Thursday, July 24, 2008

Walid Moallem, fear, and the prisoners

Walid Moallem, fear, and the prisoners
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, July 24, 2008

Walid Moallem came to Beirut on Monday, proving that absence doesn't necessarily increase a sense of longing. In his short time in town the Syrian foreign minister reminded us of the kind of regime he works for, something forgotten in the bout of amnesia that overcame the world media last week when Syrian President Bashar Assad visited Paris.

During his visit, Moallem was asked about the fate of Lebanese still detained in Syrian prisons, and what he had to say about the matter. The foreign minister replied: "He who has waited for 30 years during [Lebanon's] Civil War is capable of being patient for a few weeks [more]."

Moallem could have said any of a dozen other things. He could have done what bureaucrats usually do and said nothing at all. He could have found a hypocritical formulation to suggest that he felt sympathy for the families of the prisoners, scoring easy points on behalf of Syria's dictator. Instead he made a callous statement, more insulting for being wrapped in a falsehood since Lebanon's Civil War ended in 1990 and many of those sent to Syria were arrested during the postwar years of absolute Syrian rule.

Moallem's reaction invites a question more appropriate to psychology than politics. What is it about Syrian civilian officials that frequently makes them so vicious in what they say about Lebanon? Theirs is the viciousness not of the intelligence officer but of the coward, the sissy, who talks tough because he is petrified of the intelligence officer; who fears that if he doesn't talk tough, then those with real power in the system might see through that ersatz toughness all the way to the grinding fear that lies underneath, a fatal fear in so pitiless a system as the Baathist one.

Recall what another Syrian official, Faysal Mekdad, said about Gebran Tueni soon after his assassination in December 2005. At the time Mekdad, who is now deputy foreign minister, was Assad's representative at the United Nations. In a conversation with a fellow Arab diplomat Mekdad was overheard saying, "So now every time that a dog dies in Beirut there will be an international investigation?" He was referring to the fact that the Lebanese government had, the day before, requested that the UN investigation of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's murder be expanded to include the dozen or so bomb explosions and assassinations that had taken place afterward - Tueni's being the latest. In response to the comment, Gebran's father Ghassan took legal action against Mekdad.

However, is anything surprising here? When Moallem and Mekdad speak, they only ape the man that they serve. And on Lebanon Bashar Assad has been more contemptuous than most. Recall what the president said in a speech on March 5, 2005, when he announced that his army in Lebanon would withdraw toward the Syrian border: "Of course, [two] forces have been a natural part of Lebanese history for over 200 years, [those] that extend their hand to the outside, and nationalist forces. And [the former] have failed several times: in 1958 when Lebanon joined the Baghdad Pact; in 1969 when it attacked the Palestinian resistance; in 1983 when [such forces failed] to breathe life into the May 17 agreement [with Israel]; [such behavior] will fail for as long as nationalist forces are present."

That "nationalist forces" did not exist 200 years back in Lebanese history was the least difficult aspect of that ill-informed passage to stomach. Rather, it was Assad's ideological interpretation of Lebanese history that was, his feeding of Lebanon and the Lebanese into a crude Baathist mindset that divided them into patriots and renegades.

Then there was April 24, 2007, when Assad met in Damascus with the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to discuss Lebanon. The exchange was later leaked to the French daily Le Monde, which published it in an article evidently never read by Nicolas Sarkozy. Assad told Ban, "In Lebanon, divisions and confessionalism have been deeply anchored for more than 300 years. Lebanese society is very fragile. [The country's] most peaceful years were when Syrian forces were present. From 1976 to 2005 Lebanon was stable, whereas now there is great instability."

In case Ban didn't get the point, Assad clarified it: "[This instability] will worsen if the special [Hariri] tribunal is established. Particularly if it is established under Chapter VII. This might easily cause a conflict that would degenerate into civil war, provoking divisions between Sunnis and Shiites from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea ... This would have serious consequences beyond Lebanon."

