07/12/2008, 00.00
LEBANON - SYRIA

Bashar al-Assad and Michel Sleiman meet in Paris

by Paul Dakiki
A first sign of thaw after years of tension following the assassination of Rafik Hariri. For Assad, it is "an historic visit", a chance to return to the international community. But clearer signs are still awaited: diplomatic relations with Lebanon, and withdrawal of support for Hezbollah and for armed Palestinian groups.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - Bashar al-Assad and Michel Sleiman, presidents of Syria and Lebanon respectively, are meeting today in Paris during a conference of Mediterranean countries, organised by the European Union and by France in particular.

This is the first meeting between the two Middle Eastern leaders after a long period of tension between their neighbouring countries. Sleiman was elected after months of stalemate over presidential elections by the opposition, led by Hezbollah, which is supported by Syria and Iran.

The meeting this afternoon will also be attended by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and by sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar. It is precisely due to the mediation of Qatar that Lebanon was able to elect its president and form a new government.

Assad's visit to Europe also marks an initial return of Syria to the international diplomatic world, after years of ostracism. In 2005, when former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a terrorist attack, the suspicions and the initial evidence pointed to Syria.

In recent months, Syria seems to have changed its tune. Last February, Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyah was killed on Syrian soil, leading many analysts to conclude that Damascus is trying to distance itself from Hezbollah's hostile stance toward Israel.  At the same time, it is known that "secret" talks have been taking place for months between Damascus and Tel Aviv, with the mediation of Turkey.

Speaking to a French newspaper, Assad stated that his trip to Paris shows that the mood is changing. "This is an historic visit for me", he said, "an opening towards France and towards Europe".

According to unofficial speculation, today's meeting is intended push Syria toward opening diplomatic relations with Lebanon. Damascus has never recognised Lebanon, considering it part of "greater Syria ". But the most important sign would be Syria's refusal to support Hezbollah and armed Palestinian groups in their fight against Israel.

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