- Bashar al-Assad - diplomacy - Nicolas Sarkozy - Syria
The Franco-Syrian reconciliation, like the rifts of the past depend on the intricacies of Lebanese politics. French president Nicolas Sarkozy is looking to benefit from the American absence in order to establish himself in the regional game.
In an interview with the Syrian paper Al Watan, Nicolas Sarkozy spoke of "rupture" in the French policy toward the Middle East. Coming from him, the word is never neutral. Sarkozy wants to break away from the policy of his predecessor Jacques Chirac who distanced himself from Syria after the assassination of former PM Rafik Hariri in February 2005.
But Sarkozy’s change in approach shouldn't be exaggerated either. His trip to Damascus isn't a first; his predecessor went on an official visit in 2002. Chirac was the only western head of state to attend the funeral of Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad in 2000. He was convinced Syria played a central role and represented a great opportunityfor French diplomacy.
Last winter, Nicolas Sarkozy himself broke off high-level relations with Syria to protest what he called a sabotage of the presidential electoral process in Lebanon. In fact, relations between Paris and Damascus depend a bit on the personality of the French president, and more on the intricacies of Lebanese politics.
In the end, the most important moment of Sarkozy's trip will be less his meeting with Bashar al-Assad than the four-way summit on the peace-process, which will briefly bring the two men together with the emir of Qatar and prime minister of Turkey. The summit is small in terms of length (90 minutes), but crucial in terms of the participants: Turkey is the mediator of this new series of negotiations between Israel and Syria, and Qatar, to great surprise, was able to reconcile the Lebanese factions. A wind of goodwill (it's too early to speak about peace) seems to be blowing through the Middle East with—and maybe thanks to—the appearance of new players like Qatar and Turkey.
France would like to be a part of this movement, benefitting from the absence of the United States during the US presidential election. Maybe that's the real rupture and a kind of paradox: in Georgia, as in Syria, the pro-American Sarkozy is now entering into competition with American diplomacy, much more openly and actively than his predecessor.