Passage of the Hariri tribunal under Chapter VII of the UN Charter did not bring on the apocalypse that Assad had promised, which tells us something else about Syria's regime: When faced with a resolute adversary, it tends to back down. That is why the Lebanese government should try to apply that lesson with regard to those Lebanese still imprisoned in Syria. They number 91 according to the former minister Fouad al-Saad, who years ago headed a committee charged with shedding light on their fate; although yesterday the daily Al-Mustaqbal published the names of 177 Lebanese prisoners still believed to be in Syria.

The first thing the Lebanese government should do is appoint an independent investigator to prepare as accurate a list as possible of the detainees. That list should then be placed on the table whenever Lebanon and Syria discuss anything - bearing in mind that both Christians and Muslims are languishing in Syrian jails, meaning a cross-sectarian consensus on resolving the problem is achievable. That list should also make its way to Paris, Washington, Berlin and Brussels, so that every time a foreign official lands in Damascus, the names should be in his or her briefcase, hopefully alongside the names of the many Syrian political prisoners whose misfortunes have been generally ignored in the West.

Maybe then we will be able to tell Moallem that if fear has provoked his scorn for those who have suffered under the leadership he represents, we at least have nothing to fear anymore. It's the least that Lebanon's political class can do after having spent years chatting with Syrian intelligence chiefs at Anjar, only meters away from where their countrymen were being beaten and tortured and readied for a long journey into the Syrian prison network that for many has yet to end.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Can Resolution 1701 last much longer?

Can Resolution 1701 last much longer?
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, July 17, 2008

So, Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, is now saying that United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 is dead. It's not absolutely dead, but Israel's reluctance to facilitate a solution in the Shebaa Farms area, like its willingness to conclude a grand prisoner bargain with Hizbullah that handed the party a fine victory, will certainly help dismantle what remains of the security framework set up after the summer 2006 war.

There are two Lebanese approaches for dealing with Israel today. There is the one advocated publicly by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and MP Walid Jumblatt that calls for a return to the 1949 Armistice Agreement. Then there is Hizbullah's proposal, which is to pursue an open-ended armed struggle against Israel. Siniora wants to see the Shebaa Farms neutralized as a space of confrontation; Hizbullah has said that whatever solution is found in the farms area, the resistance will continue. Israel's actions have bolstered those who support the second option, in the same way that its inflexibility on releasing Palestinian prisoners has bolstered those Palestinians who argue that the best way to resolve that issue is to kidnap or kill Israelis, then haggle over them or their body parts.

The Hizbullah-Israel swap on Wednesday was surrounded by substantial hypocrisy. March 14 and Siniora lustily applauded an exchange that they knew was to their disadvantage. Jumblatt, faced with Samir Kontar's release, decided it was best to co-opt the released prisoner as best he could, because he had no alternative as paramount Druze leader but to welcome his coreligionist, but also to avoid Kontar's being used against him politically by Hizbullah. However, in the Sunni and Christian neighborhoods, as in the Druze mountains, few danced in the "national wedding" that Hizbullah celebrated. Many could plainly see that what the party had gained, they had lost.

Who can blame them, coming only two days after Bashar Assad was the darling of Paris - thanks to the efforts of the former Lebanese minister Michel Samaha, who handled the media aspect of Assad's trip, and to the French government, so indecently eager to wipe the Syrian president's slate clean. To the narcissistic Nicolas Sarkozy, a man willing to trade in the essential for the limelight, it was also a good weekend. He may not have gotten a single serious concession out of Assad, but at least he showed he was different than Jacques Chirac, an obsession of his, by trashing the former president's diplomatic achievements in Lebanon.

After the fanfare in Paris, the Syrians quietly explained that an exchange of embassies between Beirut and Damascus might actually take more time than expected. In Assad's meeting with President Michel Sleiman, the Syrian president didn't even mention delimiting the Syrian-Lebanese border. The reality is that the Assad regime has not budged one iota in its policy toward Lebanon since 2005. Indeed, it has very likely not given up on physically returning its army to the country, even if this is more difficult than it sounds, and those who suggest that Damascus only seeks influence in Beirut might want to consider why this is unconvincing.

