Engaging Syria? Lessons from the French Experience
Middle East Briefing N°27
15 Jan 2009
How is one to engage Damascus? As the incoming U.S. administration examines the future of its relationship with Syria, seemingly persuaded that an improvement in bilateral ties and an Israeli-Syrian agreement could fundamentally modify the regional landscape, France’s recent experience offers useful lessons. Determined to engage in dialogue – but also ready to break off if the other side was uncooperative – and creative in approach, while fixing it within a clearly defined framework of objectives, President Sarkozy also knew how to seize on unexpected opportunities when they presented themselves.
The restoration of ties between Paris and Damascus, coming after a bitter break and heightened tensions that developed in consequence of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, came haltingly and with difficulty. It began with the election in 2007 of an unusual French president, hyperactive, believing in dialogue, eager to set himself apart from his predecessor and more pragmatic than ideological. From the outset, his approach reflected improvisation, risk-taking, flexibility and constant readjustments rather than a pre-established plan. But it never deviated from its primary goal, a consensual Lebanese president as was achieved with Michel Suleiman’s May 2008 election.
Periods of intensive contact, including directly with his counterpart, President Bashar Assad, were followed by periods of estrangement. The experiment is ongoing, its full outcome still uncertain, as France looks for further advances with regard to Gaza, the Israeli-Arab conflict, Lebanese sovereignty, counter-terrorism and the Iranian nuclear issue. It will become convincing, and therefore relevant in American eyes, only if it clearly demonstrates Syria’s capacity to act as a credible partner to promote regional stability.
Much depends on the coming weeks and months. Paris and Damascus have the opportunity to highlight the benefits of an engagement policy by working on at least three issues. In Lebanon, the goal should be to minimise the threat of renewed confrontation by meaningfully addressing the current governing majority’s most legitimate demands: demarcating Syrian-Lebanese borders; amending bilateral agreements signed when Syria thoroughly dominated its neighbour; and accepting credible international mediation on the issue of Lebanese citizens who disappeared in Syrian jails.
In Iraq, France could take advantage of Syria’s network of relations to reach out to a larger segment of the Sunni Arab community. In so doing, it might set the stage for a U.S. effort to engage more broadly with members of that community who remain outside the political process and are not part of the “awakening” councils. French mediation in this area potentially could produce genuine cooperation between the U.S. and Syria, going beyond Washington’s illusory quest for Damascus to hermetically seal its border with Iraq.
Finally, Paris might test Damascus’s willingness to play a constructive role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ongoing Gaza conflict offers an opportunity in which France could ask Syria to influence Hamas and ensure that, once there is a workable ceasefire, it either accepts an equitable deal with Fatah or endorses the Arab Peace Initiative if that would remove the last obstacle to establishing a Palestinian unity government. To those ends, of course, France will need to take the lead in forging a European approach that is complementary rather than subordinate to the U.S. and that pragmatically assesses when and how to conduct a dialogue with the Islamist movement.
However, President-elect Obama’s team can already garner important lessons from France’s always energetic, often impulsive and at times contradictory approach:
To begin, in the wake of a long hiatus in bilateral relations – a feature of President Chirac’s and President Bush’s tenures – both sides likely will require a significant period of mutual observation and trust-building. Quick results, in other words, ought not to be anticipated. Next, any successful relationship must be based on clear and steady objectives rather than an endless list of demands.
Patience during negotiations is as important as swiftness when opportunity strikes. Haste, when Sarkozy displayed overenthusiasm, at best was futile, at worst encouraged Damascus to harden its position and play for time. But by immediately welcoming and rewarding Syria’s first positive gestures, France bolstered its credibility while nudging Damascus to move. There should be no hesitation to halt dialogue if events warrant, while maintaining informal communication to allow quick reaction at the appropriate moment. For Washington’s new team, this entails immediately acknowledging and reciprocating positive steps and penalising negative ones.
Finally, there are lessons for those in the U.S. who bank on a Syrian-Iranian split. This will not occur, at least under current circumstances. However, the willingness to normalise relations with France suggests the regime wishes to diversify its strategic alliances. Washington should promote such a trend, which inevitably would dilute Iran’s importance in Syria’s eyes and facilitate a gradual reconfiguration of its regional alliances.
Even with the best of intentions, U.S.-Syria relations will be difficult. Beyond looming crises – whether over the International Atomic Energy Agency’s investigation into Syria’s nuclear program or the international tribunal on the Hariri assassination – the two governments must come to terms with the legacy of an unhealthy relationship, full of distrust and misunderstanding, that deteriorated in the Bush years but did not originate then. The new president’s advisers could do far worse than reflect on the trials and errors of the current Franco-Syrian rapprochement.