French visit to boost relations with Syria

Resumption of diplomatic ties between the two countries after more than three years will hasten Damascus's rehabilitation with West.

Damascus // Syria's on-going rehabilitation with the West is set to continue this week, with Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minster, expected to arrive in Damascus on Monday. It is the first such high-level visit by a French official in more than three years, during which time diplomatic relations between Paris and Damascus were suspended.

Mr Kouchner is scheduled to visit Beirut on Sunday. Discussions between Mr Kouchner and his Syrian counterpart, Waleed al Muallim, will centre on the newly cast relationship between Syria and Lebanon. After decades without formal diplomatic ties, Damascus and Beirut agreed last week to an exchange of ambassadors. The move is highly symbolic and had previously been rejected by Syria, an indication that Damascus never took Lebanese sovereignty seriously.

From the 1970s, Syria kept tens of thousands of its troops and security forces in Lebanon, exercising overt control over its smaller neighbour. The military presence only came to an end in 2005, triggered by the event that also poisoned the usually cordial relations between Syria and France, the Levant's old colonial power. The Valentine's Day assassination of Rafiq Hariri, a former prime minister, transformed the political landscape. Syria was widely suspected of involvement in the murder - a charge it denies - and Jacques Chirac, the then French president and a personal friend of Hariri's, suspended Franco-Syrian relations.

Under a diplomatic siege after the killing, Syria grew increasingly isolated from the West. The United States pushed hard to freeze Damascus out of the international community over its support for Hizbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories and its strident opposition to the US military presence in Iraq. The siege was suddenly lifted last month when Bashar al Assad, the president of Syria, went to Paris for a European Union Mediterranean summit. This sudden rapprochement with France was brought about by the Doha Accords, a deal involving the Arab League that, at least temporarily, solved a festering political crisis in Lebanon. Syria, long accused of adopting a spoiling role in relation to its smaller neighbour, was central in formulating the compromise agreement and averting a possible renewed civil war.

That positive intervention was rewarded by the invitation to the French capital in July and, since then, developments have continued apace. In Paris, Mr Assad broke new ground both by attending the same summit as an Israeli leader and by agreeing to normalise diplomatic ties with Lebanon. That promise was quickly acted upon with the visit to Damascus by Michel Suleiman, the new Lebanese president, last week to formalise the arrangement.

Mr Kouchner's trip to the Syrian capital is part of an effort to ensure no momentum is lost. He is expected to urge Syria to act quickly in setting up its embassy in Beirut, and in allowing the Lebanese to open their Syrian Embassy. It is also an opportunity for the two foreign ministers to prepare the ground for a higher-level meeting. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, is due to visit Mr Assad in Damascus early next month to discuss increased political and economic co-operation, including a possible deal that would let Syria's ageing fleet of airliners be replaced by up-to-date Airbus models.

US sanctions have thus far prevented such a modernisation, but with warmer Syrian-French ties, the hardline policies of the Bush administration are beginning to crumble. "There have been major diplomatic developments between Syria and Lebanon, and the visit of the French foreign minister is very positive for all concerned," said Ziad Haider, Damascus correspondent for al Wattan, an Arabic language daily newspaper with close contacts in the Syrian regime.

"It's also very symbolic of the improving relations between Damascus and Paris, and a way of saying that the problems that did exist over Lebanon have gone away." Both Syria and France have been seeking to expand their international roles of late. Under Mr Sarkozy, the French have worked to revive their flagging influence in the Middle East. He has also taken a more active part in the war in Afghanistan, where 10 French soldiers were killed last week in an ambush by Taliban insurgents, the largest single loss of life for Nato forces there since the 2001 invasion.

As well as courting the French and opening back-channel mediations with Israel over a possible peace deal, Mr Assad was in Russia yesterday, boosting Damascus's ties with Moscow and, crucially, seeking advanced new weapons for the Syrian military. @Email:psands@thenational.ae

Published: August 21, 2008 04:00 AM

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