The Syrian regime doesn't want the Shebaa Farms imbroglio resolved because it seeks to tie in any settlement over the Golan Heights to one in Lebanon. Without this linkage, Syria fears that a prior solution on the Lebanese track would block Hizbullah's ability to attack Israel from South Lebanon, which Syria wishes to use as leverage in its negotiations over the Golan. But for Syria to have real control of the Hizbullah card - an essential ingredient in strengthening its credibility in talks with Israel - it must also prove that it has the means to restrain the party. And Assad can only do that if his army is physically present in Lebanon.

Why would Hizbullah go along with this? Because it understands that such a strategy allows it to undermine Resolution 1701, which is also a Syrian priority. But also because a renewed Syrian military presence in Lebanon would shield Hizbullah against that majority of Lebanese that seeks its disarmament. In addition, the party's leadership is wagering that Syria is more interested in a process of negotiation with Israel than in a final settlement; and, most tellingly, Hizbullah seems confident that, even if a final settlement does eventually come, Syria will not have the military capability, let alone the will, to stifle the resistance.

How will the UN respond to defend Resolution 1701? Let's try not to laugh. France knows very well that Syria has violated all UN resolutions on Lebanon since 2004, particularly Resolution 1701. The French also happen to provide an important contingent to UNIFIL, which is there to implement Resolution 1701, a contingent with large Leclerc tanks that will occasionally fire shells into the empty sea. But Syrian behavior hasn't prevented Sarkozy from obstinately pursuing Assad. If you were Syria or Hizbullah, therefore, would you fear a French reaction, or that of other European states, to your efforts to emasculate UN resolutions?

Even in the halls of the European Parliament, Hizbullah's weight is being felt. An effort by some European parliamentarians to encourage the European Union to place Hizbullah on its terrorism list is now being actively opposed by Socialist representatives. Two of them recently sent out an e-mail to their comrades urging them not to vote in favor of the decision, as the issue was "sensitive" and the European Parliament "has stressed the importance to find a political solution on the Lebanese internal conflict and the agreement between all the Lebanese political parties, including Hezbollah, has been considered as a positive step."

What the e-mail did not say is that the European contingents in Lebanon are now hostages to Syria and Hizbullah rather than enforcers of the Security Council's writ. The UN needs an open channel to Hizbullah, which is why many in Europe oppose the terrorism designation. But with Israel doing everything it can to strengthen Syria's hand in Lebanon, and indirectly that of Hizbullah; with the collapse of the European position on Lebanese sovereignty and UN resolutions; and with the US utterly absent from Lebanon as its presidential election nears, we have to be realistic. The independence intifada is over and Syria has entered a new phase in its effort to re-create in Lebanon what it was made to surrender in 2005.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sarkozy irrite vraiment les Libanais

L’invitation de Bachar El-Assad au défilé du 14 Juillet passe mal à Beyrouth. Les Libanais craignent de payer le prix fort d’un accord israélo-syrien soutenu par la France.

Ces huit derniers mois, la politique française au Liban s’est distinguée par une rare incompétence et par l’absence de toute stratégie apparente. Qu’est-ce que la France espère gagner en courtisant la Syrie ? Officiellement, les porte-parole français disent que leur objectif est d’amener Damas à rompre avec l’Iran et de le pousser à négocier avec Israël. Ce dernier point en dit plus qu’il n’y paraît à première vue. Nicolas Sarkozy flaire la possibilité d’un accord de paix et ne veut pas que la France soit laissée sur la touche le jour où il sera conclu. Ce qui est compréhensible. Mais le président Assad accorde peu d’importance à la France. Sa priorité est de se servir de la légitimité que Sarkozy lui a conférée et des entretiens avec Israël pour se rapprocher des Etats-Unis.

