Sarkozy reaches out to Syria on peace

Speaks to Assad on Israel, Iran. al-Arabiya: Assad will cancel talks due to 'political situation in Israel.'

September 3, 2008 22:01
4 minute read.
Sarkozy reaches out to Syria on peace

Assad Sarkozy Damascus 224.88. (photo credit: AP)

French President Nicolas Sarkozy reached out to Syria in his first visit to the Arab nation Wednesday, seeking to peel Damascus away from Teheran's influence and offering France's support for face-to-face peace talks between Syria and Israel. After discussions with President Bashar Assad, the French leader said Paris was ready to sponsor direct talks between the two "when the time comes" and would help in any way it could, if asked. He also stressed that Syria could play a role in persuading its ally Iran to cooperate with the West rather than continue its nuclear standoff. A fifth round of indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria is scheduled to begin on September 7 in Istanbul, according to reports in the London-based Arabic dailies on Wednesday. Israeli officials said that no date had been set for the resumption of talks, although they expect them to take place in the near future. However, according to Saudi-owned satellite TV network al-Arabiya on Thursday, the fifth round of talks between Israel and Syria scheduled for early next week in Istanbul have been cancelled. The report stated that Assad told Sarkozy that the reason for the cancellation was the unstable political situation in Israel. To date these talks, the fourth round of which was in July, have been conducted by Turkey, whose officials speak separately with Israel and the Syrians. The two sides have not sat down face-to-face. "It is very important that the time for Syria and Israel to talk directly comes soon, to build the peace that everyone needs," Sarkozy said at a joint news conference with Assad. According to French sources quoted by Asharq al-Awsat, previous talks have been fruitful and the fifth round will focus on demarcating a future border following Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights. According to a French source quoted by Al-Hayat, sketching the border would be "the main topic" of the discussions. The sources claimed that Israel and the US had reached an agreement according to which France would take part in the mediation between the two parties as soon as the talks become direct. The Jerusalem Post could not confirm the reports in the Arab press. The Prime Minister's Office said it had no comment either on the fifth round of talks or on Sarkozy's offer. Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Raid al-Malki, however, said on Wednesday he welcomed French involvement in the process, as well as the move from indirect to direct negotiations. Advancement on the Syrian track, he said, was helpful to the Palestinians in their own talks wit the Israelis. "We are fully in support. We do believe that any progress made in the Syrian track will help us, so we encourage all parties to contribute," said Malki, while speaking with reporters after his appearance before the Israel Council on Foreign Relations. In speaking with the Post, he said he believed that the Palestinians could play a helpful role in the Syrian-Israeli tract. "If you had seen our President [Mahmoud Abbas] in Paris during the Mediterranean summit when he was moving from one chamber into another, passing messages, you could believe that we could really play an important role in bringing peace between Syria and Israel," said Malki. "We would be a catalyst. As people who believe in peace we would like to see the same thing happening between Israel and Syria and Israel and Ramallah," he said. Israeli officials said that they did not believe the Palestinians could play that role until they had made peace themselves with Israel. At this point, officials said, it's best the two tracks remain separate. The officials also said they did not see a role for France at this point, and that they believed that Israel-Syria talks were best kept in the hands of the Turks. There is some speculation that Israel is waiting to sort out legal details that would allow the prime minister's chief of staff, Yoram Turbowicz, to participate. Turbowicz headed the Israeli delegation but quit his post in the beginning of August. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked Turbowicz to stay on and deal with the diplomatic issues he had been heavily involved in - primarily, as a liaison with Washington and heading the talks with Syria. It is expected that Turbowicz would participate in the next round of talks. In Damascus on Wednesday, Sarkozy addressed Iran's nuclear program by saying that Teheran "must not have a nuclear weapon... Nuclear weapons in Iran are a threat to peace in the region and the world. Everybody, in their own way, should get the message through." Assad said talks with Sarkozy were "frank and constructive." On talks with Israel, the Syrian president said that indirect negotiations were the "only way" toward future face-to-face talks, which would "need the presence" of the United States and others. Assad has in the past criticized the Bush administration and said he was waiting for a new administration that could sponsor the talks. Assad, who recently visited Teheran but apparently failed to persuade the Iranians on the nuclear question, said he would continue the dialogue with the Iranian and French sides. "We hope to reach a resolution to this problem. No one in the world can bear the consequences of any non-peaceful resolution because it will be a catastrophe," Assad said. Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.

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