Sarkozy in Syria: Discrepancies in French Mideast Policy

By September 10, 2008

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 48

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: France is seeking to upgrade its status in the international arena and enhance its influence and presence in the Middle East. France perceives Syria as a key to resolving central regional issues such as the crisis in Lebanon, the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sarkozy’s visit to Syria in early September and the summit he convened of the leaders of Syria, France, Turkey and Qatar – all are part of this turbo-charged Sakozian diplomacy. However, deep skepticism is in order as to the utility of Sarkozy’s Syrian courtship. There is a disturbing discrepancy in French diplomacy between firm rhetoric and acceptance of fait accompli, as has been the pattern in the Lebanese crisis. This suggests to countries such as Syria that the West is weak and ready for far-reaching concessions in return for vague Syrian declarations of good intent. France is acting as if “dialogue” and a “diplomatic role” (for France) are significant objectives in and of themselves, while the efficacy and results of its diplomacy are very questionable.

France, Syria, and Lebanon

France has deep historical, cultural and emotional ties to Lebanon. In February 2005, Lebanon became a bone of contention in French-Syrian relations. Syria was widely regarded as responsible for the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, former Prime Minister of Lebanon and close friend of French President Jacques Chirac. Subsequently, France unequivocally demanded that Syria withdraw its forces from Lebanon, refrain from meddling in internal Lebanese affairs, and cooperate with the UN international tribunal established to investigate the Hariri assassination. In addition, France demanded that Syria abide by the 2006 UN Security Council Resolution 1701 and prevent the transfer of arms from Iran to Hizballah.

The accession of French President Nicolas Sarkozy in May 2007 was marked by continuity in French attitudes towards Lebanon and Syria. Much like his predecessor, Sarkozy emphasized his uncompromising support for Lebanon’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence. Therefore France refrained from engaging Syria through high-level diplomatic contacts as long as Syria did not demonstrate its willingness to contribute to France’s intensive efforts to promote a dialogue between the opposing Lebanese factions, in order to end the political stalemate and prevent the outbreak of a new civil war in Lebanon. The crisis was aggravated in November 2007 by the opposition’s refusal to vote for a newly elected presidential candidate following the end of the tenure of former Lebanese President Emil Lahoud.

Hizballah’s armed onslaught on government positions in May 2008, as well as against pro-governmental Sunni and Druze factions, went unopposed by the army and left 65 dead. As a result, Signora’s government yielded to Hizballah’s demands. In the Doha Accord of May 2008, it was agreed that Michel Suleiman, former Lebanese army commander, was to be elected President, that a new government was to be formed in which 11 of 30 ministerial portfolios were to be assigned to the Hizballah bloc (effectively granting Hizballah veto power), and that a change in the election system would be effectuated leading up to the general elections in 2009. Moreover, following pressure by Hizballah and in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, the Lebanese government agreed that Hizballah maintain its weapons arsenal and even authorized it to proceed with its independent military struggle against Israel.

France embraced these developments, presenting the Doha Accord as an achievement of French diplomacy and praising it as a symbol of hope, despite the fact that it was imposed by Hizballah’s undemocratic coup de force, backed by its Iranian patron. France probably regarded the accord as a scenario that, while imperfect, was still preferable to the far worse scenario of bloody civil strife. Sarkozy, in a demonstration of friendly support, visited Lebanon in June 2008, accompanied by Prime Minister Francois Fillon, Defense Minister Herve Morin, Foreign Minister Bernard Kushner, as well as by leaders of main opposition parties, and expressed his political and economic commitment to Lebanon.

The Doha Accord and the creation of a unity government in Lebanon served as a pretext for French rapprochement with Syria. Basher al-Assad was warmly welcomed by Sarkozy to the inaugural conference of the Mediterranean Union in July. Assad was given a red carpet reception as Sarkozy’s honored guest at the Elysee Palace and even watched the traditional French military parade of July 14 from the front row of dignitaries, thus reaping the benefits of a diplomatic campaign to pull Damascus out of its recent isolation. The Israeli-Syrian indirect talks being held in Turkey also contributed to the end of Syria’s diplomatic isolation.

Suleiman’s historical visit to Damascus in July provided Paris with further evidence of Syria’s good will towards Lebanon, as Syria offered to establish diplomatic ties with Lebanon. Nevertheless, no concrete timetable of implementation was fixed. It seems that France probably regarded the agreement as a means of promoting a future solution concerning the disputed areas of Shebaa farms and Rager village, which Israel occupied in the 1967 war. Both Syria and Lebanon claim ownership over these territories, while Israel asserts it would return them only following a peace agreement with both countries. The French stress the urgency of resolving the issue so as to deprive Hizballah of its pretext of its continued struggle against Israel. Israel, on its part claims that Hizballah will find another pretext for proceeding with its declared war against Israel, since this is its raison d’?tre, which ostensibly justifies its existence as a separate armed militia.