Les Français n’ont pas assez d’influence sur la Syrie pour modifier cet état de choses, car ils lui ont déjà accordé tout ce qu’elle peut désirer à ce stade : la fin de l’isolation du régime d’Assad malgré son implication dans l’assassinat de l’ancien Premier ministre Rafic Hariri et sa répression contre les dissidents syriens ; un rôle plus actif au Liban ; l’offre d’un accord de partenariat avec l’Union européenne dans un avenir pas trop lointain ; et une possible manipulation du Tribunal pénal international [censé juger les responsables des assassinats politiques au Liban, notamment celui de l’ancien Premier ministre Rafic Hariri], en échange de concessions syriennes non précisées.

Dernièrement, une source française se présentant comme “bien informée” a donné à plusieurs journalistes arabes en poste à Paris un aperçu de la manière dont le gouvernement français voyait l’avenir en ce qui concerne la Syrie. Le quotidien saoudien Asharq Al-Awsat a publié des révélations peu rassurantes pour le Liban. La source a indiqué que “certains signes” donnaient à penser que la Syrie était prête à prendre ses distances vis-à-vis de l’Iran. Elle n’a pas apporté de preuves à l’appui de cette observation, se contentant d’interpréter ce que les Français considéraient comme des calculs syriens. Elle attirait toutefois l’attention sur le fait que la Syrie ne voulait pas subir les conséquences d’une guerre israélo-iranienne, ce qui expliquait qu’elle soit prête aujourd’hui à négocier avec Israël. A partir de là, cette source “bien informée” considérait qu’il devait être plus facile pour les Israéliens d’envisager un accord avec les Syriens qu’avec les Palestiniens, et ce d’autant plus qu’un accord avec Damas impliquait de “confier à la Syrie la responsabilité de sécuriser le nord [d’Israël]”.

La plus grande crainte syrienne concernerait le Tribunal pénal international et notre source évoquait la “conviction française” que, “si Damas devenait un interlocuteur plus convenable, avec lequel il était possible de collaborer, la question du Tribunal pourrait être enterrée de plus d’une façon”.

Si cette source est digne de foi, ses déclarations sont un signe du chemin parcouru par la politique française depuis la présidence de Jacques Chirac. Bien qu’elle n’ait pas affirmé que la France souscrivait à la position israélienne selon laquelle la Syrie devait se voir confier la responsabilité de protéger le nord d’Israël – ce qui impliquerait le retour de l’armée syrienne au Liban –, la logique d’un accord rend cette issue très probable et la France n’y pourra pas grand-chose. En d’autres termes, si les Français tentent de faire avancer les négociations israélo-syriennes en sachant qu’Israël est favorable à un retour de la Syrie au Liban dans un rôle sécuritaire, rôle que celle-ci serait ravie de jouer car elle retrouverait ainsi son hégémonie sur le Liban, le fait de refuser ce rôle à la Syrie pourrait bloquer tout progrès décisif dans les relations israélo-syriennes.

Il y a aussi la question du Tribunal. En octobre dernier, les Français auraient fait savoir aux Syriens qu’ils étaient prêts à tout négocier, y compris l’avenir du Tribunal, si Damas ne faisait pas obstacle à l’élection d’un président libanais. Le ministre des Affaires étrangères Bernard Kouchner aurait laissé entendre que son gouvernement était prêt à envisager une contrepartie pour éviter la mise en examen de la famille proche d’Assad.

Même si cette rumeur est mensongère, il est clair que l’installation du Tribunal est extrêmement lente. Et ce phénomène ne s’explique pas simplement par les difficultés habituelles de mise en place de ce genre d’institution. L’absence de toute pression internationale pour accélérer la procédure, en particulier de la part d’une majorité de membres du Conseil de sécurité, a contribué à ralentir les choses. Même si les déclarations faites par Sarkozy étaient favorables au Tribunal, l’engagement croissant de la France vis-à-vis de la Syrie signifie que Paris ne voit aujourd’hui en lui guère plus qu’un instrument de négociation pour parvenir à un accord avec Damas. Si le but est de mettre fin à la fragile indépendance du Liban, on peut dire que la stratégie de Sarkozy est excellente.

