Sarkozy helps to bring Syria out of isolation

Posted in Broader Middle East , Europe | 14-Jul-08 | Author: Steven Erlanger and Katrin Ben| Source: International Herald Tribune

From left: President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar, and President Michel Suleiman of Lebanon, after a meeting at the Elysee Palace on Saturday.

PARIS: Leaders of 43 nations with nearly 800 million inhabitants inaugurated a "Union for the Mediterranean" on Sunday, meant to bring the northern and southern countries that ring the sea closer together through practical projects dealing with the environment, climate, transportation, immigration and policing.

But the meeting was also an opportunity for President Nicolas Sarkozy of France to exercise some highly public Middle East diplomacy by bringing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria out of isolation for an Élysée Palace meeting and by playing host to a session between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

The Union for the Mediterranean is the brainchild of Sarkozy, but his original concept was watered down to include all members of the European Union, not just those along the Mediterranean coast. The enlargement of the group to the north made it easier for Sarkozy to include some southern countries, like Syria and Israel, that remain in a formal state of war with one another, and others, like Jordan, that are only notionally Mediterranean.

The union has northern and southern co-presidents ? to start, Sarkozy and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. But leaders still disagree about where the headquarters will be and the nationality of the union's secretary general, and some of its financing remains vague.

Still, Sarkozy said Sunday night, praising the participants: "Today the way is open, and no one can take that away from us."

The large gathering was a significant accomplishment for French diplomacy, with only Libya refusing to attend and the kings of Morocco and Jordan pleading other engagements. But other than Libya, the countries were represented by prime ministers and other high-level officials.

While initial accomplishments are likely to be vague, the meeting represented an end to the diplomatic isolation of Assad, who has been ostracized for his alliance with Iran, for his support for Palestinian groups classified by the United States and the European Union as terrorist, and because of allegations of his country's involvement in the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

Hariri was a close friend of the previous French president, Jacques Chirac, who bitterly condemned Sarkozy's welcome for Assad and refused to attend the ceremonies.

Assad's invitation to watch the Bastille Day parade on Monday has also angered some in the French military, who have been deployed at times in Lebanon, France's former colony and a traditional ally, which is dominated by Syria. Some French soldiers currently serve as United Nations peacekeepers in Lebanon.

Syria also attended the American-led Middle East summit meeting at Annapolis, Maryland, last November, but its delegation was led by its deputy foreign minister. Since then, Israel and Syria have opened serious but indirect peace talks with Turkish mediation, and Assad is eager to rejoin the world, especially with a new American president to be elected this year. Sarkozy offered him a private meeting and full honors, arguing, "How can you make peace if you don't talk to people with different opinions?"

Assad told Le Figaro, the French daily newspaper, "This visit is, for me, a historic visit, an opening toward France and Europe."

On Saturday, Sarkozy claimed a success when Assad and the new Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, agreed to open embassies in each other's capitals for the first time. Sarkozy said Assad's agreement "to open diplomatic representation in Lebanon is historic progress."

But Assad was vague about recognizing Lebanon, a country that Syria has dominated for decades and regards as a Syrian province. Syria has so far refused to demarcate a border with Lebanon, and Assad said that before mutual recognition, both countries must "define the steps to take to arrive at this stage."

The invitation to Assad, like an earlier one to Libya's leader, Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, has reignited domestic criticism of Sarkozy, apparently for his departure from his avowed "moral foreign policy." When elected, he chose a noted rights advocate, Bernard Kouchner, as his foreign minister and created a secretary of state for human rights.

The leader of the opposition Socialists, François Hollande, said that Assad's participation in the union was fine, "but his presence at the 14th of July is inappropriate ? to have a dictator at a celebration of human rights hurts a number of sensibilities," including those of the French military.

The French military is none too happy with Sarkozy in any case, because of his announced cuts in military personnel and his denunciation of commanders as "amateurs" after an accidental shooting of civilians at a barracks last month.

On Sunday, just before the Union for the Mediterranean meeting began, Sarkozy was host to Abbas and Olmert for another of their regular meetings to try to negotiate the principles for a peace deal. The last meeting was in early June in Jerusalem, so the meeting here did not represent a breakthrough.

Still, both sides sounded optimistic tones for Sarkozy. Olmert, under pressure at home to resign after additional allegations of personal corruption, said that Israel and the Palestinians "have never been as close to the possibility of an accord as we are today."

Abbas praised Sarkozy as "a great and enduring friend of Palestine and Israel, making you the right man for this role of furthering the peace process."

Senior Israeli officials said that progress was being made, but that hard political decisions remained for Abbas and the Palestinians.

The Israeli officials also said that peace was possible with Syria, but that Assad would have to decide to finish the negotiations in direct talks. Waiting for a new American president would be a mistake, the Israeli officials warned ? because that would probably mean a new Israeli prime minister, too, even if Olmert survives for the moment. On Sunday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey met separately with Olmert and Assad.

The union meeting itself was a talkathon, held around a huge oval table in the majestic, glass-roofed Grand Palais. Inside, Olmert made the rounds, but as he approached Assad, the Syrian president turned away to talk to his interpreter, according to a photographer who was present.

The Israeli representatives sat next to those of Italy and Greece; Syria sat between Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Later, just before Olmert was due to speak, Assad left the hall.

Addressing the leaders, Mubarak said, "We are linked by a common destiny," and he urged others to reduce the gap in wealth between north and south.

Sarkozy spoke of partnership and peace, saying that "the European and the Mediterranean dreams are inseparable." He said that "everyone is going to have to make an effort, as the Europeans did, to put an end to the deadly spiral of war and violence."

The group spoke about limited topics, and a union declaration proposed projects like solar energy, reducing pollution of the sea and student exchanges. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who insisted that the Sarkozy project include all European Union members, called the session "a very, very good start for a new phase in the cooperation" between Europe and the south.

"The summit is a nice event, but will the union find an independent life?" a senior diplomat from a southern country said. "Sarkozy's original idea was bold, but there's not much of it left."

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