Despite the international honors Sarkozy conferred on Assad in Paris and the upgrading of Syria’s international status by Sarkozy’s visit to Syria, Assad has nevertheless declared that he is not going to end Syria’s support for Hizballah as a resistance organization. The Syrian president’s declaration indeed must be regarded as a rebuff of Sarkozy by Assad. Assad has pointedly also failed to stop Syrian arms transfers to Hizballah.

France, Syria, and Iran

In contrast to the Lebanese context, in which France ought to appease Iran’s allies, Hizballah and Syria, Sarkozy continues to lead a hard line against Iran’s nuclear project. Sarkozy perceives Iran’s nuclear aspirations as a major threat to world security. Consequently, France advocates further UN and EU sanctions. However, Sarkozy explicitly has expressed his objection to military action against Iran, asserting that both an Iranian bomb and an Israeli bombardment of Iran would constitute catastrophic developments.

Sarkozy’s rapprochement with Syria might represent Sarkozy’s objective to distance Syria from Iran, thus neutralizing or reducing Iran’s influence in the region. Sarkozy has asked the Syrian president to make use of his close ties with Iran in order to convince Ahmadinejad to comply with the international community’s requirement that Iran renounce its nuclear project. Sarkozy stressed, though, that Iran has the right to posses civilian nuclear technology for peaceful means and even offered French cooperation, as he had done in the past for a range of Arab countries.

Assad indeed spoke to Ahmadinejad about the issue – but not in the way Sarkozy was hoping. During his two-day visit to Teheran in August, Assad announced the strengthening of the economic relations between the two countries and expressed his support for Iran’s right to enrich uranium. He stressed that Syria opposes the introduction of nuclear arms into the region, but said that the problem is not Iran but rather the West’s lack of trust towards Iran.

It is possible that the Syrian president is trying to move in diametrically opposed directions: on the one hand by renewing economic relations with the West, particularly the EU through France’s proposed Association Agreement, while on the other hand concurrently maintaining a close relationship with Iran. It appears that Sarkozy’s Syrian gamble, aimed at weakening Iran’s position, has not succeeded and that the Syrian initiative has not borne any positive fruits regarding the Iranian nuclear project.

France, Syria, and Israel

Another central objective of Sakozy’s visit to Syria was his involvement in peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, which are currently taking place under the auspices of Turkey. Sarkozy declared his satisfaction that France, thanks to the amelioration of its relations with both Syria and Israel, could serve as a trusted mediator. Indeed, Assad invited Sarkozy to take part in the peace negotiations; however, he rejected Sarkozy’s proposals to conduct direct dialogue with Israel. Assad equally refused to recognize Israel before its formal commitment to comply with prerequisite Syrian demands, that would first lead to direct dialogue, next to a peace treaty, and finally to formal recognition. The Syrian president also declared he was waiting for the new US administration before moving forward toward concrete stages of the negotiations. It seems that even on this issue, Assad did not give his full commitment to grant French diplomacy a leading role, probably as a result of a lack of trust in France’s ability to guarantee implementation of any such agreement.

Conclusion

At present, French-Syrian rapprochement appears to be more rewarding for Syria than for France. Despite his country’s newly gained international legitimization, Assad has not rewarded the French by breaking his ties with terrorist organizations, most notably Hizballah. Neither has he distanced himself from Iran. Seemingly, no tangible, unequivocal commitment was given by Syria throughout its renewed high level contacts with France or throughout the indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel.

There is a disturbing discrepancy in French diplomacy between firm rhetoric and acceptance of fait accompli, as has been the pattern in the Lebanese crisis. This suggests to countries such as Syria an undesired image of Western weakness; a Western readiness to far-reaching, unbalanced compromises in return for vague Arab/Syrian declarations. France is acting as if “dialogue” and a “diplomatic role” (for France) are significant objectives in and of themselves, while the efficacy and results of its diplomacy are but secondary. As demonstrated above, the results of such French diplomacy are, to date, very questionable.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: France is seeking to upgrade its status in the international arena and enhance its influence and presence in the Middle East. France perceives Syria as a key to resolving central regional issues such as the crisis in Lebanon, the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sarkozy’s visit to Syria in early September and the summit he convened of the leaders of Syria, France, Turkey and Qatar – all are part of this turbo-charged Sakozian diplomacy. However, deep skepticism is in order as to the utility of Sarkozy’s Syrian courtship. There is a disturbing discrepancy in French diplomacy between firm rhetoric and acceptance of fait accompli, as has been the pattern in the Lebanese crisis. This suggests to countries such as Syria that the West is weak and ready for far-reaching concessions in return for vague Syrian declarations of good intent. France is acting as if “dialogue” and a “diplomatic role” (for France) are significant objectives in and of themselves, while the efficacy and results of its diplomacy are very questionable.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Dr. Tsilla Hershco
Dr. Tsilla Hershco

Dr. Tsilla Hershco, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, specializes in Franco-Israeli and EU-Israeli relations. Email: [email protected]