Don't dismiss Aoun's 'big tent' strategy

Don't dismiss Aoun's 'big tent' strategy
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, July 10, 2008

It is easy to dismiss the National Christian Gathering established last week as largely an assemblage of pro-Syrian politicians, has-beens, and never-beens. In fact launching the group was a shrewd move by Michel Aoun, one the March 14 majority will regret not having done first. The gathering reflects a realistic reading by Aoun of his political prospects in next year's elections. The general knows that the days of bringing into Parliament a large bloc of yes-men are over and that he must, therefore, ally himself with politicians having a power base in those districts where he competes. The Christian gathering is Aoun's way of compensating. By bringing those politicians into his "big tent," the general turns himself into the godfather of a broad Christian coalition, one that is likely to win a majority of seats in Baabda, Metn, Kisirwan and Jbeil, and perhaps even in Zahleh and the mainly Christian voting district in Beirut.

For those Christian politicians who did not benefit from the post-2005 order, Aoun's gathering is their ticket back into the system. They gain from riding Aoun's coattails, and he gains from their willingness to defer to him as the most potent of Christian leaders. Aoun may have lost the presidency through his own blunders, but his fallback plan is to be the president of the Christians, and there he might well succeed.

The Christian Gathering benefits from something else as well. It brings together certifiable electoral favorites. The Tashnak Party will give Aoun substantial weight in the Metn, which is why Michel Murr may have no alternative but to reach some sort of an understanding with Aoun and the Armenians. In Zghorta, Suleiman Franjieh is guaranteed of winning at least two of the constituency's three seats, and the likelihood of a sweep is high. In Zahleh, Elie Skaff is vulnerable, but the fact that he has been handed the Agriculture Ministry, which will allow him to dispense patronage in his mostly agricultural constituency, like the fact that there will be voters who will side with Skaff to avoid ceding too much weight to the sizeable Sunni electorate around Zahleh, will play to his advantage.

As for the Baabda constituency, like the one in Jbeil, there Aoun will benefit from the unified Shiite vote controlled by Hizbullah. The general may decide to back some candidates close to the president, Michel Suleiman, but they will owe their election to Aoun.

Then there is the fact that Aoun's new gathering, while it contains prominent pro-Syrians, also includes individuals who opposed Syria. For every Michel Samaha you have a Shakib Qortbawi, for every Suleiman Franjieh and Elie Ferzli you have a Farid al-Khazen and a Pierre Dakkash; and while Fares Boueiz may not be what he was when his father-in-law, Elias Hrawi, was president, he was among the few parliamentarians who voted against an extension of Emile Lahoud's mandate, and he was on hand at the Hariri residence on February 14, 2005, when the opposition at the time read its bill of indictment against Syria and the Lebanese government following Rafik Hariri's assassination.

Those of us who prematurely wrote Aoun off as a Christian force are being forced to backtrack. The general has been destructive; he has foolishly alienated the Sunni community when doing the contrary would have almost certainly guaranteed his election as president; he has built up a strategic relationship with a party, Hizbullah, that is the greatest single threat to the sovereignty of the state that the Lebanese have ever known; yet Aoun has endured because, while he has lost ground within the Christian community, many of his coreligionists, even when they don't care for the general, tend to think like him and have gone along with him whenever he has vented their frustrations with the post-Taif order.

This is where March 14 comes in. The parliamentary majority lost the Christians because of the quadripartite agreement of 2005, but has done nothing since then to make up for that loss. When the Christians see Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, they see two men who have absolute control over constituencies in which the Christian representatives are picked by them. The same applies to predominantly Shiite areas, but for some reason today the Christians have a blind eye when it comes to Hizbullah. This control by Hariri and Jumblatt bothers the Christians to no end, because it only confirms their decline and speaks to a type of leadership alien to Lebanese politics. Before 1975, even the most powerful leaders rarely controlled blocs larger than a dozen odd parliamentarians.

