Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 23:46 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 23:46 | SYDNEY

The road from Damascus


Rodger Shanahan


16 June 2008 12:04

As leader of one of the Axis of Not Quite so Evil countries, Bashar Assad has largely had to satisfy his presidential travel ambitions in regional countries. Support for Hizbullah and militant Palestinian groups, a close relationship with Iran, suspicions over its role in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and Israel’s recent bombing of a suspected nuclear reactor site in northern Syria have all meant that Syria is more often than not overlooked when official invitations for state visits are handed out.

But all that appears to be changing.  In the blink of an eye, Syrian Arab Airways pilots have had to chart course for India this month and France next month, for Assad to take part in Bastille Day celebrations. While India’s invitation is almost entirely for commercial reasons (and partially to reinforce India's non-aligned credentials), France’s offer is President Sarkozy’s doing. French-Syrian relations plummeted after President Chirac’s close friend Rafiq Hariri was killed, but Sarkozy appears to be trying to reward Syria for entering peace talks with Israel, and wants to encourage Syria to adopt a constructive role in Lebanese affairs, a country in which Sarkozy has shown a keen interest. The Syrian president is also a part of President Sarkozy’s vision for a Mediterranean Union, which has an eerie similarity to our own prime minister’s recently announced initiative for an Asia-Pacific Community.

The invite to Paris has not, however, shielded Damascus from warnings over its behaviour. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner saw the invite as a necessary piece of realpolitik, while Presidents Sarkozy and Bush reminded Syria, during a recent joint news conference, that it was still not out of the cold. Still, in an effort to both strengthen the Lebanese republic and to isolate Iran, France has certainly decided that all roads lead to (or from) Damascus.