Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s latest trip to France served as yet another reminder of the obvious futility of the Elysee’s attitude towards Syria under Nicolas Sarkozy. Driving the policy has been the French infatuation with the idea of “playing a role” in the Middle East through the Syrians. This effort has worked solely to Syria’s advantage - and to America’s and Lebanon’s detriment. The French, meanwhile, have gained nothing, even as they continue to inflate Syria’s importance to justify the continuation of a failed policy.
It’s now common knowledge that al-Assad has taken advantage of Sarkozy’s eagerness and insatiable hunger for the spotlight, manipulating miserable French diplomacy. This was plain for all to see during the Lebanese presidential crisis in late 2007-early ’08. With no cost to himself, al-Assad extracted French acquiescence to Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs and (thankfully, failed) French solicitation for American lenience on sanctions. Today he is trying to use his relationship with Paris to try and influence its position on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and perhaps obtain France’s blessing on a renewed Syrian mandate over Lebanon under the guise of restraining Hezbollah.
Al-Assad was rather transparent as to the purpose of his visit. In an interview with the French channel TF1, he remarked that his talks with Sarkozy revolved around two points: “how we can assist the Lebanese dialogue in order to reduce tensions, and the second point is the role that France could play through the Security Council to limit interference in the Tribunal’s work and prevent its politicization.”
The Syrian president has allegedly undertaken similar initiatives with other members of the Security Council, but also with nations contributing to UNIFIL, such as Italy, who, like France, are nervous about the security of their soldiers from a possible Hezbollah retribution should the situation deteriorate in Lebanon following the Tribunal’s indictment. Al-Assad’s bread and butter lie in seizing on precisely these types of situations, by selling frightened interlocutors the spectacular illusion that he represents a pathway through the forest.
Unfortunately, it was Sarkozy who provided such opportunities to al-Assad. Determined to break from the policy of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy is also rather eager to assert his relevance by seeking involvement in the peace process. As secondary actors, the French have convinced themselves that the Syrians are their ticket to achieve these goals - all with prodding from al-Assad’s friend, Hamad bin Khalifa Emir of Qatar, who rehearsed the same act with US Senator John Kerry in February of this year.
The most obvious problem for Sarkozy, however, is that Syria, predictably, hasn’t delivered anything - a fact not lost on anyone, as put bluntly by Le Figaro’s veteran correspondent, Georges Malbrunot: “France hasn’t gotten anything out of its relations with Syria.”
This is where the Syrian quicksand typically swallows foolish “engagers” whole. Since the process, and the illusion of a big political return, is clearly important to Sarkozy, he cannot and will not admit failure. Instead, he continues to double down - and continues to sink deeper. How deep? The WikiLeaks cables provide some insight.
In one cable from July 2009, the US ambassador to France, Charles Rivkin, wrote how the Elysee intentionally exaggerated al-Assad’s alleged intercessory role with Iran in the release of French hostage Clotilde Reiss. In private, the French were of course skeptical about al-Assad’s actual value in that process. However, the reason they inflated the Syrian role, the ambassador wrote, was to “validate Sarkozy’s policy of early engagement with Syria.” Further still, the French floated the amusing proposition of a broader Syrian mediation role with the Iranians - a proposal and role that the Iranians have publicly and repeatedly dismissed and ridiculed, even forcing al-Assad to declare he would not be playing any such role.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter. The fact is not only that Syria will not deliver, but that it cannot deliver Sarkozy’s fantasy. It is Iran who, through Hezbollah, controls the ground in Lebanon - a truth underscored by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s recent visit to Tehran.
The so-called Syrian-Saudi “initiative,” as well as any French accoutrement, are mere sideshows. The Iranian ambassador to Lebanon recently made sure to remind everyone in an interview with Al-Hayat that Syria plays second fiddle to Iran. Using Syria’s stock language about its supposedly unique “historical” ties with Lebanon, the ambassador pointedly remarked: “Iranian-Lebanese relations are richer than any other historical relationship between countries in the world.”
Of course, Damascus’s marginal role never stopped al-Assad from playing hapless “engagers” for fools. He has perfected the sale of snake oil to anyone gullible enough to buy. In that sense, Sarkozy has been a preferred customer. As one diplomat commented on the al-Assad visit, “Sarkozy is desperate for a foreign policy success.”
Few things are less effective in diplomacy than desperate limelight seekers. For the US, whose interests in the region have suffered from the counterproductive policies of erratic allies, this requires making sure that the French, whether out of fear for their soldiers or because of the allure of an illusory “role” of preeminence, don’t fumble, both on the Tribunal and Syria’s maneuvers to reimpose itself in Lebanon. While at it, perhaps they could also try and persuade the French to abandon the ill-advised stratagem of aggrandizing the two-bit Syrian dictator. He is a Montgolfiere of self-puffery as it is.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.