Of late a lot of politic-diplomatic activities have taken place in the turbulent Mideast region. US-led peace initiative is still on, while UN Quartet mission led by former UK premier Tony Blair is seen actively engaged with the Palestine peace resolution. Turkey has been mediating indirect talks for several months between the two enemies the Syrians and the Israelis. Earlier, Qatar hosted the conference which brought about an internal peace deal to some how end prolonged political crisis in Lebanon in May. French mediation has already brought about an easing of tensions between Syria and France ’s close ally Lebanon . French President Sarkozy had hosted Assad in July and he appears determined to bring Syria , a long-time foe of the US and Israel , back into the international fold.
Syria is demanding the full return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. Syria took a giant step in from the cold when Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, embraced Bashar al-Assad, who is shunned by the United States as a supporter of terrorists fighting Israel .
Syria has remained in a state of war with Israel since its 1948 foundation. Turkey has close ties with Israel and the Arab world and is uniquely positioned to mediate. During the Paris summit, Syria and Lebanon , an important ally of France , agreed to open embassies in each other’s capitals for the first time since the 1940s. France , which currently holds the EU presidency, also hopes to help mediation efforts in Middle East .
“It is very important that the time for Syria and Israel to talk directly comes soon, to build the peace everyone needs,” Sarkozy said on the first day of his two-day visit to Damascus .
A fast emerging peace-maker, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, current president of the EU, is on a two-day Sept 3-4 trip to Damascus meeting the leaders of Syria, Turkey and Qatar in a bid to boost efforts towards Middle East peace. Sarkozy, who hopes to advance the slow-moving peace talks between Israel and Syria , was given a red-carpet welcome before dining with Assad at the presidential palace in Damascus last night. Damascus says it is open to the proposal.
In a newspaper interview earlier, Sarkozy said that Syria could “provide an irreplaceable contribution to solving Middle East issues”. “It is important that Syria plays a positive role in the region and that peace in the Middle East “passes through” Syria and France . Sarkozy, whose country holds the revolving EU presidency, said he hoped France and the EU could rank alongside the US as a Middle East peacemaker.
Sarkozy has offered to support direct talks between Syria and Israel . Sarkozy’s visit to Syria – a former French colony – is the first by a Western head of state in five years. Relations between Paris and Damascus plummeted after the assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese Prime Minster Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005. Syria ’s critics accuse Damascus of being behind the assassination, a charge Syria has firmly denied. Relations between Paris and Damascus plummeted since then.
President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad held bilateral ‘tentative’ talks on September 03 in cordial atmosphere. This is the first visit to the former French colony by a Western head of state in five years. Later, the French and Syrian leaders were joined on Sept 04 by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani for the peace summit.
President Bashar al-Assad said Syria sent a list of proposals to Israel aimed at laying the groundwork for direct peace talks between the two foes. “We are awaiting Israel ‘s response to six points submitted through Turkey ,” Assad said, promising Syria would respond positively to Israel ‘s answer. Direct talks could happen once a new US administration “which believes in the peace process” takes office. Assad was speaking at a four-way summit with the leaders of France and key Middle East mediators Qatar and Turkey .
As always, Arabs are expected to solve the Israeli problem first before any thing worth while could be expected of them in return. The French leader is seeking to advance the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive in the Gaza Strip since June 2006. Shalit, a dual Israeli-French citizen, has become a bargaining chip between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist ruling group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and is supported by Syria . Hamas sources, meanwhile, flatly denied a report that Khaled Mashal, the organization’s exiled leader, had been forced to leave Damascus , where he is based, for Sudan . Israel has insisted that Syria sever ties with Hamas and the Lebanese Shia organization Hezbollah, which is also backed by Iran . Syria ‘s President Bashar al-Assad has said it would be a catastrophe if a peaceful solution could not be found to the Iranian nuclear row. Assad was speaking after a meeting in Damascus with French President Nicolas Sarkozy aimed at improving bilateral ties.
Western diplomats say Sarkozy should have persuaded Assad to make some gesture towards Israel and the west if other EU members, especially Britain and Germany , are to follow France ‘s lead. But many believe progress with Israel will only come under a new US administration. “Europeans should be very careful when they consider restoring their ties with Syria ,” according to Israeli foreign ministry which still insists that Syrian policies on terrorism and Lebanon remained unchanged. “Except for a slight change in tone, Syrian policies have not changed.” Will Israelis ever change?
Efforts to use Syria to resolve the Iranian issue are still on. In a joint news conference with Sarkozy, Assad said his country was “in the process of building foundations for the peace talks” and would need help from the US and others for direct negotiations to take place. He reiterated that any attack on Iran over its nuclear program would be a catastrophe. He said it was clear there was no trust between Iran and other countries but that Syria would continue to work towards a solution through conversations with both Iran and France . Israel criticized Syria ‘s connections with the Palestinian movement Hamas and the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah. Sarkozy also used the joint press conference to offer French support for direct peace talks between Israel and Lebanon , when the time was right.
THREE: An Observation
The two-day summit imitated by Sarkozy did bring together several key regional players, but progress remains tentative at best. However, to the credit of Sarkozy it should be attributed that former colonial power France ‘s mediation has already brought an easing of tensions between Syria and Lebanon . The leaders held discussions on Syria ‘s relations with Israel . Both parties have talked about a new era in relations but that Sarkozy will be under pressure from his Western allies to show that engagement with Syria can work. And Syria could also decide how flexible they can be on the key contentious issues without letting Israel retain the Arab lands and continue to terrorize the Arabs.
The French president has indeed taken a bold step in meeting the Syrian leaders. The French political class is annoyed with Syria . A UN tribunal investigating the Hariri killing has yet to issue any indictments. Chirac was a close personal friend of the murdered Lebanese leader, whose assassination forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after 29 years. Earlier, Sarkozy faced protests in France when he reversed Jacques Chirac’s policy of isolating Syria and invited Assad to Paris to attend an EU summit with Mediterranean countries in July.
Before arriving in Damascus , the French leader said Syria can make an irreplaceable contribution to solving Middle East issues, evoking spontaneous applaud from the state-controlled media. Assad has been show determination to seek bonds with Israel if the latter returned the lands. It was Assad’s acceptance of the Lebanese compromise and readiness to open an embassy in Beirut for the first time – thus formally recognizing Lebanon – that paved the way for Sarkozy’s visit.
Syria says direct peace talks with Israel can only take place after John McCain or Barak Obama is installed in the White House next year. Israel is also facing a change in leadership. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, currently facing a series of investigations into corruption allegations, has promised to resign after his Kadima party chooses a new leader in a primary election on 17 September. Assad said Syria had been expecting “a fifth crucial round of talks to determine the evolution of these negotiations”, but the process had been put on hold because of political changes in Israel . Erdogan said the forthcoming summit had been rescheduled to 18-19 September. Syria ’s critics say progress is likely to be tentative at best.
French President insists it is very important that the time for Syria and Israel to talk directly, especially when the US and other Western powers have shunned Syria , citing its support of Lebanon ‘s Hezbollah movement and the ruling Palestinian “militant group” Hamas. Even other wise, peace will return to the region very slowly and cautiously, because the Israel-Palestine issue also needs urgent resolution to make the region reliably peaceful. More over, peace in the Middle East depends now on “outside” factors, including the arrival of a more stable leadership in Israel and a new US president.
But the moot question remains: is Israel serious enough?