French president starts Syrian visit
French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Syria on Wednesday for a two-day visit marking a rapprochement with Damascus and giving a push to its renewed peace talks with Israel. Sarkozy went straight to the presidential palace for talks with his Syrian peer Bashar al-Assad ahead of a four-way summit on the peace process to be joined by Turkish and Qatari leaders on Thursday.
According to AFP, the French president is the first Western head of state to visit since the killing of Lebanese ex-premier Rafiq Hariri in a 2005 bombing in Beirut.
Syria has hailed the trip as as an acknowledgement of its central role in the Middle East peace process. "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 had broken off all high-level contact with Syria over the assassination of Hariri, who was a personal friend. "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 daily ahead of Wednesday's visit.
"Syria can provide an irreplaceable contribution to solving Middle East issues. It is important that Syria plays a positive role in the region," the French leader said.