French President Nicolas Sarkozy left for Damascus for meetings to advance peace negotiations between Syria and Israel.
Sarkozy’s visit Wednesday and Thursday is the first to Syria by a Western head of state since 2005 and represents a thawing of relations between Syria and France.
Sarkozy and Assad will meet Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, for a summit on Syria-Israel peace.
On Wednesday, reports in at least two London-based Arabic daily newspapers quoted French sources as saying that Israel and Syria will hold a fifth round of indirect peace talks next week in Istanbul. The talks are scheduled to focus on a future border between Israel and Syria following an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, according to the Asharq Alawsat newspaper.
France will take part in mediation between Israel and Syria once the talks become direct under an agreement between Israel and the United States, a source quoted in Al-Hayat said.
Assad told France-3 television Tuesday that the sides were working toward direct negotiations.
“Today there is a possibility of peace,” Assad said. “But nonetheless, we cannot say that we are close to achieving peace. We are preparing for direct negotiations. When we reach that step, we will be able to say that we are approaching peace.”