From Transatlantic Institute

By Dr Kassem Ja’afar


Introduction


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Not long ago, the mere notion of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad visiting Paris and standing next to French President Nicholas Sarkozy as an honoured guest in the Bastille Day celebrations would have been unthinkable. Equally unthinkable would have been to see a French President on a high profile state visit to Damascus. However, this is precisely what happened. Reversing a policy of isolation inaugurated by his predecessor, President Jacques Chirac, after the murder of Lebanon’s late Prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, President Sarkozy has now chosen to re-engage Syria, in the hope of nudging Damascus away from Iran’s embrace. This rapprochement began with the signing in Doha last May, of an agreement that put an end to the months-long Lebanese constitutional crisis and led to the election of President Michel Suleiman. Yet this rapprochement is unlikely to endure, and may further complicate the goals the European Union seeks to achieve in the Levant.

Background

Following the succession of Bashar al Assad, there was a brief honeymoon in French – Syrian relations. At the time, President Jacques Chirac felt that an opportunity had emerged for closer political and economic relations with Damascus. Those hopes were quickly dashed, with serious differences between the two sides over Syrian policy in Lebanon. France was growing increasingly frustrated with Syria’s desire to dominate Lebanon and turn its military presence into a permanent one, contrary to the terms of the 1989 Taif Agreement. Paris was also unhappy about Syria’s support for the pro-Iranian Hezbollah and its armed militia.

Damascus was becoming equally agitated about what it considered a growing threat to its interests in Lebanon from both France and the US. The Syrian regime was quick to denounce Paris and Washington after in 2004 the UN Security Council approved Resolution 1559 – which called for the withdrawal of Syrian and other foreign troops from Lebanese territories and the disarming of Hezbollah in accordance with the terms of the Taif Agreement and other previous UN resolutions. Indeed, Damascus viewed Resolution 1559 as a joint US-French “hostile” response to the 2003 Syrian-instigated extension of the pro-Syrian General Emile Lahoud’s term as president of Lebanon.

Soon after came the Hariri assassination, which constituted a crucial turning point and resulted in a breakdown of relations between the two countries. Damascus was widely blamed for the murder of the Lebanese politician and billionaire businessman who was also a close ally of France and a personal friend of President Chirac. The accusations directed at the Syrian regime led to huge public demonstrations in Lebanon. Known as “The Cedar Revolution”, these demonstrations resulted in the withdrawal of the 30,000- strong contingent of Syrian forces in April 2005, followed by the formation of a new government headed by Prime Minister Fouad Seniora and dominated by an anti-Damascus coalition.

From the outset, Syria viewed the situation in Lebanon as part of a wider regional confrontation. From the Syrian point of view, on the one hand, there was the US, France, Israel and other Arab and Western powers trying to dominate the Middle East in the wake of the US-led “War on Terror”. On the other hand, there was the “Resistance” camp, comprised of Syria, its strategic ally Iran, and their regional extensions such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Palestinian Hamas Movement and the anti-US radical militias fighting in Iraq.

This regional context consistently dominated Syria’s approach in dealing with the Lebanese crisis. Soon after the 2005 elections in Lebanon, the pro-Syrian camp, by now referred to as the 8th of March grouping, managed to engender political paralysis and prevent the election of a new President.

All of these activities were seen by the French (and Western supported) Lebanese anti-Syrian coalition, known as the “14th of March Forces”, as a direct attempt by Damascus to undermine and eventually overthrow the legitimate government of Lebanon. The French Government under President Chirac regarded the role played by Damascus in Lebanon as a blatant contradiction of the terms of Resolution 1559, and a direct attempt to put Lebanon again under total Syrian hegemony. In fact, Paris at the time was even more vehement in its public denunciation of the role played by Syria and its allies in Lebanon than the United States.

The political stalemate lasted for nearly two years. Despite numerous mediation attempts, no resolution to the crisis seemed possible and Lebanon seemed to be heading towards yet another round of civil strife. It was only after the Hezbollah militia and other pro-Syrian armed elements launched a military offensive against West Beirut, the Chouf Mountains and other areas mostly inhabited by non-Shi’a, that another round of serious mediation was launched. Conducted this time by the Qatari Government and under the auspices of the Arab League, it led to the signing, last May, of the Doha Agreement. The agreement paved the way for the election of president Suleiman, regarded as a “consensus candidate” who had broad support within Lebanon and amongst the various international players in the crisis, including France.

It soon became clear that the Qataris had to enlist the support of both Syria and Iran for their efforts to bear fruit. As it turned out, part of the deal was for Doha to exercise its good offices with the Government of President Sarkozy to lift its boycott on dealings with Syria, in return for the latter facilitating an agreement with its Lebanese allies. By turning isolation into dialogue at the highest level, France rewarded Syria for facilitating the election of the new Lebanese president. Syria delivered a new government in Beirut, which had been hitherto impossible to form due to the powerful veto of Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies. The coalition deal was sealed only hours before Assad’s arrival in Paris for his visit last July – as if to underscore the fact that Syria had kept its side of the deal.

