Its not just Lebanese who are complaining about President Assad's coming out of isolation party in Paris. Syria's ally Iran is voicing concern over Assad's remarks in Paris that a peace treaty with Israel would include normalized relations with embassies in each capital.
This all puts the cart before the horse .. Assad has made it clear he will not negotiate with Israel unless US officials from the incoming administration (read post January 2009) are in the room. Even in that event, Assad further qualified his peace overtures by saying negotiations could take from "six months to two years."
The EU's Solana has said that everyone's "behavior" before the end of the year will determine if the long delayed Syria-EU Association Agreement will be ratified by the European legislators, who have delayed voting on the agreement following Rafik Hariri's assassination and Damascus' imprisonment of political dissidents. Merkel, more skeptical, says she wants to see "deeds" and not just words.
Meanwhile... former US Ambassador to Syria Ted Kattouf - who now heads AMIDEAST, whose Damascus offices Syria closed in November 2006 - now advocates talking about "everything" - the "broad horizon of issues" (a.k.a. Grand Bargain) Damascus has spent the last two years asking for behind closed doors.
Iranian official: Talks between Syria and Israel unacceptable
Jul 14, 2008, 10:09 GMT
Riyadh - Iran is unhappy about ongoing indirect talks between Syria and Israel and believes that any ensuing peace agreement would lead to radical changes in Syrian-Iranian relations, an Iranian official said in remarks published Monday.
Hussein Shariatmadari, an advisor to Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told the Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat that Tehran was unhappy that Islamic countries like Syria and Turkey were holding talks with Israel.
'We always say there is no country called Israel in the region. This country is called Palestine. So, it is normal that we reject any negotiations between an Islamic state, like Syria or Turkey, and an illegitimate, non-existent state,' Shariatmadari said.
Negotiations between Israel and Syria are not comparable to the talks that Lebanon's militant group Hezbollah and the Palestinian radical group Hamas are holding with the Israelis over a prisoner exchange and a truce deal in the Gaza Strip.
'Negotiations over prisoner exchange does not mean that Hezbollah recognizes Israel. Hamas too, like Iran and Hezbollah, does not recognize a thing called Israel. A truce agreement is not a recognition of the state of Israel,' the Iranian official said.
Relations between Syria and Iran will be subject to radical changes if Damascus signs a peace agreement with Israel, Shariatmadari said but added that this was his personal view.
'But I think that the signing of such an agreement would be also against the opinion of Iran, the Iranian government and the Iranian people,' he added.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said that Damascus would establish normal relations, including the opening of embassies, if a peace agreement was sealed with Israel.
Al-Assad made his comments on Sunday in Paris where he attended the inauguration of an EU-Mediterranean union that brings together northern and southern countries that ring the sea, including Syria and Israel.
Both countries are currently involved in indirect peace talks brokered by Turkey.
EU says early partnership pact possible with Syria
Sun 13 Jul 2008, 17:20 GMT
By David Brunnstrom
PARIS, July 13 (Reuters) - The European Union could sign a long-stalled partnership pact with Syria this year, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said on Sunday at a Paris summit that marked a new detente between Europe and Damascus.
"It will depend very much of the behaviour of everybody from here, let's say until the end of the year," Solana said, hailing the agreement on the exchange of ambassadors as significant.
Asked if it was possible to sign the accord by then, he told reporters: "I don't want to say if it's possible today or tomorrow, but I think it's possible."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters later she had insisted in a meeting with the Syrian leader "that we (the EU) want to see deeds".
Neither Solana nor Merkel specified what conditions they were putting on further rapprochement but the EU is concerned that it should prevent arm smuggling across its borders to Lebanon's Hezbollah group which is backed by Syria and Iran.
"France is basically saying, 'Let's test this guy'. The hope is that the test will be a positive one," a diplomat said.
However on Saturday Assad played down prospects of any early breakthrough with Israel.
He said he did not expect direct negotiations with Israel for the next six months until U.S. President George W. Bush is out of office because the current administration was not interested in Middle East peace.
France launches Med Union with high hopes
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was to attend the Paris opening conference with over 40 other leaders including Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the first time Israeli and Syrian leaders will have been in the same room. The two countries recently began indirect peace talks with Turkish mediation…..
But the Paris summit, a diplomatic success for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who holds the EU's rotating presidency, may be richer in symbolism than substance, at least to start with.
France and Egypt will be the first countries to co-chair the new body, but details such as the location and powers of its secretariat remain to be resolved, and the Middle East conflicts that bedevilled past EU-Mediterranean cooperation loom large.
The French leader booked a first success on Saturday when he hosted talks between Assad and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, who agreed to normalise relations between Damascus and Beirut for the first time since independence in 1943.
