The death of Syrian President Hafez Assad posed new questions but gave no cause for concern, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said Monday.
Vedrine, accompanying President Jacques Chirac to Assad's funeral in Damascus Tuesday, said on French radio: "I feel no particular threat but I do see questions ahead because I think President Aassad's successor, who has been neither nominated nor designated, will first have to find his bearings."
In an indirect reference to Assad's son, expected to succeed his father, the minister said: "Changes of generation do lead to changes in conception and mentality, even if not immediately.
"So there have to be questions, but there is no need for concern."
Vedrine said he expected continuity in the Middle East peace process. "Even President Assad, the incarnation of intransigence, said he agreed on the need to seek peace with Israel if it was a just peace," the minister said.
Asked whether it was politically opportune to attend the funeral of a man frequently described as a dictator, Vedrine said the Middle East peace process was at stake.
"The Syrian-Lebanon or Syrian-Israel question is currently fundamental," Vedrine said. "Syria is a key element in the peace we are seeking."
He stressed the need for the earliest possible contacts at the highest level, noting that another question of particular importance to France was whether to boost its forces serving with the United Nations in southern Lebanon following the Israeli withdrawal.
Vedrine cancelled a scheduled Middle East tour last weekend due to the death of Assad.
Deployment of Lebanese forces in the former Israeli-occupied zone and the likelihood of France boosting its 250-man force with the UN in southern Lebanon had been expected to dominate his agenda.
On the eve of Vedrine's planned trip, Lebanon announced it would deploy its own forces in southern Lebanon in what was seen as an important gesture likely to swing the French round to increasing their contingent within the UN force UNIFIL.
Following the May 24th withdrawal of Israeli units from southern Lebanon, France made it a precondition of sending more of its own forces that Lebanon itself should first make a commitment to deploying its army in the area.
Prime Minister Lionel Jospin expressed hopes that Syria would avoid instability in the wake of the death Saturday of Assad.
"One can hope that there will not be a period of instability in Syria and that on the contrary, perhaps a political team will emerge that will want to play a role in the peace process," Jospin said on radio – PARIS (AFP)
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