Posted by Joshua on Monday, September 8th, 2008
Emile Hokayem, who now works and writes for the National in the EAU sent this note out recommending his own and Michael Young's articles on the recent summit in Syria. Rather then criticise Bush for failing to push the peace process, as many on this site have, they criticise Sarkozy for opportunism, vanity and egotism, suggesting that he is selling out Lebanese sovereignty for the limelight. Here is the note followed by the articles:
Dear colleague, I am writing to share with two pieces that take a different perspective than the mainstream commentary on French President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to Damascus.&The first one is Michael Young's excellent "Beware, the Friends of Bashar are here."
The second is my column for the National: "Sarkozy courts Syria but who will benefit other than Assad?"
Some may be tempted to dismiss these arguments as unnecessary Lebanese panic, and others as a reflection of our much-suspected "neoconservative leanings" (a baseless claim and always a convenient way to discredit an opinion instead of weighing its merits). I hope due consideration will be given to them.&It is my conviction that Nicolas Sarkozy's opening to Assad, in its timing and manner (and not necessarily its principle), has been a tactical and strategic mistake born of misplaced expectations and wrong readings of Syrian intentions. But despite all the misgivings about Bashar al-Assad, one has to admire his ability to come back in the game by shrewdly manipulating Western actors, governments and non-governments alike.&And if you think I am fundamentally wrong, I would love to hear why.
Best regards, Emile Hokayem
Beware, the Friends of Bashar are here
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, September 04, 2008
very long ago, you will remember, there was the Friends of Lebanon group of states, whose declared aim was to defend Lebanese sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence, democratic institutions, and what have you. Meeting today in Damascus is a new fraternity, the Friends of Bashar. It includes the emir of Qatar, the prime minister of Turkey, and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and their aim is to ensure that the Assad regime remains in power and breaks out of the international and regional isolation imposed on it after the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri.
Sarkozy has proven to be the most destructive of opportunists here. After having negotiated a mediocre agreement in Georgia that allowed Russia to pursue its military actions there under the guise of defensive measures, yesterday in Damascus the French president waded into the Shebaa Farms imbroglio, with the same ostentation and shallowness. Sarkozy's true purpose was plain on Tuesday when he declared that peace in the Middle East "went through France and Syria," and that his aim was to see Syria "regaining its place in the concert of nations."
Months ago, after Michel Sleiman's election, the French set some conditions for their opening to Syria, particularly the establishment of diplomatic relations between Damascus and Beirut. We're still waiting. This was largely a pretense. Sarkozy never had any intention of turning those conditions into obstacles blocking French overtures to Bashar Assad, because he is so keen to fill some role in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Lebanon is an irritant on that front. The Syrians want their peace talks with Israel to be a highway to Washington; Sarkozy is willing to broker that rapprochement if France is given a seat at the negotiating table too; however Syria will only play seriously on the peace front if it can reimpose its hegemony over Lebanon; therefore France will look the other way as Assad rebuilds in Beirut what he was made to abandon in 2005.
For the moment the United States refuses to go along with this, and has informed the French it would continue isolating Syria. But that may be nearing its end because the Bush administration is nearing its end. A new administration, whether Republican or Democrat, will probably alter US policy toward Syria, and those in Lebanon concerned with their country's sovereignty should take heed. President Michel Sleiman has traveled to France, then to Damascus, and this week flew to Qatar to yet again thank Emir Hamad for sponsoring the Doha agreement. However, a visit to Washington at this stage is necessary, because Sleiman needs to urgently offset the influence of the Friends of Bashar.
Sleiman apparently intends to fly to Washington in the near future. However, the president has no desire to transform this into leverage against Syria, nor would that be sensible at this stage. George W. Bush is leaving next January, so whatever he commits to might only last that long. However, and by the same token, Sleiman would make a mistake if he failed to use the trip to prepare for when Bush is gone. If the point is just to get a White House photo-op, then Sleiman might as well ask that his picture be taken with a cardboard effigy of Bush, because the US president is not only a lame duck, he's now virtually a dead one.
Where Sleiman would gain is by building up networks of relations in the US Congress, in the presidential campaigns, and in the think-tank community, which has been active, reprehensibly so, in encouraging American policymakers to open up to Syria. In fact, Bashar Assad has had a battery of promoters and objective allies in such places as the United States Institute of Peace, the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment, and the International Crisis Group, to name only them, all of which have urged engagement of Damascus, all of which have willfully ignored or papered over Syria's role in the Hariri assassination.
However, is Sleiman willing to go through with such an effort? Who in his entourage might be able to follow up on his contacts with the Americans? These are all questions the president will need to answer before embarking on his American tour, unless his plan is to avoid making the journey count for very much. And if that is indeed the case, then we would have to assume that little has changed in the Syrian-Lebanese relationship since 2005, with Lebanon's foreign policy still regarded by decision-makers in Beirut as a dispensation of the Assad regime.
Sleiman, if he hopes to plot a course even mildly independent from Syria, must make his American trip work. But the Syrians have a head start. The Friends of Bashar have repeatedly shown how little concerned they are by Syrian behavior in Lebanon – or more accurately, how little concerned they are by Syria's pursuing its destabilization of the country while imposing red lines on elected officials, on ministers, and on military and security appointees. Sleiman needs to guarantee that he has enough pull in the US so that come next year, if a new administration talks to the Assad regime, Lebanon will not once again be Syria's meal.
Why is it so difficult to be optimistic? Perhaps because Sleiman has a lot going for him politically, but still seems too timid by half. Because he seems so keen to market Syria to the world, as he did last week when he urged the international community to "open up" to Damascus, without anyone having requested such altruism. And because the Friends of Bashar are doing their damnedest to save the skin of a man who has never shown any sign of recognizing Lebanese independence, while the Lebanese don't seem to have a clue as to who will save their skins.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.
Sarkozy courts Syria but who will benefit other than Assad?
September 05. 2008
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.