Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, reviews an honour guard with his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, in Damascus yesterday.
Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, reviews an honour guard with his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, in Damascus yesterday.

Damascus talks lift peace prospects

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and Bashar Assad, his Syrian counterpart, met in Damascus yesterday.

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. psands@thenational.ae

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets supporters after his arrival in Zahedan, the regional capital of Sistan and Baluchestan province on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. During Mr Rouhani's two-day visit, he will tour several other cities and hold meetings with local scholars and entrepreneurs. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

On the road with Hassan Rouhani

Iran's president is touring some of Iran's most underdeveloped provinces. Foreign correspondent Yeganeh Salehi is traveling with him.

 The Doha-based Youssef Al Qaradawi speaks to the crowd as he leads Friday prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in February, 2011. The outspoken pro-Muslim Brotherhood imam has been critical of the UAE’s policies toward Islamist groups, adding to friction between Qatar and other GCC states. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo

Brotherhood imam skips Doha sermon, but more needed for GCC to reconcile

That Youssef Al Qaradawi did not speak raises hopes that the spat involving Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might be slowly moving towards a resolution.

 Twitter photo of  Abdel Fattah El Sisi on the campaign trail on March 30. Photo courtesy-Twitter/@SisiCampaign

El Sisi rides a bicycle, kicks off social media storm

The photos and video created a huge buzz across social media networks, possibly a marker of a new era for Egypt.

 An Afghan election commission worker carries a ballot box at a vote counting centre in Jalalabad on April 6. A roadside bomb hit a truck carrying full ballot boxes in northern Afghanistan, killing three people a day after the country voted for a successor to President Hamid Karzai. Eight boxes of votes were destroyed in the blast, which came as the three leading candidates voiced concerns about possible fraud. Noorullah Shirzada / AFP Photo

Two pressing questions for Afghanistan’s future president

Once in office, the next Afghan president must move fast to address important questions that will decide the immediate future of the country.

 Friday is UN Mine Awareness Day and Omer Hassan, who does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan, is doing all he can to teach people about the dangers posed by landmines. Louise Redvers for The National

A landmine nearly ended Omer’s life but he now works to end the threat of mines in Iraq

Omer Hassan does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan and only has to show people his mangled leg to underscore the danger of mines. With the world marking UN Mine Awareness Day on Friday, his work is as important as ever as Iraq is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world.

 Supporters of Turkey's ruling AKP cheer as they follow the election's results in front of the party's headquarters in Ankara on March 30. Adem Altan/ AFP Photo

Erdogan critic fears retaliation if he returns to Turkey

Emre Uslu is a staunch critic of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now, with a mass crackdown on opposition expected, he is unsure when he can return home.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National