Syria: President Nicolas Sarkozy's two-day visit to Damascus got off to a bad start yesterday when it became apparent that he and the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are engaged in a dialogue of the deaf regarding the Iranian nuclear programme.

Matters were further complicated when the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan first cancelled his attendance at a meeting with Mr Sarkozy, Mr Assad and the Emir of Qatar here today, then relented on condition the summit be moved forward by an hour or more.

At a press conference in the Syrian presidential palace, Mr Sarkozy stressed repeatedly that he expected Mr Assad to convey to Tehran how serious the crisis over the Iranian nuclear programme has become. "I told [Assad] again Iran must not possess nuclear weapons," Mr Sarkozy said. "An Iranian nuclear weapon would be a threat to peace throughout the region and the world."

Mr Sarkozy slighted his Arab host by purporting to explain the Syrian president's position in his presence: "The position of President Assad is that the possession of nuclear weapons by anyone would be a problem," Mr Sarkozy said.

"It's a mystery to no one that Syria enjoys relations of confidence with Iran. It is my duty to draw the attention of a country that is a friend of Iran to how grave the situation is."

When Mr Assad finally got a chance to answer for himself, he said Syria had proposed a UN Security Council resolution making the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone, but the resolution was prevented from coming to a vote.

Mr Assad then aligned himself with the Iranian contention that Iran's nuclear programme is solely to produce civil nuclear energy.

"It is clear that there is no confidence between European countries and Iran on this question," Mr Assad said. "We in Syria want to prove the goal [of the Iranian programme] is civil and not military. We will build a dialogue between the two parties."

A year ago this week, Israel bombed a site near the Syrian-Iraqi border where Syria was allegedly building a nuclear reactor with help from North Korea. A Syrian dissident source said he believed the target was chemical or biological, not nuclear.

"The Syrians know what was there," said a source close to Mr Sarkozy, "and they saw what happened, so they're well-placed to pass the message on [to the Iranians].

Last-minute difficulties over the Turkish prime minister's schedule were a further lesson to Mr Sarkozy on the trials of becoming the new Middle East peace broker. Mr Erdogan has overseen indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel, and would have at least two reasons for needling Mr Sarkozy.

Mr Erdogan sees himself as a regional statesman and the only leader on good terms with all parties to the Middle East conflict; he cannot enjoy watching Mr Sarkozy steal his role.

There is no love lost between the Turkish and French leaders. Mr Erdogan built his AK Party on the commitment to bring Turkey into the European Union. Mr Sarkozy is determined to prevent Turkish accession.

Nor was Mr Sarkozy happy to hear Mr Assad diluting the French role, in comments to the press. The French president has presented himself as "co-sponsor" with the US of any future direct negotiations between Syria and Israel. Asked what his conditions are for direct negotiations, Mr Assad said the foundations for talks are being laid now.

"Once everything is in place, we can begin direct negotiations. This will necessitate the presence of the United States and other countries concerned by the process - the sponsors - the US, France, Turkey and others . . . " Mr Sarkozy stared at the ceiling.

From the moment he arrived at Mr Assad's palace until the two presidents left for dinner, I never saw the French leader smile. Was it the 30 degree heat, the way Assad towered over him, Mr Erdogan's capriciousness, or a distaste for 21-gun salutes, military bands and protocol?

Or could the ghost of the builder of the palace, the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, have been hovering over?

The huge, structure on a mountaintop overlooking Damascus was a gift from the late King Fahd to Mr Assad's father Hafez in the early 1990s. Mr Hariri became a billionaire as Fahd's favourite builder. Both men tried to pull Syria away from her relationship with Iran, and closer to the Arab world and the West. Both failed, and Syria is widely believed to have ordained Hariri's assassination, along with 22 other people, in February 2005.

An international tribunal is investigating Hariri's murder, and after several postponements is supposed to begin prosecutions at the end of this year. Immunity for his regime is understood to be one of Mr Assad's basic conditions for going ahead with the peace process. Hariri's family, friends and the political movement he founded are distraught at the prospect that the tribunal may become a bargaining chip.