Analysis: Chirac wavers on how to save Lebanon

Muslims protest French ban on al-Manar, Muslim headscarves in school.

chirac pm fm 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
chirac pm fm 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
In a fairly rare occurrence, France is playing precisely the kind of global role to which it always aspires. As coauthor with the United States of the draft resolution for a cease-fire in Lebanon, as well as the European Union's leader and the Westerner with the most influence on Lebanon, President Jacques Chirac must decide how to handle ending the current conflict. Five years ago, in very different circumstances, Chirac stood on the stage at Beirut's Hotel Phoenicia, a symbol of post-civil war reconstruction there, to run a global conference of French speakers. Seated in the front row, among Lebanon's leaders, was Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah. By the way, the conference's theme was peace, democracy and human rights. Nasrallah, not noted as a lover of French culture, got into the spirit by announcing that his Islamist, anti-Semitic television station, al-Manar, would start broadcasting a news bulletin in French. Five years later, al-Manar has been banned in France for incitement, France has forbidden Muslim female students to wear headscarves, and Muslim immigrants have rioted throughout the country. In the interim, too, there has been credible evidence that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein gave Chirac a lot of money to be his friend. But over the last year, France has stood up in the Middle East on two issues. First, it has taken a strong stance on blocking Iran from getting nuclear weapons. At least, it is ready to use anything short of force and sanctions to do so. Second, it played a leading role in pushing Syria out of Lebanon. The latter position was inspired by the murder of Chirac's friend, former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, in February 2005 by Syrian agents. Still, France poses as the Arabs' best friend in the West, as well as the alternative to the United States. Chirac himself is on the verge of retirement. So what does he do with his big chance to play the pivotal role in the world's biggest crisis? The original draft resolution has been rejected by Lebanon, Syria, Hizbullah and Iran precisely because it might effectively weaken Hizbullah and restore peace to the Israel-Lebanon border. Chirac wants to save Lebanon, but what does that mean? Just to stop the fighting right now and submit the country to domination by Hizbullah, Syria and Iran along with more fighting in the near future, or to change the situation so that there really is a hope for a free Lebanon with a real government and prolonged peace? Already, he has backed off supporting the draft resolution he helped formulate. Among the changes being discussed in Paris to appease the radicals are offering Lebanon the Shaba Farm area - as Hizbullah demands - even though the UN and Syria say it belongs to Syria, and demanding a stop to Israel's militarily enforced embargo on Lebanon's borders, which would let Syrian and Iranian arms pour in for Hizbullah. The one change explicitly being demanded by Chirac is an immediate Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon. Yet this would merely let Hizbullah return to its old positions, even firing rockets into Israel. The Lebanese government says it will send troops to the south, but how long will that take? Many of these soldiers are Shi'ites who sympathize with Hizbullah. Would Lebanon really risk having its army fight Hizbullah when the units might break up into mutually warring factions and the whole thing might turn into a civil war? This is doubtful. French government officials are also talking about offering Iran a deal in which Paris goes soft on Iran's nuclear weapons drive in exchange for mercy for Lebanon. This idea is strange and doomed but is being seriously discussed in the French government. The challenge for Chirac is not only whether he will stab Israel in the back but Lebanon as well. For the irony is that, while the two countries are at war, they both want to rid themselves of a radical Islamist group and its sponsors, who want to dominate one of them and wipe the other off the map. Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.