Wednesday, September 08, 2004

France versus the US on Syria

BBC has done a brilliant job of spelling out the essential policy differences between France and the US on Syria. (Update: Sept 10 - BBC has published part of this radio program as an article provided below.)

Jaspreet Singh Oberai, the Broadcast Media Co-ordinator at the BBC sent me this link to the BBC Radio 4 series on "Chirac's New Backyard" on the French Arab relationship. He writes:

"The second programme in the series is on Syria with lots of interviews with senior figures in France & Syria. The link is
scroll down to Chirac's New Backyard. It will be available till next Tuesday, September 14.

Hear it now before it goes off line. It spells out French attitudes on democracy, terrorism, reform, military might, self-determination, and much more. There are interviews with all the top players and a brilliant description of how politics really work in Syria as well as the frustration and successes of the reformers. A must hear. I have asked if a transcript is available and will post it if Jaspreet can get it to me. Thank you Jaspreet, and thanks to Presenter Allen Little and Producer Sue Davis, who have done an absolutely brilliant job.

Here is the published article without the interesting interviews:

France and Syria: A tangled history
By Allan Little BBC, Damascus

When Syria's old ruler Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 most western leaders stayed away from his funeral. The United States, after all, blames Syria for harbouring terrorist groups, and for failing to disclose stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. But not French President Jacques Chirac. He went to the funeral rites of the dead potentate.

It is said that, that day, the French president told the young son and heir, Bashar al-Assad: "I extended the hand of friendship to your father, and I extend it to you today."

France has been present in what used to be known as the Levant for a millennium. The landscape of Syria is dotted with the magnificent fortified castles that the Crusaders - the founders of the medieval Frankish kingdoms - left behind. France was the mandatory power in Syria after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, from 1918-1946.

I went to Syria because I am interested in France; in what France stands for in the Arab world.
Invasion and democracy We all know what the Americans believe: they believe you can introduce democracy to an Arab country by invading it. That is the great experiment in the Gulf region, and Iraq is its laboratory.

But what about France?
Washington has given up on Bashar al-Assad - the Accountability Act makes it illegal for American businesses to do business in Syria.

America wants to topple anti-western dictators; France wants to work with them in the hope that they will become less anti-western. America believes it can introduce democracy to the Arab world; France is pleased when it manages to introduce ATMs to its banking system
France believes in him. Paris believes that the new president is not like his father. France believes Bashar wants change. And France wants to try to help him.

French aid to Syria is not financial. It is human. High level teams of French experts are seconded to Damascus to advise on restructuring of the state.

Syria is in a state of chronic paralysis. Its economy - part Soviet, part Chinese in its inspiration - cannot create the wealth needed to absorb the new generations coming onto the job market.
In a world in which unemployed and despairing young men turn to radical Islam for their inspiration, the need for reform is urgent.

But is it enough? Will it work? Syria - despite France's involvement - remains a dictatorship. It is still a security state. Its economy is still controlled by powerful, monopolistic vested interests which can be expected to resist moves to make Syria a more open, competitive and investment friendly place.

Gaullist ideals
And if - as France believes - President Assad is interested in change, why, four years after he came to power, does Syria remain manifestly unchanged? It is part of the Gaullist world view that France has a special role in the world, even a destiny; a duty to stand for certain ideals.
France wraps its activities in the Arab world in the language of Gaullism. But it is also part of the condition of 21st Century France that it cannot match its lofty rhetoric - its lofty sense of itself - with real action, or real achievement.

Self-evidently, France could not stop the Anglo-American juggernaut in Iraq. Self-evidently, four decades of French support for the Palestinian cause has not advanced the cause of Palestinian statehood. Self-evidently, France's efforts to bring Syria in from the cold have done nothing - as yet - to change the reality of the Syrian regime.

Taking a stand
In a world defined by overwhelming American might, France can take a stand, knowing that in the end it will not be judged by its ability to turn rhetoric into action. It is enough to stand up to America; no-one expects France to be able to stop America.

And France, confronted by its own powerlessness, cannot resist taking solace in the misfortune of its mighty Anglo-Saxon rival. I came to Syria because I was interested in France. Because while France was saying "no" to America and Britain, no to the imposition of democracy by military force, I wanted to understand what it was the French were saying "yes" to. And the difference is the difference between idealism and pragmatism.

America wants to topple anti-western dictators; France wants to work with them in the hope that they will become less anti-western. America believes it can introduce democracy to the Arab world; France is pleased when it manages to introduce ATMs to its banking system.
Each - in separate ways - is trying to re-shape the Arab world in its own image - and bend the Arab world to its own needs.

The Arab world - you sense - has different plans altogether.

Chirac's New Backyard, presented by Allan Little, is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 7 September, 2004 at 2000 BST.