A Change in Relations?

From this moment, the road to Damascus was open. President Sarkozy had previously declared his willingness to improve relations with Syria, if and when Syria was ready to play “a constructive role” in Lebanon. Yet very few people could have envisaged such a quick turnaround in relations, with such a high-profile exchange of visits between the two presidents within two months of one another.

Indeed, relations warmed up despite the reluctance of some of President Sarkozy’s inner circle. Regardless, with the Lebanese constitutional imbroglio now resolved, the view from Europe was that Syria had to be separated from Iran – and the price of rapprochement was one worth paying, as the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner himself indicated when he explained that, though unhappy with the invitation extended to the Syrian president, it was something which “had to be done

One of the reasons for the volte face in French-Syrian relations is the removal of the personal factor. President Chirac viewed the murder of Hariri as a personal tragedy, preventing any future working relationship with the Syrian regime. President Sarkozy, on the other hand, is far more pragmatic in his dealings with President Assad.

Yet serious doubts remain as to whether this new Syrian-French “honeymoon” has enough substance to endure. None of the fundamental elements in the original dispute between Paris and Damascus, whether over Lebanon or the general situation in the Middle East, has been resolved.

Essentially, Syria still clings to those positions, which in the past have been cause of serious friction with the West:

· Support for Hezbollah and its continued armed presence in Lebanon;

· A strategic alliance with Iran;

· Support for Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups;

· Rejection of any peaceful settlement for the Arab-Israeli conflict, which does return Syria to the June 4, 1967 armistice lines.

· The commitment to remain at the centre of the anti-US and anti-Western Alliance in the region.

France’s efforts to open doors to Assad aim at convincing the Syrian leader to abandon those positions in exchange for a new season in bilateral relations that would in turn deliver Syria with the Golan Heights, a peace deal with Israel and friendlier relations with Washington. Syria is hoping to exploit the current favourable regional constellation – where US power is seen as weak and Iran is on the rise – to achieve those goals without relinquishing its radical policies. Syria has agreed to the mutual opening of embassies in Beirut and Damascus, but it remains to be seen whether this unprecedented gesture will have more than symbolic significance and see Damascus’ policies substantively reflect a recognition of the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon. Even less likely is a change in Syria’s role in offering political backing and logistical support to Hezbollah in Lebanon – crucially, the transfer of arms from Iran to Hezbollah through Syria – which is perhaps the biggest obstacle to the implementation of UN Resolutions 1559 and 1701.

Moving beyond Lebanese – Syrian relations, another major obstacle is the alliance between Syria and Iran. While President Sarkozy and his government may entertain hopes of drawing Damascus away from its alliance with Tehran, many in the Middle East and in the West remain extremely sceptical that a rift between the two allies will take place. Simply put, France, or even the EU as a whole, do not have sufficient incentives to offer Damascus to break its long, intimate and mutually rewarding alliance with Tehran. On the economic side, this alliance encompasses a wide variety of benefits which cannot be substituted, such as the provision of reduced oil prices to Syria, an industrial-military complex of joint ventures and the large and growing presence of Iranian investments in Syria’s economy – which amounts to 1.3 billion dollars and could soon more than triple as Iran is mulling a reported 3 billion dollars worth of projects in Syria. Iran also supplies Syria with the kind of strategic depth that it has been lacking since the end of the Cold War and its loss of client status with the Soviet Union. But beyond the tangible economic and security benefits – which Europe and the United States could easily replace – there is an ideological affinity in the radicalism which both regimes promote that make the lure of better economic incentives from the West less attractive. Ideological opponents can rarely be bought off, and Syria is no exception.

Dangerous effects

Sarkozy’s embrace of Assad without a wholehearted change in Syrian policies could have dangerous ramifications. Assad’s visit to Paris bolstered the Syrian view that it is “Syrian steadfastness” to its earlier policies and objectives which led to the rapprochement, rather than a change in Syrian policy. Sarkozy’s visit to Damascus has only reinforced this perception – public statements by Syrian officials and an interview granted by President Assad to Hezbollah’s TV station Al-Manar have insisted that Syria is not renouncing its support for the “Resistence”, it is not conceding on the June 4 lines as a precondition to direct negotiations with Israel and treats its relation with Iran much like Israel’s relation to the United States, i.e. not something it is prepared to give away for diplomatic benefits from Israel or the West.  At such a juncture, a French-led European rapprochement to Syria has the potential to counterproductively reinforce and reward Syrian misbehavior without denting Syria’s relationship with Iran.

While it remains to be seen if the new approach adopted by France towards Damascus will ever bear fruits, it is nevertheless definitely a huge gamble for President Sarkozy. The consequences of a possible failure will not be confined to the future of Lebanon, but will certainly also impact the credibility and future of French and European strategic presence in the wider Middle East for a long time to come.

Dr Kassem Ja’afar is a London-based freelance defense and middle east affairs analyst. This essay is based on a recent briefing he held under the auspices of the Transatlantic Institute

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