Jumblatt, who knows his Lebanese history better than most, may already be recalculating his options for 2009. He has written Baabda off to Aoun, though Jumblatt will retain his control over the Chouf and Aley. But even in Aley Jumblatt may have to give up a seat, perhaps even two, to his Druze rival Talal Arslan. In the Chouf, Jumblatt will surely win, since Druze and Sunni voters together make up two-thirds of the electorate. But in 2005 the Aounist candidate Mario Aoun won almost all the Christian votes, an ominous warning sign for the Druze leader.

As Jumblatt looks around him, as he surveys Christian attitudes in the Chouf, as he sees the Christians of Baabda perhaps heading Aoun's way once again, and as he sees Hizbullah pining to clip his wings, he may have no choice but to improve his relations with the Christians. Jumblatt needs them as a counterbalance to Hizbullah, but he also needs to prepare, as some observers have remarked, for the possibility that electoral districts will be redrawn to his disadvantage by a new Parliament. In that context, we shouldn't be surprised that Jumblatt, if he reckons that Aoun is here to stay, takes a more conciliatory attitude toward the general.

That leaves Saad Hariri. The way electoral districts are drawn under the 1960 law, the Sunni leader will not affect the fate of Christian candidates in the way he did in 2005. By and large the election will be one where Aoun has less latitude to rally Christians against Hariri and the Sunnis. However, that should not be an excuse for the Future Movement, and for March 14 in general, to fail to adopt a more creative strategy when it comes to the Christians. If the majority wants its candidates to be elected next year, it must begin working now on bolstering a credible coalition of Christian politicians, legitimate ones, who can either stand their ground against Aoun or force him into concluding electoral alliances with them.

These Christian politicians need to be viewed by their community as independent, they need to talk about those issues that most concern Christians, they need to begin coordinating on an election strategy now, and they need to spend money and distribute patronage, which Aoun has been far more adept at doing. But being a favorite brings with it liabilities: Aoun is bound to disappoint some of those who see him as their path to an election victory. In that case, there is no reason why the March 14 Christians could not turn the tables on Aoun and do what he has done: pick up those people whom the general will have failed to satisfy.

Until such a scheme takes shape, Aoun holds the upper hand. March 14 has fashioned no serious agenda to which Christians are attracted, and if it cannot do so by election time, then some of its more pragmatic leaders might decide that if Aoun is what you get, then just work with Michel Aoun.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

France is a captive to its ties with Syria

France is a captive to its ties with Syria
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, July 03, 2008

From an article in Al-Hayat last Monday, citing a European diplomatic source, we learn that France asked Syria to intervene in the recent fighting in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli to calm the tension between the Alawite Arab Democratic Party of Ali Eid and Sunni groups in Bab el-Tebbaneh. Syria denied it had anything to do with the fighting, then asked Eid to remove dozens of his men from Jabal Mohsen, the Alawite stronghold. President Bashar Assad must have been delighted to do such an effortless favor for French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the run-up to their one-on-one meeting in Paris on March 12.

If this is the level of assistance the French government is now begging from Damascus, then it might be time for France to fold Resolution 1559 up into an origami swan and let it float away forever. The United Nations resolution, which France co-sponsored with the United States, was designed to end Syrian influence in Lebanon. While one has to be realistic about these things - Syrian influence won't just evaporate - to bring Syria into the resolution of a neighborhood fight, one two decades old, is going overboard in handing Assad chips he didn't ask for.

The French approach to Lebanon has been characterized by remarkable incompetence in the past eight months, and by the absence of any discernible strategy. After trashing Resolution 1559 last November by pleading with Syria to permit a Lebanese presidential election (one the Elysee Palace had thought to follow up with a triumphal Christmas visit to Beirut by Sarkozy), the French stepped back when Assad rebuffed them. Humiliation was swiftly swallowed, however, after the Doha agreement, when the Syrians received the visit of Sarkozy adviser Claude Gueant, their reward for briefly failing to obstruct the Lebanese Constitution.

