Israel follows French FM's Syria trip

Syrian FM says Israel talks haven't progressed enough for parties to hold direct negotiations.

kouchner 224.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
kouchner 224.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Israel is closely following French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's visit to Damascus, hoping that among the messages he brings to Syria will be the need to pull away from Iran and end arms transfers to Hizbullah, Israeli diplomatic officials said Monday. Kouchner arrived in Syria Monday following a brief trip to Beirut where he told reporters he would tell the Syrians that "the future of French-Syrian relations is highly dependent on the nature of Lebanese-Syrian ties." Kouchner's visit to Syria, according to Israeli diplomatic officials, is meant to pave the way for the far more significant visit to Damascus in early September of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The officials said Sarkozy's visit was important because it would in a very concrete fashion end the Franco-Syrian freeze that followed the assassination, three years ago, of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was a close friend of former French president Jacques Chirac. Kouchner is the highest level French official to visit Syria since the assassination. The Israeli officials said the French decided it was time to take Syria out of its isolation for a number of reasons: France wants to reward Syria for not blocking the Doha Agreement that led to the election of a new Lebanese President and a modicum of political stability there; it feels that engagement with Syria could possibly put Damascus on a more cooperative and constructive track in its relations with the West; and once Israel began indirect talks with the Syrians, the gates were open for other countries to also engage the Syrians. In addition, the officials said, the Sarkozy visit is to a certain degree a reward to Syrian President Bashar Assad for attending the Sarkozy-hosted Mediterranean Conference in Paris in July. Assad's participation was important in ensuring the participation of other Arab countries - who were at first hesitant to take part because of Israel's participation - which was very important to Sarkozy. The Israeli officials said they have received no indication that Syria's overt support for Russia in its current conflict with Georgia, or Damascus's offer to let Russia place missiles in Syria as a counterbalance to US missiles in Poland, caused any rethinking in Paris about Kouchner or Sarkozys' visits. Meanwhile, Syria's Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, said at a joint press conference with Kouchner Monday, that no headway has been achieved in several rounds of indirect negotiations with Israel. Muallem said that the talks mediated by Turkey "regrettably" have not progressed enough for the two parties to hold direct negotiations, but added both Israel and Syria were "serious" about solving outstanding issues. A fifth round of indirect talks is expected next week in Turkey. Kouchner said that France would be willing to assist in the negotiations if both parties requested it. Syria has made it clear that it would like to see the US directly involved in the talks, something that the Bush Administration has shown no interest in doing. AP contributed to this report.