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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Assad's Comback on International Stage

Ahead of the launch of the Mediterranean Union Summit, French President Nicolas Sarkozy hold talks with key Mideast leaders in Paris. The meetings marked the beginning of a weekend of intense diplomatic efforts for the French president. After a meeting with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on July 12, Sarkozy met later in the day Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and the new Lebanese president Michel Suleimann.
The reception of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the meeting in Paris marks his comeback to the international stage and Syria's break from diplomatic isolation. Syria is suspected of being behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, and has long been accused by the international community of interfering in Lebanese politics. France and many other western countries have shunned Syria in recent years, accusing Assad of destabilizing neighbouring Lebanon and fomenting unrest across its borders with Iraq.

Sarkozy used the meeting to improve the tense relations between Damascus and Beirut, following the forced withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in mid-2005. The talks may have been effective considering thatLebanon's President Suleimann and Assad have agreed to open embassies in each other's capitals after talks with Sarkozy. Lebanon and Syria broke off diplomatic ties after former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005. Beirut accused Syria of being involved.

Sarkozy also discussed other issues with his counterparts from Syria and Lebanon during talks in the Elysee Palace, such as Iran's nuclear programme and peace efforts between Syria and Israel. French officials said it is important to re-establish high-level ties with Syria and declared that its recent decision to restart indirect peace talks with Israel shows that attitudes are changing in Damascus. Although the conditions were not yet right for direct Syria-Israel talks, this meeting can be seen as a diplomatic victory for Sarkozy. The French president booked his first success when Syria and Lebanon agreed to relax their often stressed relations. "We can say that Lebanon has moved from being a zone of turbulence, a war zone, to a more pacified zone where the Lebanese, and only the Lebanese, have the right to determine their own future," said Assad after the meeting with Suleimann.

We all know that the French president is keen to push the Middle East high up in the EU's agenda, but to mark a major shift in policy towards Syria might have surprised some French and other Europeans.
Assad's reception in Paris and his invitation to attend Monday's Bastille Day military parade have been criticized by human rights activists. Critics say it is too much of a reward when there are still serious question concerning human rights in Syria and its alleged role in the killing of Mr Hariri. Even French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner stated that this does not make him "especially comfortable."

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