ANALYSIS / France Elbows U.S. Aside in Syria Negotiations

American participation in talks called off because Washington not prepared to be 'a tail' to the French.

A senior diplomatic source close to the Turkish-mediated talks between Israel and Syria said the United States has been persuaded that it should take part in the talks, but that France has "pushed itself" into Syria; and French President Nicolas Sarkozy's participation in talks in Damascus have led the U.S. to cancel its decision for now.

The source said that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch was to have participated as an observer at the coming Israeli-Syrian meeting in Turkey, but that Washington was not prepared to be "a tail" to the French and so Welch's participation was called off.

The source also said Welch's participation was to have kicked off direct talks between the Israelis and the Syrians and it is not clear now when such talks will begin.

France said Syrian President Bashar Assad had been the one to invite the French to sponsor direct talks, and that the U.S. cannot complain if it hesitates to take part.

Sarkozy and Assad are to meet today in Damascus with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Qatar's ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. The summit is considered a major achievement for Assad, since France is now the chair of the European Union and Al Thani is president of the Gulf Cooperative Council of six countries.

Since Washington is not taking part in the indirect talks, and perhaps to strengthen France's position in effecting a breakthrough of the American isolation of Damascus, Assad may make do with the French-Qatari-Turkish sponsorship of the direct talks with Israel until the U.S. presidential elections. At that point an American representative could join them. In any case, Israel would not be able to refuse a direct meeting, even if Washington decided not to take part.

Sarkozy's participation in the summit also makes a mockery of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which France and the U.S. initiated four years ago. The resolution states that all foreign forces must leave Lebanon and all armed militias must be disbanded, including Hezbollah. The resolution angered the Syrians, and according to UN research, partially laid the groundwork for the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who worked to promote it. Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War is based on Resolution 1559. With the major conciliation between France and Syria now underway, it seems that there will no longer be anyone to push for its implementation.