The French president has announced that he is frustrated with the Syrian dictator, Bashar Assad, over Assad’s involvement in perpetuating the impasse in Lebanon’s presidential election. To make a long and complicated story short, Assad wants the new president to be like the previous president, a Syrian stooge, but with new powers that would allow him to thwart the UN’s Hariri tribunal, which is certain to find Syria responsible for the 2005 murder of the former Lebanese prime minister. Lebanon’s March 14th bloc, which has been working bravely since the Hariri assassination to push Syria out of Lebanon, obviously would rather not make electing the next president of Lebanon a simultaneous act of conceding Syria the means with which to hasten its re-entry into Lebanon.
Anyway, throughout the past month’s drama — there have been nine election delays since Emile Lahoud’s term ended on November 23rd — the U.S., which in 2005 took great interest in Lebanese sovereignty, has been absent, having handed western leadership in Lebanon to France. And France has made a royal mess of its rather modest task, with Sarkozy running up the Élysée Palace’s long-distance bill in frequent phone calls to Damascus, begging for Bashar Assad to agree to rules for the presidential election unfavorable to Syria. This would be like President Bush calling up Osama bin Laden and asking him to help America strike a blow for secular governance in the Middle East: it’s just not gonna happen, and the spectacle of it itself would be humiliating. Predictably, France has gotten nowhere with the Syrians, and now Sarko is at the end of his chain.
“I spoke to [Assad] three times recently and I spoke with him clearly and honestly,” said Sarkozy. “I took the risk and spoke with him when no one else would,” Asharq Alawsat quoted the French president as saying.
Sarkozy continued: “I took the initiative and said to him: ‘Lebanon has a right to have an autonomous president who will have a national unity government. You must use all the means and abilities at your disposal to influence the attainment of this goal!’”
“But I am telling you,” he was quoted by the London-based newspaper as saying. “I have reached the end of the road with Assad. Now words will not suffice, I want actions.”
What is France going to do, threaten to enlarge UNIFIL again? Syria might be number one on the list of regimes toward which the U.S. and its western allies simply never discourage of engaging, no matter how utterly pointless every such project has been in the past and no matter how implausible negotiations may be today. We were there pursuing the Syrians during the first Bush administration, believing that our victory in the Gulf War had given us newfound diplomatic leverage (it hadn’t); the Clinton administration invested itself heavily in Syrian diplomacy in an array of public and secret negotiations, likewise getting nowhere; and we’re still there today, using the French to beg Bashar to voluntarily stay out of a territory the domination of which has always been a central regime purpose. Now that Sarkozy has come up empty, can we maybe tap Nancy Pelosi for another swing through Damascus?