"The saga of France and Syria Relations" by Marwan Kabalan
Marwan Kabalan, a Syrian Political Scientist, has written an important article about France's break with Syria in "Gulf News." He argues it came well before the extention of Lahoud's presidency or the Hariri murder.
The saga of France and Syria relations by Marwan Kabalan
Last week, the UN Security Council passed a new resolution concerning Syrian-Lebanese relations. Resolution 1680 called upon Syria to respect "Lebanese sovereignty, cease interference in Lebanon's internal affairs and demarcate the borders between the two countries".
The resolution was jointly sponsored by the US and France. While the US position is easy to understand in the light of the many problems between Damascus and Washington, for most Syrians France's position is still hard to comprehend.
For most of the 1990s and up until the US invasion of Iraq, Syrian-French relations were at their best. On the personal level, president Chirac was the only western head of state to attend the funeral of the late Syrian president Hafez Al Assad in 2000.
He pledged to provide all sort of support to help the new Syrian leader Bashar to proceed with his reform project. Politically, Syria and France were in agreement on almost every single issue in the Middle East.
In 2002, Syria joined forces with France, Russia, Germany and China in the UN Security Council to prevent the US and Britain from passing a resolution to legalise the use of force against Iraq. A year later, however, this whole picture was turned upside down.
Syrian-French relations started to deteriorate at an incredible pace. Friendship turned into enmity and sorrow replaced trust. So, what had exactly happened?
It all started in November 2003 when president Chirac sent his political advisor, Maurice Gourdeau-Montagne, to Damascus to meet president Bashar Al Assad. At the time tension between Washington and Paris could not be cut with a knife thanks to Chirac's strong opposition to the Iraq war.
Montagne told Al Assad that the Iraq war has changed the political map of the Middle East and that Syria may subsequently need to reconsider its anti-war policy. Having realised that what has been done in Iraq could not be undone, the French wanted to mend relations with the US.
Montagne told his Syrian hosts that that was also the position of Germany and Russia. Syria disagreed.
In June 2004, Chirac took advantage of his meeting with US President George W. Bush in Paris to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings, to persuade him to move beyond Iraq and towards agreement over Syria and Lebanon.
Chirac, through his close ties to former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, was the one who initially brought the US into Lebanon. Until Hariri's murder, the Bush administration had no independent Lebanon policy.
In August 2004, Montagne paid a secret visit to Washington to follow up on the Normandy talks between Chirac and Bush. He and Condoleezza Rice, then national security advisor to President Bush, agreed to turn a new page in their relations and to co-ordinate their policies in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon.
Syria sensed a shift in policy by the great powers. The natural Syrian reaction was to consolidate its influence in Lebanon. Damascus felt that Lebanon should not be lost under any conditions. It hence supported the extension to its loyal ally, President Emile Lahoud.
The shift in French policy did not affect Lebanon only but other issues in the Middle East as well. France and Israel set aside their animosity for the sake of a rapprochement. This was accompanied by a tilt towards US and Israeli priorities for isolation and destabilisation of the Syrian regime.
France believed that its interests in the Middle East are no longer served by supporting the status quo in Syria. For France, the death of Yasser Arafat and the collapse of the Saddam regime marked the end of an era Pan-Arabism.
Chirac decided, hence, to embrace a different policy line in the Middle East, one that takes into account the occupation of Iraq, the end of the Intifada, the collapse of the Arab state system, and the failure of the reform process in Syria.
The official French position was that France is disappointed with the political and economic drift of Syria.
"A state seriously out of step with the military and economic realities of the Middle East and unable to reinvent itself through vigorous leadership and judicious reform, it is terribly vulnerable and a weak reed for France to lean on."
The assassination of Rafik Hariri gave Chirac a strong reason to break with the past, abandon Syria, ally himself with the US, and pursue a new Middle East policy.
Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is a lecturer in media and international relations, Faculty of Political Science and Media, Damascus University, Syria