"We can say that Lebanon has moved from being a zone of turbulence, a war zone, to a more pacified zone where the Lebanese, and only the Lebanese, have the right to determine their own future," said Assad, long accused by France, the former colonial power, of meddling in Lebanese politics.
Assad has also begun indirect peace talks with Israel via Turkish mediation, but he said he did not expect direct negotiations for the next six months until U.S. President George W. Bush is out of office because the current administration was not interested in Middle East peace.
Assad sees no Israeli peace talks with Bush in office
Sat Jul 12, 2008 7:59pm BST
By Samia Nakhoul
PARIS (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said U.S. President George W. Bush was not interested in the Middle East peace process and as result he did not expect direct talks with Israel until Bush leaves office next January.
Ending years of isolation from the West, Assad on Saturday met French President Nicolas Sarkozy on the eve of a major EU-Mediterranean summit and signalled his willingness to improve relations with both Syria's neighbours, Israel and Lebanon.
The Syrian president also said he wanted France to play a role in any eventual face-to-face talks with Israel, but added that it was essential for the United States to also be present.
"Quite frankly, this American administration is not interested in the peace process, so the question (of direct talks) won't arise before the arrival of a new American administration," Assad told a news conference.
Syria launched indirect peace talks with Israel this year under Turkish mediation over the return of the Golan Heights captured by Israel in 1967.
The last direct talks between the Israel and Syria under U.S. sponsorship broke down eight years ago and Washington has been reluctant to re-engage with Damascus because of its role in Lebanon and close ties with Iran.
U.S. State Department spokesman Rob McInturff said on Saturday it was not ready to resume full contacts with Syria.
"We, along with the international community, are awaiting a signal that the Syrians are truly ready to renounce their sponsorship of terrorism and do more to end the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq, expel the leadership of Palestinian terrorist groups from Syria and human rights violations," he said.
France had also treated Syria as a virtual pariah state following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005, which Paris blamed on Damascus.
Assad has rejected the accusation and relations with France improved this year after Syria helped end a long-running political stalemate in Lebanon by supporting a power-sharing deal among Lebanon's pro-Western and pro-Syrian factions.
Sarkozy said he would visit Damascus in September.
Lebanon's new president, Michel Suleiman, was also in Paris on Saturday and met Assad for the first time. Sarkozy said the two men had agreed to open embassies in each other's country.
"I would like to say, what a historic step forward it is for France that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is determined to open a diplomatic representation in Lebanon, and that Lebanon should open a diplomatic representation in Syria," he said.
The establishment of embassies would amount to a Syrian recognition of Lebanon's sovereignty.
Syria has long been a dominant player in Lebanon's political and military affairs but the two countries have not exchanged ambassadors since Lebanon's independence in 1943.
Assad said Sarkozy has asked him to use his influence with Iran to help resolve Tehran's nuclear standoff with the West.
"We see the solution as a political one. We cannot consider any solution that is not political because the consequences will be dangerous ..."
"Of course, we will pass on to Iran what has just been said, but we think that to the best of our knowledge, Iran has no intention of trying to obtain nuclear weapons," he said.
The Paris EU-Mediterranean summit has given Assad a chance to regain the international spotlight, but he suggested he would not use Sunday's meeting for an historic first meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The United States and Syria should talk (about everything)
by Theodore H. Kattouf
10 July 2008
WASHINGTON – The recent compromise on power sharing in Lebanon spares the country further bloodshed, and allows its people to return to a modicum of normalcy. However, the underlying causes of the conflict remain, and Lebanon continues to be an arena where external powers play out their rivalries. Unless and until Syria and the United States reach a grand bargain, the Lebanese will continue to pay the price.
It should now be clear to the most casual observer that Syria's military withdrawal from Lebanon was hardly the end of their influence there. Iran and Syria are in an alliance to thwart US and Israeli objectives in the region whenever and wherever they can. Despite the overwhelming military advantages the United States and Israel enjoy over their adversaries, Iran and Syria have been particularly adept at playing the spoiler through proxies such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Iraqi tribal groups, and Shi'a militias.
Through much of its second term, the administration of US President George W. Bush has been loath to engage in a prolonged and serious dialogue with Syria, instead preferring attempts to isolate and marginalise its leadership. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for his part, has borrowed pages from his late father's playbook to demonstrate that there are no lasting solutions to regional problems without Syria. Yet even Turkish-brokered negotiations between Israel and Syria have not enticed the United States away from its policy of ignoring Syria diplomatically while throwing verbal jabs at the regime whenever it can.
The Israelis have been by far more pragmatic in dealing with Syria than has the Bush administration. The current Israeli government and its military/security leadership have concluded that they are 'better off with the devil they know than the devil they don't.' This reasoning helps to explain why Israel went to great lengths in the summer of 2006 to assure Syria that it was not the target of Israel's war with Hezbollah. It also helps to explain the lack of Israeli leaks after the bombing of an alleged nuclear reactor in Syria. Meanwhile, even after the Bush administration tried to discourage indirect Israeli talks with Syria about the Golan, Israel cautiously went ahead.
