France gives boost to Israeli-Syrian talks

Hosted by Syrian President Bashar al Assad, leaders including Turkish Prime Minister Recep Yayyip Erdogan and the emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani had the opportunity to discuss future deals.

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Syria's official Al-Thawra newspaper described the meeting — on the second day of a landmark visit to Damascus by Sarkozy — as “the summit of optimism.”

The French leader, whose country holds the revolving EU presidency, said on Wednesday he hopes France and the EU can rank alongside the United States as peacemakers in the Middle East, notably between Israel and Syria.

“We have asked France to play a role in the indirect talks with Israel. Indirect talks is the only way now,” Assad told reporters after his meeting with Sarkozy, the first Western leader to visit Damascus since 2005.

“France is engaged in the service of peace in the Middle East,” added Sarkozy.

Turkey has been brokering indirect negotiations between Israel and Syria and a fifth round of talks had been expected on Sunday, but a French presidential source said Assad had told Sarkozy the session had been cancelled.

Syria has said that ultimately only the United States has the clout to sponsor direct peace talks, and that that must await the inauguration of a new US president next year.

But it has been keen in the meantime to win greater international support for the preliminary negotiations already under way.

Talks between Syria and Israel resumed in May, eight years after they were broken off over the fate of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau captured by Israel in the 1967 war with Arab states and annexed in 1981 in a move not recognised by the international community.

“Today there is a new era between Syria and France based on France's new policy, a realistic, pragmatic policy that is aimed at achieving peace and that calls for dialogue,” Assad told French television on Tuesday.

Sarkozy's predecessor Jacques Chirac broke off all high-level contact with Syria over the assassination of Hariri, who was a personal friend.

It was only six weeks ago that Assad returned to the international fold with a visit to Paris.

“As I told President Bashar al-Assad when he came to Paris on July 12, the path of peace in this region passes through our countries,” Sarkozy told Syria's Al-Watan said.

“Syria can provide an irreplaceable contribution to solving Middle East issues. It is important that Syria plays a positive role in the region,” he said.