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France's Sarkozy to Meet With Syrian President in Damascus


French President Nicolas Sarkozy will fly to Damascus for meetings Wednesday with Syrian President Bashar Assad in an effort to restore diplomatic ties that were cut three years ago. The meeting also signals France's push for a greater role in the Middle East. For VOA, Aya Batrawy has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

Just three years after France broke ties with Syria, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is making his first official visit to Damascus to meet with his counterpart Bashar al-Assad.

The meeting between the two leaders comes just one week after the Syrian president appointed a new ambassador to France, filling a post that had been vacant for 18 months.

Mr. Sarkozy's visit to Damascus also comes on the heels of the Mediterranean Union meeting, which was attended by the Syrian president in Paris recently. It is new a project aimed at strengthening cooperation between Europe and the Middle East.

But relations between France and Syria have been strained ever since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Syria has denied any involvement in the incident. France's president at the time, Jacques Chirac, was not only a supporter of a U.N. resolution to pressure Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, he was also a close friend of the late Lebanese premier.

Mr. Sarkozy, though, has taken steps to move closer to Syria and is now playing a pivotal role in mediating peace between Syria and Lebanon.

According to Middle East expert Mohamed Sayed El Said, Mr. Sarkozy is using France's historical ties with Syria and its neighbor Lebanon to mediate between the two countries and build French influence in the region

"Sarkozy is trying to take maximum advantages of the gaps and inconsistencies and failures of the American diplomacy in the region," he said. "While it's very hard for France to re-establish influence in the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, it's relatively possible, much easier to restore influence through readapting the shaping of the Syrian-Lebanese relations and that is really a very instrumental approach for restoring French influence in the region."

For its part Syria is welcoming French diplomatic reconciliation as a means of empowering its own position in the international community. There is also hope on the Syrian front that building ties with Paris may also lead to Washington's involvement in brokering a peace deal between Syria and Israel.

Analysts in the region believe that America's tougher stance towards Syria has helped push Damascus closer to reliance on Iran, Russia and even France. The United States has labeled Syria a state sponsor of terrorism for its support of the Shiite political bloc Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as its safeguarding of Palestinian Hamas leaders in Damascus, where they are headquartered.