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Washington skeptical of France-Syria ties as two leaders meet

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday during his two-day official visit to France. takes a look at a diplomatic relationship that the US does not necessarily appreciate.


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in Paris on Thursday to kick off a two-day official visit. It is the Assad’s first trip to France since November 2009. Though dialogue with Syria had been suspended by former President Jacques Chirac, relations between the two countries were renewed in 2008 by President Nicolas Sarkozy as part of his strategic pursuit of pragmatic diplomacy.

But the thaw in ties between France and Syria isn’t to everyone’s tastes, with recent diplomatic leaks illustrating Washington’s wariness.

Washington remains sceptical

The rapprochement has brought the Syrian president back onto the world stage after he had been isolated by the international community amid suspicions of Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

“Sarkozy realized that today, no country, no matter how big and powerful, can conduct diplomacy in the Middle East without dealing with Syria,” Syrian journalist Majed Nehmé told FRANCE 24. According to the French presidency, the shift in the French-Syrian relationship enabled the election of Lebanese President Michel Sleiman in 2008, with the support of Qatar and the establishment of official diplomatic ties between Lebanon and Syria.

But the friendship between France and Syria is viewed with a critical eye from across the Atlantic. The US has accused Syria of backing the pro-Iranian parties Hamas and Hezbollah. Meanwhile, diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks and published in the French daily newspaper Le Monde show Washington’s skepticism about the effectiveness of France’s outreach to Syria. In the memo, a US diplomat wrote that France was convinced recent overtures toward Syria were making President Assad a more useful partner in the region but had a hard time coming up with concrete examples of that change.

The diplomat portrayed the rapprochement as a risk, since it had been implemented with no conditions imposed on Syria. “It should have been carried out more slowly,” said Georges Malbrunot, a journalist who covers the Middle East for the French daily newspaper Le Figaro. “The US, for example, instituted a system of give-and-take with Damas. In reality, France hasn’t gotten anything out of its relations with Syria,” Malbrunot said, “except maybe the opening of a Syrian embassy in Lebanon.”

The Lebanon question

Still, after receiving Assad in Paris in July 2008 for the first Mediterranean Union summit, Sarkozy became the first Western head of state to travel to Damas in six years when he visited in September of the same year.

The two leaders are expected to discuss the most pressing regional matters when they sit down to lunch at the Elysée Palace on Thursday. Other than the stalled peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, the main issue on the table will likely be instability in Lebanon. France is counting on Syria’s help in using its influence on neighbouring allies to ease simmering regional tensions.

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