SYRIA: Bashar Assad meets Nicolas Sarkozy at the summit
It was designed to be a diplomatic success for both countries. Syria received a pat on the back for what was described as its peace efforts in the Middle East, and France tried to shine as a major Western force playing a key mediating role between Arabs and Israelis.
The celebrated event was a summit that brought together French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Syrian counterpart, Bashar Assad, as well as Qatar’s emir and Turkey’s prime minister.
The goal behind the summit was to reach a breakthrough between Israel and Syria, according to the website of Arab satellite-TV channel Al Jazeera. But beneath the high-minded talk, crass business interests were also involved. More on that below.
Regarding peace, Assad revealed that his country had presented, through Turkey, a six-point proposal to Israel:
We are awaiting for Israel's response to six points that we have submitted through Turkey. ... Our response would be positive, paving the way for direct talks after a new U.S. administration -- that believes in the peace process -- takes office. ... We are also waiting for the Israeli election to be assured that a new prime minister would be on the same track as [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert and be ready to completely withdraw from the occupied land in order to achieve peace.
The peace offer apparently addressed the “withdrawal line," which refers to the extent of a pullout from the Golan Heights, which were seized by Israel in 1967. But Assad did not give details about the offer.
Sarkozy was the first Western head of state to visit Damascus in years. Meanwhile, the United States refuses to talk to Syria, which it continues to accuse of fostering terrorism.
Although Assad stressed France's role in talks with Israelis, he said that direct negotiations in the future would require the intervention of Washington.
Regarding the thorny issue of Damascus’ support for Hezbollah and Hamas, the Syrian president maintained that he would not sever his ties with these groups, a key Israeli demand for an agreement between Tel Aviv and Damascus.
Arab-Israeli talks were not the only topic of discussion. The leaders also touched on the West’s standoff with Iran over its controversial nuclear program, an issue, according to Assad, that would lead to a “catastrophe” if not solved.
France hopes that it can use Syria to lure Iran into abandoning its nuclear weapons ambitions.
Following the summit, Sarkozy said in a news conference:
"I told the president that Syria can play a role in the Iranian issue. Iran must not obtain a nuclear weapon, but it has the right to have nuclear energy for peaceful use."
Beyond political statements, the French-Syrian talks had a business dimension.
Sarkozy and Assad signed seven agreements on cooperation in the fields of petroleum, gas, electricity and railways, according to the official Syrian news agency, SANA. The agreements involve big French companies such as Total, the oil multinational, and aircraft manufacturer Airbus.
In an article published recently by the Washington-based Middle East Times, Andrew D. Bishop wrote that economic interests may well be behind France’s overtures toward Syria:
“Sarkozy's kind words and gentle moves toward Damascus are perhaps meant to open doors to fresh markets for France's corporate mammoths. ... Assad is seeking to revamp his country's economy, and Sarkozy intends on lending him the hand he needs.”
— Raed Rafei in Beirut
Photo: French President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad walk together at the end of a summit in Damascus on Sept. 4, 2008. Credit: AP Photo Philippe Wojazer
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