PARIS (AFP) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is set to begin a three-day visit to France on Saturday, seeking to make headway in the push by Damascus to break out of diplomatic isolation.
After years of being shunned by former French leader Jacques Chirac, Assad will be welcomed at the Elysee palace for talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy before joining some 40 other foreign leaders for a Mediterranean summit on Sunday.
Assad will also hold a meeting in Paris on Saturday with new Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, their first since his breakthrough election in May ended Lebanon’s worst political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
But speculation of a historic meeting between Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been quashed, even though the leaders will find themselves at the same table for the launch of the Union for the Mediterranean.
On Monday, the 42-year-old Syrian leader joins dozens of other leaders from Europe, the Middle East and north Africa to watch the annual Bastille Day military parade on the Champs Elysees during France’s national celebrations.
“This visit is for me a historic visit: an opening up to France and to Europe,” Assad said in an interview last week to Le Figaro newspaper.
While the United States continues to view Syria as a terror state, France under Sarkozy has moved to renew high-level ties that went into a deep freeze after the 2005 assassination of Lebanese ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, who was a personal friend of Chirac.
The former president cut off all high-level contacts with Syria, a former French colony, after repeatedly accusing Damascus of having a hand in Hariri’s assassination. Syria has denied the claims.
While Assad will be applauding troops marching in the Bastille Day parade, Chirac will be conspicuous by his absence from the dais. Officials have denied the former president’s decision to stay away was linked to Assad.
France’s leftwing Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner last month commented that he was “not particularly pleased” by Assad’s presence at the July 14 national fete.
But he added that given Assad’s willingness to take part in the new Mediterranean forum for cooperation and the fact that Syria is holding indirect talks with Israel, “we should not try to show off.”
Sarkozy’s office has said the president will raise human rights concerns during his one-on-one talks with Assad on Saturday and try to advance the Israeli-Syrian peace process.
Assad has suggested that the energetic Sarkozy, who took over from Chirac in May last year, could play a direct role in Israeli-Syrian talks.
“My impression is that he is enthusiastic about these negotiations and wants France to play a direct role,” Assad said in the newspaper interview.
“If he confirms it to me, I will immediately invite him to support directly this peace process.”
Israel and Syria, which technically remain at war ever since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, have held three rounds of indirect talks through Turkey since March, raising peace prospects after an eight-year break.
While the United States initially reacted coolly to France’s rapprochement with Syria, Washington has since asserted that it is confident Sarkozy is conveying the right message to Damascus on its role in the Middle East.
France and the United States have called on Lebanon and Syria to establish full diplomatic relations to bolster stability after Damascus pulled its troops out of Lebanon in 2005, ending nearly three decades of military presence.
After the election in May of Lebanon’s Sleiman under a power-sharing deal between rival politicians, Sarkozy moved to reward Assad by renewing high-level contacts with Syria.
Assad’s visit comes as France holds the rotating presidency of the 27-nation European Union.