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French President Visits Syria

By Lisa Bryant
03 September 2008

French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrives in Damascus Wednesday, in the first visit to Syria by a Western head of state in five years. From Paris, Lisa Bryant reports the visit marks a change in French foreign policy and an effort to bring Syria back into the international fold.

Nicolas Sarkozy said he would break from the past, when he was elected French president last year. He is making good on his word when it comes to Middle East policy. He is more favorable toward Israel than his predecessor Jacques Chirac and willing to invite controversial leaders to France, such as Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Middle East Analyst Judith Cahen, a Middle East analyst for the French Institute of International Relations, in Paris, says Mr. Sarkozy wants to send a clear message with his visit.

"The message is that France is back in the Middle East and with a new policy. And, Nicolas Sarkozy wants to say that the former politics of France are now over. That means Jacques Chirac's policy is now over," said Cahen.

Mr. Chirac would have nothing to do with Syria, particularly after the 2005 assassination
on of his close friend, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria denies any involvement in his killing.

And, less than a year ago, Mr. Sakozy said France would break contact with Syria if it did not allow Lebanon to hold free presidential elections.

Now, Mr. Sarkozy is breaking new ground, with a two-day visit to Syria that includes indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel with two other Middle East nations. The United States considers Damascus a sponsor of terrorism. But French analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges says it is impossible today not to include Syria in the Middle East equation.

"Today, the Syrian geopolitical situation has really changed. Syria is considered as one of the key partners to make peace with Israel. At a certain time, you must have dinner with the Devil. Even if Syria is a dangerous regime, a non-democratic regime, it is clear that it is one of the most reliable partners in the Middle East," said Defarges.

Mr. Sarkozy invited his Syrian counterpart to Paris in July, as part of a larger summit between European Union countries and Middle Eastern and North African states. There, Syria and Lebanon agreed to establish embassies after years in which Syria was considered the unwanted, behind-the-scenes power in Lebanon.

Analyst Cahen believes Mr. Sarkozy's trip this week primarily aims to boost France's role in the Middle East.

"Especially now, with Russia also trying to get back into the Middle East policy. I didn't know if it's realistic, but we'll know in the next few months," added Cahen.

Mr. Sarkozy has already been criticized at home for hosting Mr. Ghaddafi and Mr. Assad. Human Rights Watch has urged the French President to bring up rights violations by Damascus, when he is in Syria.

But Cahen, for one, believes Mr. Sarkozy's visit is unlikely to generate much controversy here, where French are more concerned about the economy and other issues closer to home.

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