Israel Warns France on Talks With Syria

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As President Sarkozy becomes the first Western leader to visit Damascus in the last few years, Israeli officials are expressing trepidation, warning against warming up to President al-Assad’s regime before it takes real steps to prove it has changed its ways.

The French president’s arrival in Damascus yesterday as part of a four-country two-day summit is seen in the region as a signal that Syria’s isolation is about to end. The Bush administration has long opposed attempts to open a diplomatic channel toward Damascus as long as it declines to end its meddling in lebanon, its support of insurgents in Iraq, and its arming of anti-Israel terrorist groups. Fresh from his unsuccessful mediation attempt to end Russian occupation of parts of Georgia, Mr. Sarkozy is attempting to woo Syria diplomatically.

French diplomats point to indirect talks between Israel and Syria and to Damascus’s recent declaration of intentions to establish historic formal diplomatic relations with lebanon as signs that Syria has changed.

But Israeli officials say Syria’s timid steps so far have been more symbolic than substantial. The relations with lebanon have not yet materialized beyond declarations of intention, Jerusalem officials say. Mostly, Israel is concerned that Syrian and Iranian weapons flow uninterrupted to Hezbollah through the Syrian-lebanese border, increasingly changing the military balance and risking an end to the fragile cease-fire between Israel and the Shiite organization. Israeli officials have turned to the French and European press to express such concerns. “Europe must be very careful in its relationship with Syria as that country opens up,” Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, told Agence France-Presse. “Except for a slight change in tone, Syrian policies have not changed,” he said, adding that Damascus “continues to support terrorist organizations.”

Arab press reports, perhaps orchestrated by leaks from Damascus, attempted to dispel Syria’s image as a terror-sponsoring country. The Kuwaiti newspaper al-Rai reported this week that a Damascus-based top Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal, moved recently to Sudan from Syria. An official Hamas statement issued in Damascus yesterday, however, said the organization “totally denies” the report, calling it “false.” Mr. Sarkozy urged Mr. Assad in their meeting yesterday to conduct direct talks with Israel, offering his services as mediator, according to reports from the region. So far, Israeli and Syrian officials have conducted several rounds of indirect talks, using Turkey as mediator. Mr. Assad insisted yesterday that the time has not yet come to negotiate directly. “We have asked France to play a role in the indirect talks with Israel,” he told reporters in Damascus, adding, “Indirect talks is the only way now.”

Mr. Assad also used his meeting with Mr. Sarkozy to warn against a military attack against nuclear facilities of Syria’s main financial backer, Iran. “Nobody in the world will be able to bear the consequences of any action that is not peaceful because it would not result in a solution but in a disaster,” Mr. Assad said, offering to help in conducting diplomacy to overcome “lack of confidence” between Iran and the West.

“I told the president that Syria can play a role in the Iranian issue,” Mr. Sarkozy said. “Iran must not obtain a nuclear weapon but it has the right to have nuclear energy for peaceful use.” The French president was the first Western head of state to visit Damascus since the 2005 killing of the former lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. The diplomatic boycott was largely led by Mr. Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who was a friend of Hariri. But beyond Mr. Sarkozy and the leaders of Qatar and Turkey, who are expected in Damascus today, Mr. Assad is hoping that the next American administration will end the frosty Syrian-American relations. Conducting direct negotiations with Israel will require “participation of the United States and other parties,” Mr. Assad said yesterday.

The New York Sun

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