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France is No Longer Syria's Protector
Gary C. Gambill
A sudden shift in French policy toward Syria since the Geneva summit in March has dealt a severe diplomatic defeat to Damascus, which had cultivated a warm relationship with Paris over the last several years.
In a radio interview on April 18, French Defense Minister Alain Richard suggested that Syria has abandoned the peace process with Israel in order to preserve its occupation of Lebanon. "What I fear, to speak very frankly, is that one of Syria's main assets is its domination over Lebanon," said Richard. "Consequentially, any settlement that would call into question its domination over Lebanon, even if it means regaining Syrian territory (from Israel), does not suit it," he added. "We want...to move toward full sovereignty for Lebanon because the background is also the issue of Syria's domination over Lebanon." 1
A spokesman for Richard later confirmed to reporters that the statement reflected the official policy of the French government, not merely his personal views. "His words were perfectly clear. The minister, like the rest of the French cabinet, values Lebanon's sovereignty and respect of U.N. Security Council resolutions concerning it," said
spokesman Jean-Francois Bureau. UN Security Council Resolution 425, he added, mandates "the respect of the territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence of Lebanon by all protagonists."2
Syrian officials were outraged by Richard's comments. As is usually the case when foreign governments attempt to defend Lebanese sovereignty, Damascus mobilized its Lebanese allies to publicly condemn the French initiative. Lebanese officials lined up one after the other to reiterate that the 1990 Syrian invasion and occupation of Beirut occurred "by invitation" and on April 20, Lebanese Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss summoned the French ambassador in Beirut, Philippe Le Courtier, to complain that Richard was "interfering in internal affairs, which Lebanon did not accept."
From the perspective of Damascus, the most damaging new initiative to come from Paris is France's support for extending the mandate of UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon] peacekeeping forces to the south Lebanon security zone after the withdrawal of Israeli forces this summer. Damascus objects to any UN presence in south Lebanon, fearing that this will provide "international cover" to the Israeli withdrawal and complicate its efforts to sponsor attacks against Israel by Hezbollah and other paramilitary groups.
In a desperate attempt to forestall the emerging shifts in French policy, a Syrian delegation consisting of Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, Assistant Foreign Minister Saba Nasir, and Muhammad Ali al-Hamawi, head of the West Europe Department at the Foreign Ministry, arrived in Paris on April 25. Sharaa asked French President Jacques Chirac and Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine not to support a UN peacekeeping force in south Lebanon or contribute French troops to it.
French officials not only stood by their support for a UN presence in south Lebanon, but warned Sharaa that Damascus will face international isolation if it permits Syrian-armed paramilitary groups in Lebanon to disrupt the peace. Chirac and Vedrine said that such an escalation "would lead the entire international community to hold Syria responsible for the violence."3
Until recently, France had distinguished itself has a staunch supporter of the Assad regime and its regional ambitions. Just under two years ago, Syrian President Hafez Assad was given a warm reception in Paris (the only Western capital that has received him in the last ten years) by the French president. Chirac also hosted Bashar Assad, the son and heir apparent of the Syrian president, in Paris last year--no other Western head of state has met with Bashar or explicitly endorsed his succession.
1 L'Orient-Le Jour (Beirut), 19 April 2000
2 Reuters, 20 April 2000.
3 Al-Hayat (London), 27 April 2000.
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