The foray of the French President Nicolas Sarkozy into Middle East diplomacy has been called many things: a pure act of vanity by an intensely egotistic person; opportunism in a void created by US diplomatic weakness; and boldness by a visionary statesman in time of regional uncertainty. Given Sarkozy’s polarising persona, it is no wonder that opinions are so divided.
Despite scepticism in the US, Europe and the Arab world about the wisdom of his visit to Damascus, Sarkozy justified himself by noting that the Syrian President Bashar al Assad was following up on his promise to open an embassy in Lebanon. He also appreciated that Mr Assad was asking France to co-sponsor direct peace talks with Israel and hoped Syria would use its influence to talk Iran out of its nuclear ambitions.
The result could place France at the heart of Middle East politics. And for someone dazzled by the spotlight, he scored a diplomatic coup with the four-party summit that included the leaders of Turkey and Qatar. Many will welcome Sarkozy’s visit to Damascus, but there are indeed legitimate questions about the timing and manner of his opening to Syria, which had been shunned for the past three years for its interference in Lebanese affairs. His warm embrace of Assad displayed a curious mix of cynicism and naivety that has not been a characteristic of French diplomacy until now.
His rapprochement with Syria breaks with years of French cautiousness as a result of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon and its suspected role in the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Many Lebanese and their western allies now wonder what remains of France’s previous attachment to their fate.
Indeed, France has taken a risky road. By throwing its weight behind Assad, it is wagering that Syria would value its relationship with France enough to make tangible concessions. But it is unclear what those concessions would be. Already Sarkozy has given Assad a recognition with a high profile visit and an opening to the European Union that the French themselves had so far blocked. As many sceptics of unconditional engagement had warned, Syria’s reaction to the French opening proved that engagement itself is perceived by Damascus as a victory.
As for Syrian “concessions”, they are meagre achievements at best. In the absence of delineation of borders, of Syrian compliance with UN resolutions about arms transfers, and of a revocation of treaties imposed on Lebanon in the 1990s (demands that Sarkozy too quickly softened), the symbolic announcement of an embassy in Beirut does little to end Syrian interference in Lebanon. French diplomacy may have also misread Syrian calculations. By reaching out to Paris and indirectly negotiating with Israel, Syria seeks in reality to tie the hands of the next US president. Indeed, the US, not France, can offer Syria what it really wants: recognition of its regional ambitions, including a dominant say in Lebanese affairs. Such an arrangement, reminiscent of the international acquiescence of Syrian domination in the 1990s, would turn back the clock on the peaceful achievements of the 2005 Cedar Revolution.
Mindful of that, Syria is already courting Democratic officials and foreign policy experts in Washington, dangling before them the prospect of peace at the expense of any discussion of Syria’s past behaviour. By disingenuously insisting that the US is the only obstacle to peace with Israel and suggesting that the international tribunal looking into the Hariri and other assassinations is an unnecessary complication, Damascus hopes to send the policy of isolation into oblivion and emasculate the tribunal. Once its isolation is lifted, Syria probably reasons, the international community would not risk losing its political investment in Syria for the sake of bringing to justice Syrian suspects. In the medium term, Syrian calculations have little to do with France’s agenda. In the next year, Syria will be watching the outcomes of elections in the US, Lebanon and Israel before making its next move. It may not get what it wants but it has certainly succeeded in shaping a radically different environment.
And it may have won an unlikely ally. Israel, concerned about Hezbollah’s growing power in Lebanon, longs for the days of a return address. With Syria out of Lebanon, there is too much uncertainty for Israel, as the 2006 war demonstrated. If Syria were to abide by a strategic understanding that would stabilise its northern front, Israel may have no qualms about the return of Syrian influence next door.
Assad did not help quell concerns about predatory Syrian behaviour when he compared Georgia, which Russia invaded after claiming it posed a threat to Russian interests, to Lebanon. Sure enough, Assad claimed in his talks with Sarkozy that Sunni fundamentalism, not Syrian interference, was the real threat to Lebanese stability and by extension, to Syria, paving the ground for a possible Russian-style ‘peacemaking’ mission. For someone accused of supporting armed groups in Lebanon, this warning was worrying.
French diplomats say that considerations regarding Iran also drive the rapprochement. Instead of trying to wedge Damascus away from Tehran, long the rationale of those pushing for engagement, Sarkozy has crowned Assad as his intercessor with Tehran. He is overestimating how much leverage Syria really has. Syria does not shy away from making presumptuous claims about its regional influence. People close to the Syrian regime credit Syria with stabilising Iraq and freeing the British sailors seized by Iran in 2007, no less. A Syrian analyst also claims that only Syria can change Iran’s nuclear course, an argument that Sarkozy himself echoed yesterday.
This may be an overly pessimistic reading of Sarkozy’s Syria policy, it is up to French diplomacy to dispel these concerns – and urgently so.