Chirac rekindles a very dear friendship

Old grievances are forgotten as France and Syria join hands in a new alliance. Robert Fisk reports
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President Jacques Chirac positively glowed. He had come to Damascus to "rekindle an old friendship". Syria had provided "endless inspiration" to French culture. The two countries dreamed of "a partnership between equals" and shared "the same obstinate passion" for independence. "Nothing can be truly accomplished in the Middle East without Syria and without your assistance," Mr Chirac told President Hafez al-Assad.

And the Syrian leader, listening to the French President's praise for his "vision and lofty sense of Syria's responsibilities in the region," glowed too. France had re-entered the Middle East centre-stage, to the indignation of America, the anger of Israel, the irritation of the European Union - and the delight of Syria.

Never had the Syrians laid on anything as lavish as their welcome for the man who invoked General de Gaulle's desire for "a solid alliance and an indestructible friendship" with Syria. From the 21-gun salute at the airport, and the thousands of Syrians crying - spontaneously, as they say - "Vive Al-Assad, Vive Chirac", to the rose petals thrown at the French President's limousine, there was no doubting Syria's desire for a new alliance with France.

Gone were the memories of France's brutal colonial occupation during its 1920-48 mandate, forgotten was the attack on downtown Damascus by departing French troops, unmentioned was France's old suspicion that the Syrians may have been involved in the assassination of their Beirut ambassador back in 1981, a claim the Syrians have always denied.

For France, Jacques Chirac was carving out a new role in the Middle East. For President Assad, the French promise of economic assistance and friendship was a guarantee that Syria need not fear American or Israeli demands for its isolation. No wonder, at their joint press conference in Damascus last night, that President Assad turned to the French leader and referred to him as "my very dear friend Jacques Chirac". These are not words Mr Assad uses lightly. And no wonder that the Americans, sulking at the exuberance with which Mr Chirac responded to his welcome, could only mutter that France "did not know what it was doing".

French diplomats travelling with Mr Chirac dutifully echoed the Quai d'Orsay's official line on the visit: the French President was a man of peace who merely wished to show his support for the process of "land for peace" initiated in 1991. But Mr Chirac went far further. Referring to "poorly managed international situations" - an obvious jibe at America's inability to force Israel to keep to the peace accord - he said the peace process was in danger and that "it is time for Europe to co-sponsor this process as well". To President Assad's obvious satisfaction, Mr Chirac stated that "the principle of land for peace remains the basis of any agreement. This holds for the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights and I shall say so tomorrow in Israel."

But in Israel today, Mr Chirac's words are going to be heard in angry silence by members of the Israeli government. The speaker of the Knesset has announced he will boycott Mr Chirac's trip to Jerusalem and Haifa because he is not addressing the Israeli parliament - an odd gesture since Mr Chirac was not invited to address the Knesset. He will spend time with President Ezer Weizman and with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but will go on to address the Palestinian assembly in Ramallah (the first foreign leader to do so), and the Jordanian parliament in Amman.

European Union officials, still smarting at France's initiative - it was to pre-empt Mr Chirac's trip that it sent Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring to the Middle East last month - could scarcely object to most of Mr Chirac's remarks. The people of the Middle East and Europe, he said last night, were all part of a "Mediterranean family" and Europe "could not remain indifferent" to the grave events taking place in the region. But Mr Chirac's offer of economic assistance and his decision to forgive part of Syria's 2 billion French franc debt to Paris places him in the forefront of Syria's defenders in the Middle East.

Franco-Syrian relations "have had their ups and downs", he said, but France stood firmly behind Syria's "strategic option for peace". And Mr Chirac's enthusiasm for a Palestinian state goes further than the EU's support for Palestinian autonomy.

As one French diplomat put it last night, Mr Chirac is not going to blame Israel publicly for destroying much of the "peace process"; instead, he will address younger Israelis in Haifa and appeal to them to understand the need for an exchange of land for peace. Whether they will accept his contention that the "peace process" is "a hyphen, a link between the two banks of the Mediterranean", remains to be seen. He will be regarded as the friend of a country which the Americans still regard as a "state that supports terrorism".

Back in 1920, the League of Nations gave France a colonial mandate over Syria and France and Mr Chirac's penultimate stop in Beirut will evoke the ghosts of that old colonial role. Once again, France can claim a special relationship with the francophone states of the Levant. He cannot take the place of the superpower that once supported the Arabs but he can claim that "a certain balance [in the region] makes our participation desirable". All of which means that the gap between France and the US will have grown a few inches wider over the weekend. And the Arabs will be perfectly happy to hear the news.