France challenges U.S. diplomacy in W. Asia

Atul Aneja

Damascus favours Paris as chief mediator in the peace process

DUBAI: Syria has breached American efforts to isolate it by convincing Europe that Washington’s stance is proving counter-productive.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is in France, which has rolled out the red carpet for him. After being sidelined by the Europeans following the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, three years ago, Mr. Assad was ceremonially received in Paris by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

France is hosting leaders of 43 countries belonging to the European Union (E.U.) and the Mediterranean region. By holding the summit, where Mr. Assad has been invited, Mr. Sarkozy hopes to energise the existing Euro-Mediterranean partnership, known as the Barcelona Process.

Mr. Assad signalled his country was ready to have France as the chief mediator in West Asia’s peace process. At a press conference with Mr. Sarkozy, he made it clear that Damascus was in no mood to engage with the U.S. administration for finding solutions to regional crises. “Quite frankly, this American administration is not interested in the peace process,” he said, adding he would not undertake direct talks with Israel “before the arrival of a new American administration.” He had earlier told Le Monde diplomatique that: “The Americans must accept that we are part of the solution not only in Lebanon but also in Iraq and Palestine.”

The French and Syrians have already begun to address three major trouble spots in the region: the Israel-Palestine conflict, Lebanon and Iran. On Sunday, Mr. Sarkozy said France, in its capacity as the current President of the E.U., is keen to revive peace talks to defuse the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“If France does not do this it will betray its ideals,” he told reporters. On Saturday, Mr. Sarkozy lauded the rapprochement between Syria and Lebanon following the appointment of a new government in Beirut. He announced, after Mr. Assad had met Lebananon’s President Michel Sleiman, that Syria had agreed to open its embassy in Lebanon. “I would like to say, what a historic step forward it is for France that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is determined to open a diplomatic representation in Lebanon, and that Lebanon should open a diplomatic representation in Syria.”

Substantial influence

Syria, which exercises substantial influence in Lebanon, does not have an embassy in Beirut. Its decision to open one aligns with the French position that Damascus should formally and symbolically recognise Lebanese sovereignty.

Mr. Sarkozy also sought Syria’s help to defuse the crisis over the Iranian nuclear programme. Mr. Assad, a close ally of Tehran, said he would convey Mr. Sarkozy’s concerns to Iran. He emphasised Iran is not developing atomic weapons. The Syrians have advocated regional disarmament, implying that international nuclear diplomacy should also cover the Israeli atomic programme.

Diplomatic sources said ties between France and Syria are set to deepen soon after the Syrians open their embassy in Lebanon. A French business delegation is set to visit Damascus in August, having on its agenda the possible sales of Airbus aircraft to Syria. Mr. Sarkozy himself is likely to visit Syria in September or October.

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