Assads France visit a boost to peace

PARIS — There were toasts and vows of "indestructible" friendship, but it remains doubtful whether Syrian President Hafez Assad's controversial visit to France has done anything to advance the Middle East peace process.

Assad, who visited on Thursday through Saturday of last week — his first trip to France in 22 years — sought to muster support from France and its European Union partners to play a wider role in the peace process, especially in helping Syria regain the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.

But French President Jacques Chirac's red-carpet reception of the Syrian leader was sharply attacked by the French media as well as by human rights activists and Jewish groups. Critics branded Assad a "dictator" amid charges that Syria is harboring an alleged war criminal wanted in France.

Assad has repeatedly maintained that Jerusalem's acceptance of a Golan withdrawal is a precondition for the resumption of Israeli-Syrian peace talks, prompting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's response that Israel would not accept any preconditions for restarting bilateral talks.

Israel broke off the talks in March 1996 after Syria refused to condemn a series of terror attacks that took place at the time in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

At a state dinner in Assad's honor, where he was received warmly by members of the French government and business leaders, the Syrian leader blamed what he called Netanyahu's "intransigence," saying the "peace process has been reduced to zero."

Jewish leaders accused Assad of hypocrisy.

"Syria occupies Lebanon and has no intention of leaving. So anyone who comes to teach a lesson that they themselves cannot apply is not really credible," said Michel Zaoui, vice president of CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations.

While Assad stressed during his stay that a greater European role in the peace process would not undermine American efforts, it is widely known that he has been frustrated with the U.S. failure to press Israel to make concessions on the Golan.

Assad harbors a profound distrust of American policy in the Middle East, say observers.

"Damascus fears a U.S. policy that would isolate it," said Bassma Kodmani Darwish, a specialist on Syria at the French Institute for International Relations. "They know that the U.S. administration and Congress are deeply imbued with Israeli points of view and are hostile toward Syria."

Chirac, who has been courting Arab nations to position France for a greater role in Middle East peacemaking, reiterated that there could be no peace accord with Lebanon without a withdrawal from the Golan.

Prime Minister Lionel Jospin went further.

"France recognizes the right of Syria to regain its total sovereignty over the Golan. Negotiations with Israel should not stress the principal of this sovereignty but the ways to restore it," he said.

But chances of a greater French role in the peace process are unlikely because Israel, which sees France as pro-Arab, has rejected mediation by any country other than the United States.

The timing of Assad's visit provoked protests from French Jews.

Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld, who heads an association of Holocaust survivors, led a demonstration outside the Syrian Embassy during Assad's visit, which fell on the anniversary of a mass roundup of more than 13,000 Jews in 1942.

The visit also prompted charges that Syria is providing haven for the last leading Nazi still believed to be on the loose — one who played a central role in the deportation of Jews from France.

Klarsfeld accused Assad of sheltering former Nazi official Alois Brunner, who was condemned to death in absentia by two French courts in 1954.

Brunner, who served during World War II as personal secretary to Adolf Eichmann, Hitler's chief aide, was commander of the infamous Drancy transit camp outside Paris, where some 62,000 of the 76,000 Jews deported from France were detained before being sent to Auschwitz.

The person whom Eichmann once described as his "best man" orchestrated the deaths of some 128,000 Jews from Austria, Greece, France and Slovakia during the war years.

Brunner disappeared at the end of the war, but resurfaced in the 1950s and 1960s in Egypt. He then moved to Syria, where the government used him to train secret police.

When Chirac raised the question of Brunner's presence in Syria, Assad told the French leader that as far as he knew, Brunner was not in the country.

Assad, who has refused to allow French officials to investigate Brunner's whereabouts in Syria, told Chirac he would "examine the issue," according to Chirac's spokeswoman.

Many French press reports published during the visit portrayed Assad as a man who rules his country with an iron fist and with little concern for human rights.

Even the left-leaning press, usually critical of Israel, was puzzled by Chirac's welcoming of Assad.

"It's hard to understand why Chirac, whose visit to Damascus in October 1996 had already been problematic, accepted to deliver a note of good behavior to a man who couldn't care less about human rights or democracy," said the daily newspaper Liberation, which described Assad as a leader who "considers terrorism an art."