Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 18:32 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 18:32 | SYDNEY

The Syrian who came in from the cold


Rodger Shanahan


14 July 2008 09:31

President Bashar Assad’s visit to Paris represents much more than just a desire on the part of President Sarkozy to beef up his foreign policy credentials as part of his drive for a Mediterranean Union. Rather, it is recognition of the pivotal role Syria can play in the resolution of several Middle Eastern issues and a belief by France that it can play a leading role too.

The most immediate outcome of the visit has been an announcement that Syria and Lebanon intend to open embassies in each other's capitals, following the first meeting between President Assad and the new Lebanese President Michel Suleiman at the Elysee Palace. This is significant for the fact that Bashar’s predecessor and father Hafez always maintained that Lebanon had been artificially created by the French mandatory authorities in 1923 by appending parts of Syria to Mount Lebanon. The opening of embassies gives formal Syrian recognition that Lebanon is a sovereign state, and represents a significant philosophical about-face on the part of Damascus.

Syria’s ongoing talks with Israel over the Golan Heights, which have been brokered by Turkey, are not likely to be furthered during this visit (despite reports that Assad and Prime Minister Olmert may be seated at the same table during the Mediterranean Union meeting). Assad has reportedly announced that he is keen for France to become involved in brokering direct Israeli-Syrian peace talks in future, although this would be after the Bush Administration has left office.

Perhaps the most ambitious objective of the visit could be the first public attempt by the West to isolate Iran by prising secular Syria away from its détente with the Islamist country. Nobody is yet sure what price the Syrians would demand for such a move, but it would undoubtedly be a heavy one.

The payoff, though, could be significant. Hizbullah, Iran’s Lebanese ally, would be logistically hamstrung by the loss of Syrian support and a likely resolution of the Sheb‘a Farms issue would be another blow to its claim to maintain its armed elements. The loss of Syrian diplomatic and other support would also be a blow to Iran and further isolate it internationally. For the moment, President Assad is supporting Iran. What the future holds for Syria under Assad, particularly when there is a change of government in Washington, will be an interesting question to revisit in a year's time.