At 9/08/2004 11:28:00 PM, Blogger A Syrian In The Far East said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 9/09/2004 05:39:00 PM, Blogger Anton Efendi said...

France and America do the totally unexpected in Lebanon

By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, September 09, 2004

It's not often that the United Nations evokes pleasant gastronomic memories, or pleasantness at all for that matter, but the decision of the Security Council to pass resolution 1559 last week took me back to a rather fine meal with a senior European Union official transiting through Beirut earlier this summer.

At that meal, at which several mouths were present, I asked the official whether the EU was finally willing to give the Syrian presence in Lebanon a higher priority. After all, I questioned, the Europeans were keen to use their association agreements with the Mediterranean to make the mostly Arab countries of the southern and eastern rim more amenable to such EU aims as free-markets, liberalism, open societies and the like (I sagely left out suffocating bureaucratic imperiousness). And what better place to advance this laundry list than in Lebanon, the one country in the region where such values were not treated as existential threats?

I carried on, pointing to the fact that an EU country - France, according to European diplomats - had, at Syria's and Lebanon's behest, deleted a key clause from a document agreed upon last February by Brussels and Beirut. The clause had made reference to U.N. Security Council Resolution 520 (which calls for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon) and had clamored for "respect for the sovereign independence of countries in the region."

The response of the EU official was frank, though delivered in the lifeless tongue of the Brussels legistocracy. It went something like this: No, Syria's presence in Lebanon is not a priority; EU states have other things on their minds, and the recent expansion of the union will only make things worse; I agree with what you're saying, but, alas, I'm giving it to you as it is. Here's salt to rub into your wounds.

Cut low by such realism, I submerged into the ice cream. Yet had I only known then what I do now. The official in question was telling - or only knew - half the story, and the French, invariably villains when it comes to shady dealings with the despots of this world, would surprise us all. Indeed, in early June, when French President Jacques Chirac met in Paris with U.S. President George W. Bush, he stated: "We have expressed renewed conviction and belief that Lebanon has to be ensured that its independence and sovereignty are guaranteed." Bush, in his turn, affirmed: "The United States and France also agree that the people of Lebanon should be free to determine their own future, without foreign interference or domination."

These were the future strophes of Resolution 1559. Why this apparently sudden Franco-American interest in a country where a 28-year-old Syrian military presence had hitherto elicited fits of yawing? Why this consensus between Washington and Paris, when their policies in the Middle East most often crash into each other? Why a U.N. resolution last week that went against much of what France in particular had held as sacred in its relations with Lebanon and Syria?

Locally, the tendency will be to condense this rare alignment of interests into the single factor of Chirac's connection with Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. That's certainly part of it, but the French president did not remodel an important relationship with Syria merely for the sake of a campaign donor with deep pockets. If anything, Hariri's caving in to Syrian pressure on the presidency would have given Chirac the cover he needed to look the other way on Damascene intemperance.

A more persuasive reason is that both the French and Americans realize that the ambient talk of Middle East democracy has a disturbing side effect in prompting demands for proof. For Bush, the democracy project in Iraq has hit a hard patch, with American electoral computations making all else secondary. As for Chirac, he is probably aware that the Middle East is changing, and that by hitching its wagon to autocratic regimes, in line with the long-unchallenged dictates of raison d'etat, France may one day find itself on the margins of a more pluralistic region.

The French may think of American democratization efforts as a splendid foutaise, but they do know the pull of open societies in the Arab world, but also perhaps, and more importantly, feel they can take a lead in the EU's efforts to peddle more democracy with its export quotas. Whether it is in Lebanon or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the French have much to gain today by outlining prospects for democratic change and liberty, and (since self-interest is never far) in selling themselves as a counterweight to the U.S. if or when the two countries differ over how change must be effected.

In sponsoring Resolution 1559, Chirac must have also contemplated the wasteland of Syrian reform since 2000. One so often hears that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a reformer, that, like the refrain of a sappy folk song, it grows on you. The only difficulty, as the EU and France realize, is that Syrian progress in the past four years can, at best, be measured in baby steps. The Europeans are proving less patient with Damascus, as continuing disagreement over an association agreement reveals. Assad must now prove he's worth taking risks for.

Where will Resolution 1559 lead? Under the circumstances, it is just enough to remind the Syrians that their time in Lebanon is up, without pushing them to the wall and ensuring they will do everything in their power to prove what devastation would obtain in a Lebanon free from Syrian soldiers. The follow-up will be very much determined by the duration of a Franco-American understanding on Lebanon that considers the government in Beirut as unfit to hold its own with Syria.

Sticking to that view will not be easy in a world where national sovereignty still means something. Can France and the U.S. defy the odds? Hopefully they will, but one might want to hedge that bet nonetheless.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR


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