Sarkozy and Rice to meet former pariah Arab states
Friday, 05 September 2008

Agencies

French president Nicolas Sarkozy and US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice are visiting former pariah Arab states this week, signifying a thawing of relations that the west hopes will yield significant results.

Sarkozy is meeting President Bashar al-Assad today in the first official visit by a Western leader to Syria for more than three years. And on Friday Condoleezza Rice will become the first US secretary of state to travel to Libya in more than half a century.
 
While the US and other western and Arab governments still shun Assad, Sarkozy has responded to Syria's recent indirect peace talks with Israel and its support for reconciliation in Lebanon.
 
"The moment that Syria renews ties, through France, with Europe, maybe with the west, and we hope with its Arab environment, then one can imagine that evolutions will become possible," a French official close to Sarkozy told Reuters.
 
He said Sarkozy would ask Assad to use its ties with Tehran to try to end Iran's standoff with the west over its nuclear programme, which the US and others claim is geared towards developing weapons of mass destruction. Iran insists the programme is peaceful.
 
But the official added that France was not asking Syria to distance itself from Tehran. Israel is believed to be trying to engineer a schism between Syria and Iran, as well as Islamist groups Hizbullah and Hamas, by wooing Assad.
 
Sarkozy is the first Western head of government to visit Damascus since the 2005 assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri, which was blamed on Syria, the former military power in neighbouring Lebanon.
 
Paris suspended diplomatic contacts with Damascus last year after it accused the government of blocking Lebanon's presidential election. When Syria subsequently helped resolve the political stalemate it opened the way for renewed contacts with France.
 
Peace talks with Israel are likely to be near the top of the agenda when Sarkozy and Assad meet the Turkish prime minister, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, and Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
 
Syria has said it is open to direct talks with Israel but only after a new US administration comes to office next year. US-brokered direct negotiations collapsed in 2000 over the extent of Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Syria's foreign minister said recently the indirect talks were focusing on the same sticking point.
 
Rice begins a four-nation tour of North Africa in Tripoli on Friday, meeting Libyan leader Muammar Gadafy and other top officials in what the US state department called a "historic stop".
 
"In that period of time, we've had a man land on the moon, the internet, the Berlin Wall fall, and we've had 10 US presidents," said state department spokesman Sean McCormack.
 
The two countries are working on a bilateral trade and investment deal to boost commerce that may be completed in time for Rice's arrival, officials said.
 
Libya's proven oil reserves are the ninth largest in the world, close to 39 billion barrels, and vast areas remain unexplored for new deposits.
 
Libya has come in from the cold in terms of its relationship with the US since it abandoned its weapons of mass destruction programmes and renounced terror in 2003.
 
It also began moves to compensate the victims of Libyan-linked attacks, most notably the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 269 passengers and crew.
 
Last month a settlement scheme with the US was finally reached although Libya has yet to put cash into the humanitarian fund as agreed.
 
In an unsubtle message to Iran and others, McCormack said: "Libya is an example that if countries make a different set of choices than they are making currently, they can have a different kind of relationship with the United States."
 
Rice will also visit Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco and stop over in Lisbon, Portugal, before returning to Washington on Sunday.

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