Analyze This: Why Assad got a French kiss-off from Sarkozy

The wind is blowing east from the Elys?e toward this region.

Sarkozy 224.88 (photo credit: )
Sarkozy 224.88
(photo credit: )
Whatever pleasure French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been getting from the company of new girlfriend Carla Bruni as they vacation along the Nile this week clearly hasn't improved his mood regarding another of his relationships - that with Syrian President Bashar Assad. "Assad has played the French card all wrong," Michael Young, opinion editor of Lebanon's The Daily Star, astutely noted just last Thursday, adding: "It may take more time for the Sarkozy administration to finally break free of its fondness for masochism and realize that Syria is uninterested in resolving the Lebanese presidential crisis in exchange for improved relations with Paris." Apparently not much time, given Sarkozy's announcement on Sunday that he would no longer dialogue with the Syrian leader until he saw some concrete signs that Damascus was prepared to let the Lebanese choose a new president without its interference. Sarkozy's statement comes as no surprise, given his reported comment two weeks ago that he has "reached the end of the road with Assad." Perhaps in order to insulate himself against expected criticism that this is just another manifestation of an automatic pro-Western, pro-Israel outlook, he took care yesterday to also call on Jerusalem to make more conciliatory gestures toward the Palestinians, such as curtailing West Bank settlement construction. Still, the blunt and decisive manner in which the French president expressed himself regarding Assad is such a dramatic departure from the way Paris has conducted its past diplomacy with Damascus - or with just about any Arab leadership, for that matter - that there is no longer any doubt that a new wind is blowing east from the Elysée toward this region. Assad clearly hasn't gotten that message, despite the seven visits paid him this year by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in a vain attempt to get Damascus to give some ground on the Lebanese presidential crisis. But whether Paris's altered approach to the Middle East, specifically as regards Syrian meddling in Lebanon, is so firmly grounded in a commitment to democracy and human rights - as Sarkozy and Kouchner proudly assert - has been legitimately questioned on their home turf. After all, it was tartly noted in the French media just earlier this month how Sarkozy played the excessively accommodating host in Paris to Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, conveniently overlooking his human rights abuses. The French leader has also been busy wooing other North African nations, such as Algeria and Egypt, including with offers of help to develop their civilian nuclear capabilities. Sarkozy has been upfront about his dealings with these Arab states, declaring: "I am really engaged in the battle for contracts." Alas, unlike many of its Arab neighbors, poor (literally) Syria lost out in the lottery of natural fossil fuel resources, and, unlike Israel, hasn't done much to compensate economically for that lack. So it can't really offer Sarkozy, or anyone else, the tempting prospect of juicy financial deals that might tempt them to overlook its egregious behavior. As a result, Damascus increasingly acts like an "oilarchy" without the oil - and the reality is catching up on Assad, as evident in the ease with which Sarkozy gave him a big French kiss-off over the Lebanon situation without worrying unduly over the consequences. Syria thus finds itself having to rely increasingly on its alliance with oil-rich Iran in order to maintain its aggressive bluster. A simple look at the map indicates the shakiness of this approach as a long-term strategy. If the situation in Iraq continues to stabilize and the US military sets up there for a long-term haul, an economically weak Damascus will find itself surrounded on all sides - including by an increasingly independent Lebanon - by states all aligned in varying degrees with the West. That's no doubt why, as reported in this newspaper yesterday, Israel's Foreign Ministry has set about formulating a strategy for separating Syria from the "radical axis" (Iran and its Hizbullah and Hamas allies) as one of its highest priorities for 2008. However, the first order of that strategy should probably be to make sure that those nations most interested in seeing Syria change its orientation are all on the same page on how to achieve that goal. Just last month, as Damascus continued making mischief in Lebanon, the Bush administration did it the honor of inviting it to the Annapolis conference. And just this weekend as Sarkozy was reading Assad the riot act, a major US lawmaker, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, landed in Damascus from Jerusalem to pass along what he said was a message of peace from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. One can see this perhaps as a carrot-and-stick approach. But who would have thought, thanks to Sarkozy, that the day would come when it seemed the carrots were coming from the US and Israel - and the stick from France? As the French say: Incroyable!