Damascus // Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and Bashar Assad, his Syrian counterpart, met in Damascus yesterday for talks designed to improve the prospects of a Middle East peace settlement. It is the first trip to Syria by a western head of state in five years, and part of an ongoing push by the French, who hold the European Union presidency, to bring Damascus in from the diplomatic cold.
The Americans have tried to isolate Syria and continue to view it as a pariah state. The Bush administration has refused, at least publicly, to endorse Mr Sarkozy's move. "There is no question, this is an extremely important visit," said Hussein al Awdaat, a Syrian political commentator and publisher. "From a European point of view, Syria has been following more moderate policies in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, and that has now opened a door to France."
After meeting last night the two leaders said they discussed the peace process and boosting economic ties between the EU and Damascus. They also revealed they talked about Syria's human rights record and Iran's nuclear stance. Mr Sarkozy's visit also represents a break from previous French policy, which had matched that of the United States. From 2005, Paris froze links with Damascus over the killing of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister and a personal friend of Mr Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac.
For a time Syria was under huge pressure over the assassination, despite denying any involvement. There was speculation the affair could even bring down Mr Assad. Although a UN investigation into the Hariri murder is still under way, the Syrian leader weathered the storm and has now stepped firmly back onto the international stage. Once again seen as a key to regional peace, Syria is also being viewed as a potential asset to the West in helping to halt Iran's ongoing nuclear programme. Syria and Iran are close allies and Mr Sarkozy has asked Mr Assad to act as a bridge between Tehran and the West. Mr Awdaat said the Syrian-Iranian alliance was the real subtext behind the two days of presidential talks.
"Western policy is to try to weaken the relationship between Damascus and Tehran," he said. "The Americans failed to do that through isolation so the French will take a different route and try to do it through constructive engagement. "Cementing closer ties with Europe, with Turkey and with the other Arab states will surely, eventually, loosen Syria's ties with Iran." Mr Sarkozy will remain in Syria today and, with Mr Assad, take part in a four-way summit, involving Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, and Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. Ankara has been mediating indirect contacts between Syria and Israel as the two sides test the waters before committing to formal, high-level negotiations that could end their 60-year conflict. Syria insists on a complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights, territory it captured and then illegally annexed. Israel has demanded that any pullout must be accompanied by an end to Syrian support for Hamas and Hizbollah, Islamic groups widely viewed in the Middle East as legitimate resistance organisations, but condemned by Washington and Tel Aviv as militants. Iran also backs the two groups and is opposed to the Israeli-Syrian discussions. Dozens of leading opposition figures and pro-democracy reformers are languishing in Syrian jails as part of a continued initiative on dissent. They include Michel Kilo and Mahmud Issa, who were imprisoned after calling for better relations between Syria and Lebanon, a policy Syria has itself now adopted, with French support, by agreeing to an exchange of ambassadors with Beirut. Human rights group Amnesty International urged Mr Sarkozy to push for the release of political prisoners, and also called on him to demand a full inquiry into the suppression of a riot at Saydnaya prison, north of Damascus, in July. Activists claim at least 25 people were killed when government forces moved in to quash the rebellion. No official information on the affair has been released, and it remains shrouded in mystery. French-Syrian relations, plunged into a crisis after the Hariri killing, have been revitalised under Mr Sarkozy. In July, he invited Mr Assad to Paris for the European-Mediterranean summit, and it was there the Syrian premier announced his intention to formalise relations with Lebanon. Syrian troops spent 30 years in Lebanon after going in to break up a civil war in the 1970s. It was the Hariri murder that catalysed anti-Syrian sentiments and forced them to withdraw. However, Syrian influence remains strong, and Damascus is a key backer of Hizbollah, the most powerful group opposing the US-backed government and the only force in the Middle East that has successfully faced Israel on the battlefield. Long blamed by the Americans, French and their Arab allies of playing a spoiling role in Lebanon, Syria won plaudits for its role in diffusing a political logjam earlier this year that had left Beirut torn by street fighting and the country without a president. That was taken as evidence that Damascus could be engaged constructively on the international stage, despite an American insistence Syria be marginalised over its close ties to Iran, support of Hizbollah and Hamas, and opposition to the US military presence in neighbouring Iraq. American and Israeli unease over the French rapprochement with Syria were further heightened last week after Moscow agreed to sell Damascus modern weapons. Hizbollah used Russian-made anti-tank missiles with devastating effect in the 2006 July war with Israel. Tel Aviv accuses Syria of smuggling them into the guerrillas' hands. firstname.lastname@example.org