France's secret diplomacy with Syria, and the arms dealer who played emissary

By and

In a series of exclusive reports that began in July, Mediapart has revealed the longstanding close links between France-based businessman and arms dealer Ziad Takieddine and the inner circle of advisors and aides surrounding Nicolas Sarkozy, before and after he became French president. Here, Fabrice Arfi and Karl Laske reveal Takieddine's highly sensitive role as secret emissary for the French presidency in securing close diplomatic and commercial ties with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

This article is freely available. Check out our subscription offers. Subscribe

Franco-Lebanese businessman Ziad Takieddine, 61, is cited as a key witness in ongoing investigations led by Paris-based examining magistrates Renaud Van Ruymbeke and Roger Le Loire into suspected illegal political financing in France from the sale of three French Agosta class submarines to Pakistan in the 1990s. The magistrates' enquiry was launched after suspicions that the significant sums officially destined as commissions - or bribes - to Pakistani officials ended up returning, illegally, to France to fund political activities. Suspicion centres on former prime minister Edouard Balladur's political movement and unsuccessful 1995 presidential election campaign, for which his budget minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, also served as official campaign spokesman.

Several witnesses questioned by the magistrates have designated Takieddine as a key intermediary in the 1994 contract who was imposed on the deal by Balladur's government shortly before it was concluded. Balladur, Sarkozy and Takieddine have firmly denied knowledge of illegal political funding via the commissions.

Written and photographic documents exclusively obtained by Mediapart and published in the seven preceding reports in this series have demonstrated the very close and longstanding links, both professional and social, between Takieddine and Nicolas Sarkozy's immediate entourage. Mediapart has revealed how Paris-based Takieddine surprisingly pays no income nor wealth tax in France, his fiscal domicile and where, according to documents signed by him, his personal fortune has an estimated value of more than 40 million euros.

Mediapart has further disclosed how in 2003 Takieddine was destined to receive 350 million euros in secret commissions from another arms contract, this time with Saudi Arabia, negotiated on behalf of Nicolas Sarkozy's aides via a company run by the French interior ministry when it was headed by Sarkozy. Mediapart has also disclosed how the arms dealer, while negotiating that contract, was saved by Sarkozy's entourage after an alleged assassination attempt on the exclusive Caribbean island of Mustique. In its last report, Mediapart detailed how Takieddine was mandated by Nicolas Sarkozy's staff, before and after he became French president, to negotiate major weapons and security contracts with the Libyan regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Takieddine was notably an intermediary in the sale of an encrypted signals system to counter Western surveillance operations.

Mediapart can now reveal how Ziad Takieddine played a central role in establishing close ties between France and Syria in the period between 2007 and 2009, including the introduction of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This behind-the-scenes, go-between role reached a high point in 2008, with President Assad's visit to Paris in July and President Sarkozy's visit to Damascus in September that same year, for which the arms dealer was the key organizer.

In return, Takieddine took part in negotiations led by French oil giant Total for contracts in Syria. According to internal notes and documents from Total, exclusively obtained by Mediapart, President Sarkozy leant political support to Takieddine's involvement in the discussions.

Just as he did in negotiations with the Libyan regime, Takieddine placed himself as one of the essential intermediaries for French companies hoping to do business with Damascus, while also acting out the role of unofficial representative of the French state. He did so with the intention of receiving secret commission payments, notably by obtaining deals for oil and gas field operating rights.

Total confirmed it had links with Takieddine, but insisted it had never paid Takieddine in connection with its projects in Syria, either directly or indirectly. The French presidential office did not reply to our request for a response to the issues raised in this article.

Just as in dealings with Saudi Arabia and Libya, as previously reported in this series of investigations, it was the current French interior minister Claude Guéant, when he was President Sarkozy's chief-of-staff (secretary-general of the Elysée Palace), who put into place the process of rapprochement with the Syrian regime, a process planned by Takieddine. According to reports written by Takieddine, also obtained by Mediapart, Guéant was regarded as an "exceptional man" by the Syrian President, who was grateful for France's role in providing him with "rehabilitation" on the international scene.

Takieddine acted as a secret advisor for Guéant, involved in preparing confidential reports, translations, advice on the wording of contacts, and in holding secret meetings with Syrian emissaries in Europe. His activities side-stepped the French foreign ministry which, under then-foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, was reluctant to develop links with the Syrian regime.

Extend your reading on Mediapart Unlimited access to the Journal free contribution in the Club Subscribe