The Bush Administration has long sought to isolate Syria in the hope of forcing greater cooperation with U.S. Middle East policy. And France's President Nicolas Sarkozy has sought to align French foreign policy far more closely with Washington's than his predecessor, President Jacques Chirac, had done. So why did Sarkozy show up in Damascus, Wednesday, as the first Western leader to visit Syria since 2005? Playing a diplomatic game that revives France's independent global standing even as it pursues some of the same goals as the U.S.
Sarkozy's two-day stay in Damascus comes in the wake of his controversial decision to host Syria's President Bashar al-Assad as an honored guest at France's Bastille Day celebration on July 14. Sarkozy had campaigned for the presidency on a promise of a move toward human-rights centered foreign policy, and the Syrian leader is hardly a poster boy for the liberty France celebrates on its national day. Indeed, Chirac, hardly an acolyte of the Bush Administration, had been every bit as vehement as Washington on the need to punish Syria over its alleged involvement in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri. Chirac boycotted this year's Bastille Day events to protest at the Syrian leader's presence.
In justifying his July invitation to Assad, Sarkozy noted that Damascus had signaled a willingness to work to end its isolation following the Hariri killing. Ahead of Wednesday's visit, meanwhile, French officials cited other examples of improved Syrian behavior, including its hosting of Lebanese prime minister Michel Suleimane last month, and plans for Syria to open its first-ever embassy in Beirut.
"There has long been a view within French diplomatic circles that Bashar al-Assad really wants to end Syria's habit of trouble-making and re-enter the community of nations, but until recently had been undermined by the older elements of the regime left over from his father's days," says one French official involved France's evolving relationship with Damascus. "He's not perfect, and there are still real problems with human rights and the treatment of political prisoners in Syria. Still, there are enough signs of change and a willingness to work together that we can't let that kind of opportunity pass by."
Whereas Chirac had relied on Saudi Arabia as his primary Arab interlocutor, Sarkozy appears to have turned to Qatar as the key intermediary to re-establish contacts and prepare visits and exchanges between Paris and Damascus. Evidence of Qatar's mediating role is clear in the fact that the Gulf State will participate, along with Turkey, in a four-nation summit Thursday during the second day of Sarkozy's Syria visit.
Whatever its views on the tactics of the visit, the strategic perspective behind Sarkozy's outreach to Damascus is one shared by the Bush Administration: French diplomats detect growing daylight between Damascus and its key regional ally, Iran and they believe that Damascus could further distance itself from Tehran if Sarkozy can persuade Assad that he has far more to gain by being a cooperative and accountable partner to the West. That would help pursue wider U.S. interests of narrowing Iran's scope for using its ally in Lebanon's Shi'ite Hizballah movement as a proxy, and also to further isolate and raise pressure on Teheran over its nuclear program.
Sarkozy's Syria visit may prove conveniently prophylactic in other ways, too. In the wake of the Russia-Georgia conflict and Moscow's de facto occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Assad declared his support of Moscow amid widespread international condemnation. Assad even proposed that Syria host Russian missile systems to counter the interceptor system the U.S. is establishing, over Moscow's objections, in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Russians promised Assad military training and arms sales during his visit to Moscow late last month.
Despite these troubling signs that Syria might be less inclined to drop its traditional friends, French officials say Assad's positioning may have been a feint designed to draw more attention from Western nations. "There are indications that flash of bad-old-day habit was in fact a reminder that Syria doesn't have a lot of partnerships available if the wider international community continues shutting it out," the French official said.
Still, he notes that despite the signs of wanting to improve its behavior, no one is naive enough to believe Syria can be entirely trusted yet. "This is an exercise in confidence-building, and demonstrating there's more to gain by being a part of the solution rather than the problem," he notes. "It's a long work in progress."