Both Israel and Syria recently concluded that making these talks known is advantageous to them. In the Israeli case, they can pressure the Palestinians for more concessions by suggesting they have another option for peacemaking. The more strategic reason is of course the hope that Syria can be weaned from its 30-year alliance with a nuclear ambitious Iran. For its part, Syria wants to ensure its relevance and better position itself with the next US administration while the clock runs out on the current one. However, both leaderships know that even if they can agree on the terms of peace, the US government's role is indispensable to concluding, supporting, and enforcing a treaty.
All of this leaves Lebanon in limbo. Hezbollah has demonstrated that there is no combination of other forces in Lebanon that can challenge its military predominance. Hezbollah's leader, Sheikh Nasrallah, has left no doubt that his spiritual guide (Marje) is Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. As its influence with the group diminishes, Syria can no longer promise to disarm Hezbollah's militia in the context of a peace treaty with Israel and a positive new relationship with the United States. It can, however, shut down the Iranian resupply pipeline to Hezbollah through Syrian territory. Syria could be even more Machiavellian and work with the United States and others to strengthen the more secular elements in Lebanese society in the context of full peace.
The Syrian regime cares first and foremost for its survival. If ushering in a new relationship with the United States and signing a peace treaty with Israel enhances its prospects for longevity, it will go that route—even at the expense of Iran and Hezbollah. If such a deal is not forthcoming, Syria will continue to play the spoiler role to the best of its considerable abilities.
It is therefore important that a new US administration work with Israel and our Arab allies to concoct a strategy that can pry Syria away from Iran. Despite the longevity of their alliance, the two regimes – one secular, the other theocratic – have little philosophically in common other than their shared insecurities concerning Israel and the West.
Thankfully, Syria appears open to a grand bargain, including perhaps one that could stabilise Lebanon without compromising that country's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.
* Theodore H. Kattouf is a former US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Syria. He is currently the president and CEO of AMIDEAST (www.amideast.org), and serves on Search for Common Ground's MidEast Advisory Board. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source: Common Ground News, 10 July 2008, www.commongroundnews.org.
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
France clears Syria of 1983 attack on its troops
Sun Jul 13, 2008 1:55pm EDT
By Francois Murphy
PARIS (Reuters) - Syria was not to blame for a deadly attack on French troops in 1983, a senior French official said on Sunday, hoping to ease tension a day before the Syrian president attends the Bastille Day army parade in Paris.
Instead, the official in President Nicolas Sarkozy's office pinned the blame on Iran and Hezbollah.
Sarkozy's decision to invite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the July 14 parade angered some French soldiers and prompted calls for those marching to show their displeasure, possibly by not looking up at the official stand.
Syria had been suspected of involvement in the truck bomb attack 25 years ago on French military headquarters in Lebanon, known as the Drakkar, which killed 58 French troops who were part of an international peacekeeping force.
"Something is being exploited. To say the Drakkar was Syria's responsibility is to make an error of historical fact," the senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"One may not want Mr Assad to be there, but to say that it is because of the Drakkar affair is simply an error."
Assad and the leaders of about 40 other countries attended the launch of Sarkozy's Mediterranean Union project on Sunday, and all were invited to stay for Monday's annual parade.
"The Drakkar wasn't Syria," the French official said. "The Drakkar was Iran and Hezbollah. Ask anyone who follows this issue -- they'll tell you the same thing."
Minutes before the Drakkar attack, a suicide bomber attacked Beirut airport, killing 241 U.S. servicemen stationed there.
Initial suspicion fell on militants of Hezbollah, then in its infancy, as well as Iran and Syria. All have denied involvement.
Last year, a U.S. court ordered Iran to pay $2.6 billion to families of the victims, saying Tehran was legally responsible for the attacks because it supported Hezbollah. Syria, also a Hezbollah ally, was not named in the case.
U.N. peacekeepers will lead Monday's military parade, followed by regular French troops, who were already unhappy with Sarkozy's reforms designed to streamline the armed forces.
The government aims to cut the number of army personnel by 54,000 to 225,000, including civilians, in an overhaul that has angered many in the ranks who fear it will reduce France's fighting capability.
Asked about the July 14 parade, Defence Minister Herve Morin said last week there was a limit to troops' right to expression.
The march takes place less than two weeks after army chief of staff General Bruno Cuche resigned over an incident in which a soldier fired live ammunition instead of blanks at a public combat demonstration, injuring 17 people.
"The army has all the president's trust and it will be a beautiful display," the senior official told reporters, who will watch Monday's parade closely for signs of protest by soldiers.