What does France hope to gain by inundating Syria with carrots? Officially, French spokesmen say that their aim is to break Syria off from Iran and encourage negotiations between Syria and Israel. The latter point reveals more than is immediately obvious. Sarkozy smells a possible peace deal and doesn't want France to be on the sidelines when or if it comes about. Fair enough. However, Assad accords little importance to France. His priority is to use the legitimacy that Sarkozy has bestowed on him and talks with Israel as a bridge toward the United States. The French have little leverage over Syria to change this, because they have already given Syria everything it wants at this stage: an end to the Assad regime's isolation, despite its involvement in former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination and despite its crackdown on Syrian dissidents; a reinvigorated role in Lebanon; the offer of a signed association agreement with the European Union in the not-too-distant future; and a willingness to manipulate the Hariri tribunal in exchange for unspecified concessions from Syria.

Last week, an unidentified French source gave several Arab journalists in Paris an outline of how the French government viewed the possibilities ahead with respect to Syria. The source was not identified as an official, but as "well informed." That's not saying much, but the fact that several Arab journalists were said to be present suggested the source had a good read on the French government's mood, while offering it deniability. Some obervers have privately suggested the source is a Foreign Ministry official.

The London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat published a rundown of what was exchanged, little of it reassuring for Lebanon. The source observed that a resolution of the Shebaa Farms dispute would not be easy, though France and other Security Council members were trying to work out scenarios to satisfy both Israel and Syria. The Israeli government was divided over a withdrawal from the farms, while France expected Syria to oppose a Lebanese Army deployment in the area after a pullout because this would mean it was Lebanese territory, which Syria has refused to recognize. For the source, resolving the Shebaa issue was important to ensure that Hizbullah remained on the sidelines in any Israeli-Iranian war.

The source also said there were "some signs" that Syria was willing to distance itself from Iran. No evidence was provided, just a reading of what the French took to be Syrian calculations. The source made a point worth considering, however, namely that Syria did not want to pay the price for an Israeli-Iranian war, which explained its willingness to talk to Israel today. On the basis of that assessment, the source argued that the Israelis felt a Syrian-Israeli agreement was easier than a Palestinian-Israeli one, especially that arriving at an agreement with Damascus meant "granting Syria responsibility for the security of [Israel's] north, given that what concerns Israel is not the Golan but the security of its northern [border]."

The French source concluded that the most important Syrian concern was what happened to the Hariri tribunal, before adding that there was a "French conviction" that "if there is a radical change in Syria policy and Damascus becomes more acceptable and one can work with it, then the tribunal file can be buried in more ways than one."

If the source is authoritative, it is a sign of how far French thinking has come since the days of President Jacques Chirac. While the source did not suggest that France endorsed the Israeli view that Syria should be granted responsibility for protecting Israel's north - which would effectively mean bringing Syria's military back into Lebanon - the logic of a settlement makes much more likely such an outcome, without France being able to do much about it. In other words, if France is trying to push Syrian-Israeli negotiations forward and knows that Israel welcomes a revival of Syria's security role in Lebanon, a role that Syria will gladly take on because it would mean a return of its hegemony over Lebanon, then refusing to concede Syria such a role might block a Syrian-Israeli breakthrough.

Then there is the tribunal. Last October the French reportedly indicated to the Syrians that everything was on the table if Damascus allowed the election of a Lebanese president, including the future of the tribunal. According to senior politicians in the March 14 coalition, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, in conversations with them, made statements implying that his government might be thinking of a quid pro quo to protect the immediate Assad family from indictment.

Even if this is untrue, it is apparent that progress in the Hariri tribunal is alarmingly slow. There is, plainly, more at play here than the sluggish pace of setting up such institutions. The absence of any international pressure to accelerate the formation of the tribunal, particularly from a majority of Security Council states, has actually slowed down the process. Despite Sarkozy's statements in Beirut supporting the tribunal, the momentum of France's growing engagement of Syria means that Paris now sees the tribunal as little more than an instrument to be bargained over in arriving at an understanding with Syria. It's a fine strategy that Sarkozy is pursuing, if the upshot is to end Lebanon's frail independence.