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.

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