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Sarkozy faces the Syrian enigma

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Latest update : 2008-09-03

After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's landmark visit to Paris in July, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is heading for Damascus for talks with his counterpart.

Read Armen Georgian's commentary ahead of Sarkozy's visit to Damascus.

 

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is heading for Damascus on Sept. 3 for a two-day visit, the first since President Jacques Chirac’s trip in 2002. The French leader aims to engage in “useful dialogue” with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad.

 

The meeting comes in the wake of warming relations between France and Syria, which hit a high when the Syrian president visited Paris in July for the Mediterranean Summit.

 

Syria’s stance on Lebanon paramount to enhanced relations

 

French Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner visited Damascus on Aug. 25 to prepare for Sarkozy’s state visit, declaring that “future ties between the two countries depended on relations between Syria and Lebanon.” So far so good. France hailed Syria’s goodwill during the election of a Lebanese president, on the 25th May, and during the re-establishment of bilateral relations between Syria and Lebanon.

 

The French President also approved Syria’s decision to ask France to assist, when the time comes, direct talks between Israel and Syria. According to Bassam Tahan, a Syrian professor in Paris, “Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit shows that he is more Gaullist than his predecessor and adopts a more traditional policy towards the Arab world. Influenced by his personal feelings following [former Lebanese] Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s killing, Jacques Chirac erred when he turned his back on Damascus - an unavoidable actor in the Middle East. At least, that’s what Sarkozy thinks.”

 

France has nothing to gain from Syria

 

Since then, however, someone threw a spanner into the works. During a recent visit to Moscow, the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad backed Russia’s military operation in Georgia, going as far as comparing the Caucasus to Lebanon and Syria. His stance “surprised” Kouchner.

 

According to geopolitics professor Frédéric Encel, Syria’s stance towards Russia “makes Sarkozy’s work more difficult especially vis-à-vis his Western allies, who are sceptical of his overtures to Syria. France gave everything to Bashar al-Assad when it invited him to stand among world leaders. However, France has nothing to gain from Syria, which needs Russian missiles, except small concessions in Lebanon.”

 

Anxiety in Beirut

 

Improved French-Syrian ties worry the parliamentary majority in Lebanon despite reassuring words from French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner in Beirut. “Warmer Franco-Syrian relations should not worry Lebanon,” explained Joseph Bahout, a Lebanese politics specialist. “Since the Doha agreements and Michel Sleiman’s election [to the Lebanese presidency], improved relations have only helped Lebanon. Syria’s change of style was noticeable during the visit of the Lebanese president in Damascus.”

Date created : 2008-09-03

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