France Conciliates Iran but Shuns Syria Over Crisis in Lebanon
By Kirk H. Sowell
There has been much discussion in recent days regarding the possibility that France might lead an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon after French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy indicated that they were willing to do so, given certain conditions. France has a long historical relationship with Lebanon and maintains a "special relationship" with its former colony similar to that between the United States and Israel. Yet France boycotted a UN meeting over the issue Wednesday, saying that conditions were "premature" for the insertion of an international force into Lebanon. The primary difference between France and the U.S. over the issue is that France, along with the European Union, favors forcing an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hizballah and then introducing troops to strengthen the Lebanese military and disarm Hizballah, while the U.S. insists that the disarmament of Hizballah is a precondition to a sustainable ceasefire.
Perhaps what is most surprising is that France has decided upon a conciliatory strategy with Iran while shunning discussions with Syria. This has created a split with the U.S. as Iran ties cooperation in Lebanon to concessions over its nuclear program, while creating a simultaneous split with the European Union, which insists on negotiating with Syria.
Paris Breaks with Brussels Over Syria While Iran Declares the Cost of Its Cooperation
In a July 31 interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro, Douste-Blazy indicated Paris' diplomatic stance on Lebanon: "In regard to this matter, it is clear that Iran plays a stabilizing role in the region." He indicated during the interview that he was traveling to Beirut for discussions with Lebanese officials. He did not mention that he planned to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Manusher Mottaki, yet Mottaki emerged from that meeting, according to Le Figaro, "happy to note that France had called for an 'immediate ceasefire' in Lebanon."
The same article contains an insight which may help explain the true reason for the initiation of this most recent conflict between Israel and Hizballah, and the price Tehran seeks to exact in exchange for bringing it to an end (ThreatsWatch translation):
...For Tehran, the fact that Paris does not make the disarmament of Hizballah a precondition is 'a positive change.' The deployment of an international force to stabilize south Lebanon was also discussed. According to a French diplomat, Mottaki did not express opposition to this proposal. But this opinion was not expressed by others, who emphasize the hostility of Tehran to the deployment of troops with the objective of neutralizing Hizballah along the border with Israel. This Iranian veto would be in any case negotiable, in exchange for Western concessions in regard to the nuclear issue. Tehran has made no secret in practice of its intention to relate the crisis in Lebanon to that arising from its nuclear ambitions...
French officials have been clear that they have no intention of granting similar graces to Syria. Relations between France and Syria have been cold since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. Syrian officials have been implicated in the murder by the UN-sponsored Mehlis investigation, and many in France and elsewhere believe that culpability for this crime and others goes to the top of Syria's political system, ending with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Aside from the longstanding relation between France and Lebanon, Hariri was a personal friend of French President Jacques Chirac. Le Figaro notes that many find it contradictory to negotiate with Iran but not Syria, yet "the French respond that it is preferable to address the issue with the true decision-maker, more so than its Syrian vassal."
France's diplomatic strategy is a clear break with the EU, which believes that Syria can be part of the solution. The EU's High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Javier Salona is quoted in Le Figaro as saying that "Even though I have not visited Damascus recently, I stay in contact with Syrian authorities... there is no disconnect." The article notes that German and British diplomats are of the same mind, believing that Syria is "key to resolving this conflict," further noting that Paris' boycott of Damascus caught Brussels off-guard, causing some to question how France could play a lead role and maintain its current course.
It should be noted that the international Arab newspaper Al-Hayat reported on Wednesday that Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos visited Damascus, meeting with both Assad and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mualim and offering "political and economic incentives."
The UN Diplomatic Dance
Statements made by American and French officials make clear that the difference between the two countries is that France demands an immediate ceasefire and the disarmament of Hizballah by Lebanese forces with international assistance to follow, while the U.S. agrees with Israel that the Hizballah threat must be neutralized prior to the arrival of peacekeepers, being skeptical of the likelihood of a mostly European and Turkish force being willing to use force against Hizballah, as its disarmament would likely require. Despite the boycotting of Wednesday's meeting, Le Monde quoted France's UN ambassador as saying that he would participate in ceasefire discussions on Thursday. Le Nouvel Observateur reported, however, that French sources indicated that they would not attend a meeting about the formation of a peacekeeping force, judging the matter still premature. As phrased by Le Nouvel Observateur, France "believes that it is necessary to simultaneously push forward political negotiations and discussion of the deployment of a multinational force," the execution of both of which would be to follow a ceasefire (Washington Post, Nouvel Observateur, Le Monde).
Meanwhile, most of France's political leaders have gone on vacation. It is not clear what, if any, ramifications this might have on France's role in the Lebanon crisis. As reported in L'Express, this includes the president and prime minister, but not Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie and presumably not the foreign minister, although the article is silent on Douste-Blazy. L'Express notes that this comes at a time when France is expected to take a major diplomatic role in Lebanon, and ministers are quoted as saying that they are ready to be "mobilized at an instant." This is a time of year when most French take long vacations, but at a minimum this does not send the signal of a government fully engaged.
It seems highly unlikely that there will be a ceasefire soon. According to the most recent report in the Washington Post, the current Lebanese proposal would include Syria and Iran in the negotiations and involve an insertion of multinational troops followed by negotiations between the Lebanese government and Hizballah over disarmament. This will surely be unacceptable to Israel, although it has the support of those Arab governments which initially criticized Hizballah for attacking Israel. With diplomats now looking to next week for the likely earliest agreement on a ceasefire, Israel will press forward with its offensive for now.
That France is calling Iran a force for stablization and the EU encouraging Syria to see this as a chance to extract concessions, leaves little hope in the negotiations now ongoing. The French had been steadfast in demanding Hizballah's disarmament, but have apparently softened on that. Israel has bloodied Hizballah badly, but the effort has strengthend the position of the terrorist group within the Arab world, and of the Syrian government vis-a-vis both its own population and Europe. Israel will need to cripple Hizballah in order to make this fight pay off.