PARIS (AFP) — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, expected in Paris this weekend, has welcomed a “break” in France’s policy toward Damascus and invited Paris to play a role in possible direct negotiations with Israel.
In an interview published in French newspaper Le Figaro Tuesday, Assad said: “We are witnessing a break between the current policy of France and the policy of the past.
“This new policy is more realistic and better suited to the interests of both our countries. It is a solid basis to renew healthy relations.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy invited Assad along with some 40 foreign leaders for the launch Sunday of a new Union for the Mediterranean, aimed at boosting cooperation between European Union and southern Mediterranean states.
Sarkozy, who decided to renew high-level contacts with Damascus following the breakthrough in Lebanon’s drawn-out political crisis, is to meet Assad in Paris on July 12. The Syrian leader will stay on for France’s Bastille Day ceremonies on July 14.
Former president Jacques Chirac cut off official contacts with Syria following the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, who was a personal friend, in a February 2005 bombing in which Syria has been implicated.
“This visit is for me a historic visit: an opening up to France and to Europe,” Assad told Le Figaro.
Asked about the resumption of indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel under Turkish auspices, he said it was “natural that there should be a lack of trust”, considering the stymied peace process.
The two countries have been officially at war since 1948, although armistice and ceasefire agreements have been signed in the interim.
“For the moment the two parties are testing their intentions… We now need to find a common basis to start direct negotiations,” Assad said.
Concerning the international “sponsorship” of such talks, he said he was “counting on the next American president”, saying that the United States’ role was “essential”.
But Assad also invited the French president to get directly involved.
“My impression is that (Sarkozy) is enthusiastic about these negotiations and wants France to play a direct role,” Assad declared. “If he confirms it to me, I will immediately invite him to support directly this peace process.”
Turning to Lebanon, Assad said “preparations” were under way to organise a meeting in Paris with President Michel Sleiman. “I’ve known President Sleiman for about 10 years … our relations are good,” he said.
Asked about the international tribunal seeking those responsible for Hariri’s death, the Syrian president stressed that his country was cooperating and would continue to do so.
On the question of human rights in his country, Assad said: “We do not say that we are a perfect democratic country. We say that we are taking this road and it is a long road that can last for one or several years.”
Calling on Europe to back peace and development in Syria, Assad said: “This is the role that we ask Europe to play, and not to give us lessons in morality.”