New stage in Syrian- Lebanese French relations

Guest post by davem

A few days ago AFP reported that for the first time in their histories Syria and Lebanon have established diplomatic relations and agreed to the opening of embassies in their respective countries.

There have never been formal diplomatic relations until now, mainly because the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad (aka Melonhead) never recognized Lebanon’s sovereignty.

Suddenly there appears to be some sort of breakthrough, and this has been interpreted in some quarters as indication that Melonhead’s son and successor Bashar al-Assad (aka The Giraffe) is some sort of Mikhail Gorbachev-type reformer who wants to bring Syria in from the cold.

Alain Gresh, deputy director of Le Monde Diplomatique, writes that The Giraffe is “a pragmatist who sees talks with Israel as a prerequisite for stability and peace in the Middle East”.

He adds:

If peace is not achieved, all the reforms the Arabs need (economic development, education, culture) will fail to come about and the whole region will be destabilised.

When the United States and Israel dismiss the idea that Syria really wants peace, they forget this real concern. The Syrian leadership knows that if the chance of peace is lost again, a new channel will open up for the extremists… After the 2006 war in Lebanon, [Assad] clearly distanced himself from the statements of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: “I do not say that Israel should be removed from the map. We want peace, peace with Israel,” he told an interviewer for Der Spiegel, September 24 2006 [article no longer available online].

There is a school of thought that The Giraffe is a well-meaning chap who wants peace with Israel and a normalization of relationships with the rest of the world, and he’s made the first steps via indirect talks with Israel and diplomatic relations with Lebanon.

The only problem, according to this line of thinking, is the intransigence of US and Israeli hawks who once again will squander another opportunity for peace.

The other way of looking at events is that this is nothing more than posturing, a way to gain concessions from the West, specifically France, but without actually doing anything significant in return.

Maybe the opening of diplomatic relations is not for a new stage in Syrian–Lebanese relations but for the benefit of Syrian–French relations. In fact young Assad admits it himself. It’s the first thing he talks about in this interview on Al-Jazeera (in Arabic).

Question: “So do you think that France will play a role in improving Syrian relations with the rest of the European countries and [the rest of] the world?”

Giraffe: “Historically France has led European policies, before and after the EU in its present form. No doubt Sarkozy is making lots of changes recently in France’s policies towards playing a more active role in leading with Europe in these directions [i.e. opening up to Syria].

“I expect that this for this visit will have a large [positive] effect on Syrian-French relations, and we’re beginning to see the results, since around [the last] two months through the improving of relations between Syria and the rest of Europe, most of whom are very enthusiastic on having relations with Syria. And the French step gives it a big impetus”.

Later he’s asked:

“Mr President, Do you think that this new page in French–Syrian relations will end any previous turmoil around Syria such as the assassination of Hariri, etc., which has been prevalent in the last few years?”

Giraffe: “America is the source of most of this turmoil. I don’t expect a change in the attitude of this [US] administration because it has failed in a number of different issues and is seeking to cover its mistakes. Syria is the easiest way to do this. Whenever the US makes a mistake it doesn’t want to admit this so it keeps accusing Syria in lots of issues.”

Yeah, blame the Yanks. And why not? It’s the easiest game in town. Plus it enables you to avoid anything connected with the series of political assassinations that have taken place in Lebanon.

On the issue of Israeli–Syrian talks, it gets interesting:

Question: “Is President Bashar Al-Assad prepared to accept what the departed president Hafez Al-Assad didn’t accept?”

Giraffe: “Hafez al-Assad was not prepared to forsake the rights and I will not forsake the rights. We will not offer concessions on [even] an inch of land. We will not offer concessions on Syria’s sovereignty over Golan. These two points [rights and land]– no Syrian is able to offer concessions on them.”
Giraffe: “What they tried to propose in Geneva, specifically in the last summit between Assad and Clinton, was to give a larger part of the Golan but not all of it. And with that I say no concessions over [so much as] an inch”.

Question: “All of Golan?”

Giraffe: “All of Golan”.

So you don’t have to be a genius to see how this will play out. Like his father, he’ll enter talks and they’ll get to a point where there will come to light a disputed border, a strip of land, hell, it could even be a rock.

The Giraffe will then leave the talks blaming Israeli intransigence. Most likely the Western media will once again fall for this one hook, line and sinker.

But the bottom line is that any talks are designed to fail from the outset because Ba’athist Syria simply cannot handle peace with Israel. Peace with Israel would eliminate any justification for the State of Emergency that keeps the Assad mafia in power.

This interview with Walid Jumblatt on Al-Arabiya was broadcast on 8th November 2007. Everything he says in this clip still applies today. Peace with Israel is the end of Ba’athism. It’s Game Over for the regime.

And the Giraffe, like Mugabe, like Saddam Hussein, like Ceausescu, is a dictator. Like all dictators every political decision he makes is made according to how it can maintain his grip on power.

Everything else– peace, economic development, literacy, jobs, and freedom for Syrians– comes way down the list of priorities.

While he markets himself to the West as opening up and reforming, the situation inside Syria is actually getting worse.

So all he’s doing, including the establishment of formal diplomatic ties with Lebanon, is cosmetic maneuvering because he thinks he can benefit from a closer relationship with France.

No more, no less.

I hope it won’t be long before MEMRI puts up a translation of this interview, as the claims he makes about Syria not imprisoning people for opposing the government, and about there being no prisoners of conscience, just beggar belief.