Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lessons of the Franco-Syrian Fiasco

From this month's edition of Syria Today Magazine.

Lessons of the Franco-Syrian Fiasco
Words Peter Harling

The key to ending the stalemate between Syria and the West starts with understanding why the French initiative failed.

French mediation efforts in Lebanon were based above all on the assumption that initiating a dialogue with Syria would bear more fruit than the pressures exerted by the Bush administration. The failure of this enthusiastic push now leaves many Western and Arab officials under the impression that dialogue is in itself sterile, thus reactivating a policy of isolation and sanctions, of questionable effectiveness. If the next American administration is to break the stalemate, it will have to learn the lessons of this aborted rapprochement.

It is a mutual disappointment for Paris and Damascus. President Sarkozy wanted to score a rapid, spectacular success, in accordance with the image that he seems to cultivate of politics and of himself. More fundamentally, his credibility in Washington was at stake: having obtained “carte blanche” in Lebanon, he could not tolerate for long a situation of uncertainty and stagnation.

But a hasty solution was not to Damascus’ liking, as – from its perspective – the stakes involved should induce caution. Indeed, since the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, the Lebanese scene has undergone dramatic changes, creating both temptation and angst. Syrian influence may emerge strengthened or considerably weakened – a stated objective of Washington and its Lebanese allies. Notably, the replacement of the pro-Syrian President Lahoud is likely to have profound repercussions on a political system founded on subtle balances and on rules that are up for renegotiation.

The question of whether Syria wants to restore its full hegemony over its neighbour remains open to debate. What is certain is that Lebanon is of crucial importance to Damascus, something French enticements could not eclipse. The feeling that Beirut is historically the beachhead through which all attempts at destabilising Damascus are initiated, remains firmly rooted. Hezbollah, which remains a bargaining card for the return of the Golan Heights (occupied by Israel), appears at present as Syria’s key asset in maintaining its influence in Lebanon, thwarting the perceived malevolent projects of a pro-Western majority, and projecting its strategic importance. Thus it is doubtful that Damascus would try to force a solution that Hezbollah would begrudge. However, the French, by delegating dealings with Hezbollah to Syria, deprived themselves of the means to understand – and therefore overcome – its red lines. The Elysée expected Damascus to twist Hezbollah’s arm, while treating the other major player of the Lebanese opposition, General Aoun, as though his only option was political suicide.

But Syria is only part of the solution in Lebanon, and dialogue is no substitute for a genuine mediation effort aiming to reduce the still-yawning gaps. From Syria’s point of view, France also was only part of the solution. The rapprochement only made sense if it initiated a wider dynamic, heralding a package deal: recognition of its interests in Lebanon, reconciliation with Arab states, a change of mind of the United States and negotiations over the Golan. Damascus first wanted to see if Paris could alter Washington’s policies. Then, as the first effects materialized, Syria made some timid overtures, by approving the principle of a consensus president, facilitating the departure of Lahoud and participating in the Annapolis peace conference – which sowed doubt among its allies with regards to its potential change of camp.

Given the potentially high price for Damascus of any further concession, matters stopped there, to the Elysée’s frustration. Irritation climaxed as Damascus, seeking to gain time, repeatedly reassured its French partners about the imminence of a solution which was each time postponed by the Lebanese opposition. The latter’s multiplying and shifting demands, provocative Syrian declarations and renewed political assassinations finally convinced Paris that Syria was playing a double game; a forceful return of the Bush administration in Lebanon led Damascus to draw the same conclusion.

As a result, the Elysée has been weighing up various ways to punish Syria. President Sarkozy, who could have been President Assad’s best friend, could now become his worst enemy, if his efforts at sanctioning him are as energetic as was his seduction campaign. In Damascus, a belligerent discourse has come back into vogue. It refers in an almost obsessive manner to the dignity and sovereignty of a country that will not yield to pressure. But no one doubts this anymore. The question that arises is which approach has a chance of resolving a crisis that is doomed to worsen. Mere “dialogue”changes nothing, ultimately. The incoming American administration will have to engage in tough negotiations aimed at a package deal, to know if an agreement in Lebanon is possible… and ascertain, if not, that a showdown is inevitable.

Peter Harling is the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon project director at the International Crisis Group.

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