Syria's Assad meets French lawmakers

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (center L) meets with a French delegation headed by Senate member, Head of the Senate’s French-Syrian Friendship Committee Jean-Pierre Vial,(center R) in Damascus February 25, 2015, in this picture released by Syria's national news agency SANA. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met on Wednesday with French parliamentarians, the first such meeting since France closed its embassy in 2012 and announced that Syria's leader had lost all legitimacy. The trip was not approved by the French parliament's foreign affairs committee, and the Foreign Ministry said it did not support the mission. Many European diplomats are saying privately it is time for communication with Damascus after a four-year revolt failed to overthrow Assad. Syria's state news agency said the meeting had focused on "challenges facing Arab and European regions, particularly with regard to terrorism". It paraphrased Assad as saying Syria "always encourages cooperation between states as the most effective way to stop the expansion of terrorism and eliminate it". More than 200,000 people have died in a civil war that began when peaceful pro-democracy protests were met by Damascus with force of arms. Islamist militants have grown to be the most powerful insurgent force. The four-man delegation, which returned to France on Thursday, was led by Gerard Bapt of the ruling Socialist Party and included members of the lower and upper houses of parliament. Lawmaker Jacques Myard, who has in the past accused Paris of blindly following U.S. policy, confirmed to Reuters that the meeting had taken place on Wednesday morning. "Coming here does not mean we back what's happened," he told BFM TV. "The objective is to understand Assad's regime better, because we don't believe we can fight Islamic State without Syria." He said certain countries that France considered allies in the region were not playing their part in the battle against Islamist militants. A French diplomatic source said the visit was considered a private one, and that the Foreign Ministry had not been consulted: "France's position is clear. We do not talk to Assad or his clique." While Britain, France and the United States all remain publicly opposed to a rapprochement, the Syrian government has repeatedly called for international cooperation to fight Islamist militancy. A Syrian court also released on bail the Damascus-based opposition figure Louay Hussein on Wednesday after more than three months in prison, according to his dissident group Building the Syrian State. State media did not mention the news and it is not clear if it was linked to the lawmakers' visit. In France, some government and opposition lawmakers have begun to criticize Paris's stance, as have former officials and some diplomats in private. (Reporting by Marwan Makdesi in Damascus and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Catherine Evans)