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Syria back in international fold

By Bethany Bell
BBC News, Damascus

Assad with summit participants
The Damascus summit brought France together with key regional heads
Syria is slowly coming back in from the cold.

Ever since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, it has faced diplomatic isolation.

Damascus strongly denies charges it was involved in the killing.

But it has taken more than three years for a Western head of government to visit Syria.

The country is also shunned by countries like US because of its ties with Iran, the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese Shia political and militant movement Hezbollah.

But now the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country currently holds the EU Presidency, is taking steps to bring Syria back into the international fold.

Risky proposition

Mr Sarkozy, who is keen to reassert France's position as a driving force in the Middle East, says it is important to re-engage with Damascus because of its influential role in the region.

He admits this is a risky proposition but says dialogue is better than isolation.

Europe and mainly France is realising the importance of cooling down the crisis in the region, to attempt to talk to everybody
Analyst Samir Taqi
His visit has been warmly welcomed in Syria.

Samir Taqi, the director of the Sharq Centre for Strategic Studies in Damascus, says Mr Sarkozy's step is very significant both for Syria and the Middle East as a whole.

"It indicates that Europe and mainly France is realising the importance of cooling down the crisis in the region, to attempt to talk to everybody, trying to seek reconciliatory solutions for the Arab Israeli conflict, Lebanon, Iraq and the Iranian file.

"This French visit is very much needed and is a landmark in the history of the whole Middle East," he said.

Prospects for peace in the region were the focus of the second day of Mr Sarkozy's visit when he and Mr Assad met the leaders of Qatar and Turkey to try to lay the groundwork for direct talks between Syria and Israel.

Syria is demanding the full return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in the 1967 war.

But any steps are likely to be tentative at best. Major progress depends on the arrival of a more stable leadership in Israel and, crucially, a new US president.

Decisions

There are also hopes that Syria can help use its influence with Iran in the row over its nuclear programme.

Assad with Sarkozy
Mr Sarkozy needs to show that engagment with Syria has benefits
Mr Assad has pledged to work towards finding a peaceful solution to the issue, warning that any attack would be catastrophic.

However, Western countries will be watching carefully to see how far Syria really wants to go in distancing itself from its Iranian ally.

Syria's acceptance of a Lebanon peace deal in May and its decision to establish diplomatic ties with its smaller neighbour were key factors in determining the warmer ties with France.

But there is some concern in Lebanon that now Mr Sarkozy has visited Syria, Damascus may feel more freedom to interfere in Lebanese affairs.

While Mr Sarkozy's trip is a sign of a thaw in relations with Damascus, he will now be under pressure from his Western allies to show that engagement with Syria works.

For their part the Syrians will have to decide how far they are willing to move on peace talks with Israel, their ties to Iran and their influence in Lebanon.




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