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SYRIA: France's Nicolas Sarkozy knocks at Damascus' gate

June 11, 2008 | 10:12 am

Sarkozy Washington may be turning its nose away, but France appears to be reconsidering its standoffish attitude toward Syria, long considered an associate member of George Bush's axis of evil.

France is offering turn over a new leaf with Syria and change its policy of isolating Damascus, as it has along with other European countries and the U.S.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy recently invited his Syrian counterpart Bashar Al-Assad to visit Paris July 13 to attend the French leader's Mediterranean Sea cooperation project.

On Tuesday Syrian culture minister Riad Naasam Agha began a visit to Paris, the first by a Syrian Cabinet member in the last three years.

Washington, for its part, gave no indication it was following the French lead.

The U.S. State Department said it would would ask Paris for "clarifications."  A spokesman addressed the issue Monday:

France and the United States share the same wish for peace and stability in the region.... At the same time, the United States has serious concerns over the Syrian government's behavior including its support of terrorism, clandestine nuclear program, facilitation of the passage of foreign fighters into Iraq, repression of its own people, and interference in the affairs of its neighbors, including Lebanon.

The Bush administration has had frosty relations with Syria for years and criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) for making an official trip to Damascus in 2007.

Relations between France and Syria have been strained since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a February 2005 bombing in Beirut largely blamed on Damascus. Paris decided to shun Syrian officials, especially since Jacques Chirac, who was president of France back then, had strong personal ties to Hariri.

Last weekend, Sarkozy extended a hand to Syria during a visit to Beirut to show support to the newly elected Lebanese President, Michel Suleiman.

He told reporters that "a new page may be opening in relations between France and Syria."

France had previously warned the Syrians that a thaw in relations between the two countries would only happen when "positive, concrete developments" occur in Lebanon.

Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: Nicholas Sarkozy. Credit: Associated Press

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