The Syrian daily Al-Watan published an interview with French President Nicolas Sarkozy today, in advance of his visit to Damascus.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
"The Road to Peace in the Region Passes Through Both Our Countries"
Interviewer: "What message would you like to communicate to the Syrians on your first visit there as president of France?"
Sarkozy: "My first message to the Syrian people is one of friendship. Throughout history, our countries have maintained close and warm ties, although it must be admitted that these were sometimes fraught with complications. Nevertheless, in spite of the difficulties that have attended these ties, the friendship between our people has never been severed. This is a most precious asset, and we must guard it at any cost…
"This visit is taking place under special circumstances, for our countries intend to turn over a new page in our relations. This new page is very dear to my heart, since within its framework Syria has been gradually making choices that the world expects from it – [and] in this way it will reinstate its position among the nations. By visiting Damascus, I would like to convey to the Syrian authorities how crucial it is for them to continue on this course. Syria is an important country, capable of making an indispensable contribution to the settlement of problems in the Middle East, and it is essential that its role in the region should be positive.
"I envision a future in which [we] follow the course of cooperation between France and Syria. True, we are independent countries, and at times each of us has its own private interests. However, I am convinced – as I mentioned to [Syrian President] Bashar Al-Assad on July 12, when he arrived in Paris – that the road to peace in the region passes through both our countries."
France Must "Regain Its Place on the International Chessboard"
Interviewer: "Some publicists have been discussing strategic ties between Paris and Damascus. Are we in a position today to speak of France's forceful return to the Middle East chessboard?"
Sarkozy: "Since I was elected president of France 15 months ago, I have wished for France to regain its place on the international chessboard. As for the Middle East, a region close to my heart, I want my country to assume the highest responsibility in serving the cause of peace. To this end, we must gain the trust of all sides. Accordingly, I have instituted several significant reforms in our Middle East policy – including even breaking away from [the Middle East policy of previous French president Jacque Chirac].
"I have acted in the same way with regard to Israel as well, since the intensity of the friendship between France and Israel is no different from that between France and Israel's Arab neighbors, or from our steadfast commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
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"I treat Syria the same way as well: From my point of view, the main thing is to create an opening for dialogue – but it must be a determined dialogue, which will enable genuine progress.
"Our return to the Middle East was also heralded by the Mediterranean summit, held July 13-14 in Paris, which proved to be a great success. All but one of the leaders of the countries that lie north and south of the Mediterranean attended the opening of this great cultural project, which I believe signifies that France, and certainly Europe, has returned to the region.
"In a July 12 joint French-Syrian declaration, France committed to take steps essential to the ratification of the cooperation agreement between Syria and the European Union."
"We Are Working On The [Syria-E.U.] Cooperation Agreement"
Interviewer: "Has there been any progress in this area? Has a date been set for the ratification [of this agreement]?"
Sarkozy: "We are working on the cooperation agreement together with our European partners. We must amend the agreement initialed three years ago and adapt it to [present circumstances]. Syria has undergone substantial development since that time. I believe that we all must make an effort to ensure that the new version [of the agreement] is more closely matched to the economic reality in today's Syria. Syrian authorities are interested in it as well.
"It is difficult to speak of a date for the ratification of [the cooperation agreement], since the process by which [such] cooperation agreements are forged is complex, and they require the sanctioning of all [EU] member countries. We are sparing no efforts to further this issue."
Interviewer: "On many occasions, you have stressed your support for indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel. The fifth session of these negotiations is planned to take place in Turkey in the near future. However, there are still many obstacles on the way to peace – in particular Israel's new threats against Lebanon. What function can France serve in promoting the peace process and establishing overall peace in the region?"
Sarkozy: "The indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel are very good for both countries, as well as for the region and for the entire world. You say that there are difficulties. This is only natural, for creating peace is not an easy endeavor by any means. Much effort is required for this purpose, as well as determination [on the part of both sides].
"Accordingly, I would like to congratulate the Syrian and Israeli leaders for their courage and discernment in engaging in this process. I would also like to stress what a wonderful job Turkey has done in this area.
"As I have said in the past to President Assad, France will certainly be prepared to accompany the sides on their way to peace and conciliation, should Syria be interested in this. We are publicly assuming this responsibility, since we are aware that both sides have pinned their hopes on us, and we will never disappoint them."
"I Am... Convinced That We Must Resolve the Iranian Crisis Through Dialogue"
Interviewer: "President Assad has recently declared that only by means of dialogue can regional problems be resolved. What is the state of affairs at this point in time regarding dialogue with Iran?"
Sarkozy: "I am likewise convinced that we must resolve the Iranian crisis through dialogue, since it is the only way to escape a tragic alternative that no one desires: either an Iranian bomb, or the bombing of Iran.
"For this reason, in 2003 the international community opted for the European states' initiative of adopting the strategy of intensive dialogue, involving clear proposals and sanctions, in the event that Iran refuses to fulfill its international obligations. I hope to continue following this strategy.
"Recently, [E.U. foreign policy chief Javier] Solana has made the Iranians a new proposal on behalf of six countries – a far-reaching proposal that offers the Iranians all the guarantees. So far, [however,] Iran has not come back with a serious answer. I am much grieved by this, since I believe that finally a real opportunity exists for solving this crisis in a manner acceptable to everyone, [and therefore] I hope that the Iranians will rescind their decision.
"I trust that dialogue with Iran will continue, and that its leaders will realize what danger has been posed to their country by this gamble. I call on them to ponder the verdict that future generations will pass on them for their decisions today.
"Iran must choose [its path]. No effort must be spared to convince Teheran to choose cooperation over isolation and conflict."
 Al-Watan (Syria), September 3, 2008.