Friday, September 5, 2008

Running in place at the "Dialogue for Stability"

There was a lot of motion in Damascus this week for French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to Damascus, the first by a Western head of state since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik al-Hariri. French flags were flying high in the streets of the Syrian capital as Sarkozy met with French citizens in Syria, opened a school, and enjoyed a bit of Damascus' recently upgraded hospitality.

But there wasn't much action, as uncertainties concerning the outcome of elections in Israel and the United States overshadowed the summit. In a press conference Wednesday evening broadcast live on Syrian terrestrial TV, Assad emphasized that the issues discussed with Sarkozy thus far were the four rounds of indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel in Turkey, Iran's nuclear issue, and economic relations between Syria and France. The first two issues, Assad said, would be addressed by the quartet talks involving himself, Sarkozy, Turkish PM Erdogan, and the Emir of Qatar scheduled for the next day.

When it was Sarkozy's turn to speak, he took a more serious tone. He spelled out in detail his path to better ties with Syria. He added that he wanted to build relations "one step at a time" towards a relationship of "trust." He added that Assad had "announced some decisions and he respected the decisions he made" - a reference to Damascus' agreement to establish formal diplomatic relations with Lebanon and Assad's recent hosting of Lebanese President Michel Sulieman. "This is how we are building this new relationship between the two countries - to understand each other, not to bargain, and to build confidence."

He added that France believed Iran "should not acquire nuclear weapons" but had the right to obtain nuclear energy for civilian purposes. He added that he was also there to discuss economic cooperation with Syria as well. Last, but not least, he said that he discussed with Assad the issue of human rights and freedom of expression, which, Sarkozy said was "a gain and not a negative point in the struggle against fundamentalism and extremism." He added that he was very happy about the recent release of two Syrian political prisoners.

When the two leaders resurfaced the following day at press conference following the quartet meeting, dubbed "Dialogue for Stability" (which was written in four languages on a banner behind the four leaders), it was clear not much had been accomplished. Assad announced that Syria had handed over to Israel a six point peace proposal that would serve as the basis of possible direct peace talks, but was not specific on what those items included. He added that the next round of talks, originally scheduled for next week, would have to be postponed, following the September 17 leadership election in Israel's Kadima Party. Assad also ruled out direct talks with Israel until after the outcome of the US presidential election scheduled for November 4. Assad concluded by saying a new cold war in the region could be much worse than the last, and that some "bright spots" were needed - a clear reference to recent developments in Lebanon.

Sarkozy said that France and Washington didn't share the same analysis of ties with Damascus, and that France would play a role in future peace talks.

Erdogan assured the audience that talks would go on later this month in Istanbul.

And last but not least, the Emir of Qatar stated that he opposed pushing the gulf states into conflict with Iran.

Best coverage of the event goes to Zeina Karam of AP and Ibrahim Hamidi of Al Hayat, who is back on the job.

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