“Syria and Lebanon are one country” — that is what a Syrian security officer said when a reporter of the Israeli daily Haaretz wondered why Lebanese journalists were attending a press conference with President Bashar al-Assad in Paris that was supposedly open “only for Syrian journalists.” It is this kind of thinking that made many diplomats and politicians question if French President Nicolas Sarkozy was right to invite his Syrian counterpart to Paris to attend the inauguration of a “Union for the Mediterranean” and to stay on to join the festivities for Bastille Day.
But Haaretz analyst Zvi Bar’el seems to have no doubt that Sarkozy knows what he is doing: according to him “French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been working on the real thrill for almost two months: bringing Assad back into the international fold and replacing the U.S. president as the intermediary in the peace process.”
Headlines like “Sarkozy Helps to Bring Syria Out of Isolation” or “Assad makes remarkable comeback” highlight how dramatic the shift really is: barely three months ago, during the Arab League summit in Damascus, Syria found itself shunned by many Arab leaders because of its ties with Iran and its support for groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. While it is true that in the meantime Syria has taken some positive steps such as accepting a power-sharing deal struck by Lebanese leaders in order to overcome the paralysis of the government and participating in Turkish-mediated talks with Israel, many knowledgeable analysts and diplomats doubt that Syria is really willing to change course. Instead, Assad is likely to present himself as the indispensable “mediator” who, for a price, will try to use his ties with Tehran and its non-state allies to moderate their militancy.
The envisaged quid-for-pro is neatly laid out in Bar’el’s piece in Haaretz: