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Fate of French hostages in Lebanon makes Paris reluctant to break with Damascus

Of all the countries attending Monday's meeting in Luxembourg to coordinate the European stand on Syria's support of terrorism, France found itself in the most awkward position. France had called for strong international action to combat terrorism following the wave of terrorist bombings that hit Paris in early September. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac said France was prepared to carry out reprisals against any group or state proved to have aided the terrorists. France also called for a meeting of European envoys in London to coordinate European actions against terrorism.

But now, Britain's initiative in breaking diplomatic relations with Syria threatens to throw a monkey-wrench into France's strategy for dealing with Syria.

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For the past few months, the French have been trying to use a carrot-and-stick approach to persuade Syrian authorities to cooperate with them on terrorism and France's problems in the Middle East. (Eight French hostages are missing in Lebanon, and French UN troops in south Lebanon were the targets of several attacks last month.) Increased contacts with the Syrians recently have demonstrated the importance French officials place on Syria's abilities to help them.

French officials have termed the Syrian attitude toward France's hostages in Lebanon ``very cooperative'' and continue to hope Syria will help secure their release. The French also see Syria's role in Lebanon as a possible brake to radical Iranian influence there.

While senior French officials say they do not have definitive proof that Syria was involved in the recent wave of bombings in Paris, they do not exclude that possibility. They believe, however, that factional elements within Syria's intelligence services may have given support to various terrorist groups without the consent of Syrian President Hafez Assad.

Representatives of France's intelligence services recently met Syrian authorities in Damascus. They reportedly asked the Syrians to exert greater control over terrorist groups operating in Syrian-controlled Lebanese territory and to demonstrate good faith by exchanging information on terrorism with France.

At the same time, France has reportedly been discussing possible arms and economic agreements with Syria. Published reports here have said France has been considering a 3 billion franc ($457.5 million) arms deal with Syria. Mr. Chirac's office has denied any arms deal is in the making, but acknowledges that France continues to honor previous contracts. France has also considered sending a committee of experts to Damascus to study possible French economic aid to Syria, which is said to be in dire financial straits. The European Community, which aided Syria with some $93 million from 1982-1986, is currently negotiating a new protocol for financial assistance.

The implication of France's double approach is clear: More Syrian cooperation over the French hostages could bring increased aid. For France now to follow the British lead could wreck any progress on these issues.

``The Syrians were asking for proof of good will in credits and arms, and we were asking for proof of Syrian good will actions in the area of terrorism,'' says a French political analyst. ``Then [British Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher comes along and ruins everything.''

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``For France, a break in diplomatic relations is much more complicated,'' says Bassma Khodmani, a Middle East expert at the French Institute of International Relations. ``France can't adopt the same position as Britain without much more serious consequences.''

Short of breaking diplomatic relations, analysts here say, there are other options France might be able to support, with less cost to its foreign policy. Those include postponing any official visits, such as West Germany did with the upcoming visit by the Syrian foreign minister or recalling its ambassador for consultations.

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