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Little Hope of French-Syrian Reconciliation

Syrian analysts do not expect this week’s meeting between Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner to bring any warmth to relations between the two countries, or to lead to any breakthrough in the Lebanese political crisis.

Kouchner and Moallem met to discuss Lebanon on the sidelines of an April 22 conference on Iraq taking place in Kuwait.

Their meeting marked the first talks between French and Syrian officials since President Nicolas Sarkozy cut diplomatic contacts with Damascus in December. Sarkozy accused Syria of creating political deadlock in Lebanon.

"We hope relations between France and Syria will be renewed with regard to Lebanon," Kouchner said at the conference in Kuwait.

But a Syrian political analyst said neither side “appeared to have placed much hope in the meeting”.

“The regional and international circumstances are still the same,” he said. “There’s nothing new to make Syria change its Lebanon policy right now."

Le Figaro reported on April 23 that Israel had given the French a message to deliver to Syria – a threat to strike Damascus if the Syrian-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah attacks Israel. A French foreign ministry spokesman in Paris refused to comment on this report.

Moallem told a press conference that it was Kouchner who requested the meeting, which he described as "friendly". Both he and Kouchner said that their countries wanted to see the Lebanese political crisis resolved.

"You must talk to everyone, including those with whom you disagree, so that there is no misunderstanding," a diplomat with the French delegation in Kuwait told AFP news agency. "We have a real disagreement with the Syrians. We talk to them without having illusions, and while maintaining a distance."

The analyst in Syria commented, "It’s become clear over the last few months that the new French government lacks experience in dealing with Syria’s complicated policies. So nothing much is expected from this meeting."

A Syrian critic of the government said the meeting with France “is useful for the regime, regardless of its results, because it makes [Syria] less isolated internationally".

He expressed doubt that the talks would break the political stalemate in Lebanon.

“There are no signs that Syria is going to make any concessions on Lebanon. Let's not forget that while these meetings were taking place, the speaker of Lebanon’s parliament postponed the presidential election," he said.

At a separate meeting organised by France on April 22 on the sidelines of the conference, western and Arab nations called for the immediate selection of Lebanese general Michel Suleiman as president. The country’s parliament has made numerous attempts to vote in Suleiman in recent months, but has been foiled by an opposition boycott.

Participants also said Damascus and Beirut needed to redefine and normalise their relationship.

Syria refused to attend the meeting.

Two days later, Lebanon’s parliament, divided between the Syrian-supported opposition and the United States-backed government, failed to elect a president for the 18th time.

At a press conference, Moallem questioned US policies on Lebanon, saying, “It wants to keep the situation as it is, with an American-backed government and prime minister."

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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