Syria will have few friends at the table Sunday when Arab foreign ministers convene in Cairo to discuss the crisis in Lebanon, which has been without a President for six weeks.
Most Arab governments blame Syria for the political impasse in Lebanon, using its Lebanese allies to block the election of a new head of state, and the Cairo meeting is expected to call on Damascus to wield its influence to end the crisis.
Diplomatically, it has not been a good week for Syria. President George W. Bush, who tours the Middle East this week (Syria is not on his agenda), said on Friday that there needs to be a "clear message to the Syrians... that you will continue to be isolated, you will continue to be viewed as a nation that is thwarting the will of the Lebanese people." Bush's comments, coming days after he said that his "patience had run out" with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has further dampened speculation of a U.S. re-engagement with Syria following Damascus's invitation to the Annapolis peace summit in November.
Crucially, Syria also has lost, for now, a potential friend on the other side of the Atlantic. French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced last week that Paris was severing contacts with Damascus until Syria facilitates an election in Lebanon. Sarkozy's ultimatum effectively ended an intense bout of diplomatic mediation in December, when senior French envoys shuttled between Paris, Beirut and Damascus to attempt a compromise deal between feuding Lebanese factions. Although the U.S. is recognized as the most powerful broker in the Middle East, France's historical ties to Lebanon and Syria grant it considerable influence in those two countries.
Sarkozy's irritation with Syria now matches that of his predecessor Jacques Chirac, who went from being one of Assad's strongest friends in the West to one of the young President's bitterest critics. In 1998, Paris became the first Western capital visited by Assad in an official capacity, two years before he became President. Chirac also was the only Western head of state to attend the funeral of Assad's father, President Hafez al-Assad in 2000. He dispatched a close aide to Damascus to serve as French ambassador and a team of technocrats to assist Assad's reform efforts. Rafik Hariri, then Lebanese Prime Minister and close friend of Chirac, was instrumental in building France's relations with Syria, hoping in exchange that Damascus would ease its tight grip on Lebanon. That was not to be, however, and by 2004 Chirac had lost patience with Damascus and joined the U.S. in demanding a withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. After Hariri was assassinated three years ago in a truck bomb explosion for which Damascus is widely accused French-Syrian relations went into the deep freeze.
Similarly, Sarkozy's efforts to engage Syria appear to have foundered, and, in a calculated swipe at the Syrian regime, he immediately followed his announcement of severed contacts with a promise to release funds for the international tribunal being established in the Netherlands to judge the accused killers of Hariri.
"Clearly, Sarkozy is annoyed and feels he has been burned by the Syrians, which means I don't think we will see any European country engaging Syria for some time," said Andrew Tabler, the Damascus-based editor of Syria Today magazine.
How this will affect Syria in the weeks and months to come remains to be seen, but it does mean that with the absence of an effective mediator, Lebanon's political woes are unlikely to end anytime soon.