DAMASCUS // In the first such visit by a western head of state in five years, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, is due to arrive in Damascus today on a high-profile mission aimed at further pulling Syria out of international isolation. Mr Sarkozy and Bernard Kouchner, his foreign minister, will meet their Syrian counterparts, Bashar al Assad and Walid Muallim, continuing the clean policy break by the Europeans from Washington. The Bush administration has blacklisted Syria and ruled out direct talks.
The Syrian-French discussions are expected to centre on the Middle East peace process and economic ties between Damascus and the European Union. Syria has been holding mediated discussions with Israel over a peace deal to end the two countries' decades of war. The French are keen to push that process forward, and Mr Assad has specifically sought backing from Paris in the search for a peace accord.
Improved trade links to Europe are crucial in easing strains on the Syrian economy, which is currently undergoing painful structural reforms towards a more open, capitalist system after years of socialist-style control. Opposition figures and human rights campaigners in Damascus also urged Mr Sarkozy to ensure Syria's long-running clampdown on dissenters is on the agenda. Dozens of leading activists and pro-democracy reformers have been jailed, including Michel Kilo and Mahmud Issa, who were imprisoned after calling for improved 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 are a highly sensitive topic in Syria, but activists and Syrian analysts said Mr Sarkozy and Mr Assad would discuss the matter in private, even if no public statements were subsequently made. "Sarkozy should raise this matter, and we expect positive results with regard to freedoms and human rights in Syria following his visit," said Hassan Abdul Azeem, a signatory of the Damascus Declaration, a manifesto demanding democratic reforms. Many of his fellow signatories are now political prisoners. "I would hope that we will see some actions to release prisoners of conscience."
Mr Azeem said the French decision to engage with Syria would be far more productive than the policy of isolation adopted by the Americans and Mr Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who froze ties with Damascus after the murder of his close friend Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon's former premier.
Syria was widely accused of being behind the 2005 assassination, an allegation that is still under UN investigation despite persistent denials of involvement from Damascus. Kurdish political activist Faisal Badr called on the French president to step in and help reformers. "As Syrian Kurds, we ask President Sarkozy to help us get more freedoms, and we want him to raise the matter seriously with President Assad," he said. "France is an important country, and we are sure they can play a role in this." Little more than a week ago two Syrian Kurdish leaders were arrested and one of them, Mashaal Tammo, has since been charged with a capital offence. An official in the Future Movement, Mr Tammo has campaigned for democracy and equal rights for Syria's one million Kurdish minority community. According to a leading Syrian human rights activist, however, the French are not universally seen as champions of their cause after a preparatory visit last week by Mr Kouchner. "The French asked to meet with the wives of some jailed activists, including Michel Kilo," one activist said on condition of anonymity, owing to the controversial nature of the subject. "The opposition refused the meeting because we felt it was just a publicity stunt and didn't have real substance. If the French are serious, we need actions, not honeyed words or photo opportunities." French-Syrian relations, plunged into a crisis after the Hariri killing, have been undergoing a renaissance under Mr Sarkozy. In July, he invited Mr Assad to Paris as part of a European-Mediterranean summit. It was there the Syrian premier announced his intention to formalise relations with Lebanon, a highly symbolic step. 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 brought about anti-Syrian sentiments and forced them to withdraw. However Syrian influence in Lebanon remains strong, and Damascus is a key supporter of Hizbollah, the most powerful group opposing the US-backed government and the only force in the Middle East that has stood up to the military might of Israel. Long blamed by the Americans, French and their Arab allies of playing a spoiling role in Lebanon, Syria won plaudits for helping to diffuse a dangerous political impasse 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 treated as a pariah state for its close ties to Iran, support of Hizbollah and Hamas, and opposition to the US military presence in neighbouring Iraq. American and Israeli concerns were further heightened last week after Moscow agreed to sell "modern" weapons to Syria to augment its military capabilities. Russian-made, anti-tank missiles were used with devastating effect by Hizbollah in the July 2006 war with Israel as Tel Aviv accused Syria of smuggling them into the guerrillas' hands. Mr Sarkozy's trip is due to last two days, and tomorrow he is expected to be joined in Syria by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, and Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, Qatar's emir, for four-way talks. Ankara has been mediating the indirect Syrian-Israeli contacts. Hamas, meanwhile, has denied claims its exiled leader, Khalid Meshaal, was to move his offices from Syria to Sudan. A report in Kuwait's al Rai newspaper said the Syrian authorities had told the Palestinian Islamic movement head he would no longer be able to base himself in Damascus. Its support for Hamas militants has been a sticking point in Syria's relations with the United States and Israel, which have demanded an end to the backing as part of any peace agreement. @email:firstname.lastname@example.org