years of hostility between Syria and the Lebanese majority leader.

Damascus is now convinced that it has taken its share of painful decisions, including the withdrawal of Syrian troops, the establishment of normal diplomatic ties, and cooperation with the international tribunal investigating the circumstances of Rafik Al-Hariri’s death.

However, the ending of five years of what one observer has described as a war of attrition between Damascus and the large segment of the Lebanese people who supported the so- called Cedar Revolution would not have seen the light of day without reconciliation between Damascus and Riyadh.

The Lebanese leader’s visit also came in the wake of statements from Al-Hariri professing his desire to turn a page and to find a relationship of "equality and brotherhood" between the two countries.

While little if anything has been leaked from the hours of meetings between Al-Assad and Al-Hariri, one important conclusion of the visit is that Al-Assad appears to have personally invested himself in Lebanese affairs.

Due to the dearth of information about what the two men discussed apart from a few general statements from Al-Assad’s adviser Buthaina Shaaban, much of the coverage of the visit has had to focus on the formalities of the meetings, including the two leaders’ body language and how many kisses Al-Assad and Al-Hariri exchanged.

"The talks were honest, frank, amiable and positive," Shaaban said after the first meeting on Saturday. "They will act as the foundation of a new phase during which the interests of the two countries can be best served."

An official statement by the Syrian News Agency did not go much further. "Al-Assad and Al-Hariri reviewed positive developments in Lebanon and Syria and the history of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship and how to overcome troubled times," it said.

At the press conference held at the end of the visit on Sunday, Al-Hariri spoke about issues raised during the talks, among them an agreement on demarcating the borders between the two countries and on giving priority to economic and trade cooperation.

The international tribunal investigating the death of Rafik Al-Hariri was not discussed, Saad Al-Hariri said, leading many to conclude that there was a tacit agreement between the two leaders to separate the tribunal from other bilateral issues.

Al-Hariri seemed intent on engaging in talks on these issues, though in a spirit of caution. This may have been because Al-Hariri’s visit has left the Lebanese majority in a state of confusion, since for the past five years Al-Hariri’s Sunni supporters have held Syria responsible for the tragedies that have befallen the Sunnis in Lebanon.

Yet, there will be no challenge from this constituency to Al-Hariri’s decision to engage with Syria. Key figures in the Lebanese anti- Syria camp have taken refuge in silence "in order to grasp the full consequences of the visit", according to Faris Said, coordinator of the March 14 secretariat, though others have expressed fears that "the traditional Syrian pattern of dealing with Lebanon might be given a new lease of life."

Such concerns might be exaggerated, however, since in his speech in April 2005, in which he announced the withdrawal of the Syrian army, Al-Assad admitted that "mistakes have been committed in Lebanon," and he appeared intent on creating a mutual engagement that did not repeat the mistakes of the past.

It seems that Syria’s new relationship with Lebanon can now work, though not in the way it did during the three decades of Syria’s presence in Lebanon. The institutionalisation of the present relationship is one such mechanism.

Strengthening the Syrian-Lebanese Higher Council as the only framework in which the relationship can be advanced is another step in the same direction. When a bus-load of Syrian workers was shot at in an incident at Deir Ammar on Monday, both countries sought to tackle the issue through the Council.

Thus, Syria might now be amending its policies towards Lebanon, but this will have to take into account assurances that such amendments will not come at the expense of its domestic stability and regional standing.

The test for both Al-Assad and Al-Hariri is whether they can move the relationship forward, such that it is able to resist the hard times that will inevitably come. Lebanese and Syrian efforts to re-engage will remain a painstaking matter of overcoming a legacy of mistrust.