French President Nicolas Sarkozy is showing up the United States, and not just because he has a far better looking girlfriend than any Commander-in-Chief of recent memory. In stark contrast to the uncharacteristically silent Bush administration, Jacques Chirac’s successor has demonstrated impressive toughness in addressing the deepening Lebanese presidential crisis, in which the Hezbollah-led opposition has blocked the parliamentary majority from electing a new president since pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud’s term officially ended in November.
While visiting Egypt earlier this week, Sarkozy announced that France would suspend contacts with Syria as punishment for Syria’s political interference in Lebanon. Sarkozy compounded this blow by prompting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to declare his support for Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora; Mubarak said that Egypt “supports the election of a president for Lebanon as soon as possible”—an implicit dig against the Assad regime. On Wednesday, Syria responded with a far-less-convincing suspension of contact with France, oddly conceding, “Syria can’t dispense with France’s role in Europe.”
The Bush administration has long seen itself as having few good options vis-à-vis Syria. Though Washington views Syria as a key player in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, it has been hesitant to normalize relations with Damascus while the U.N. probe into Rafik Hariri’s assassination—in which the Assad regime has been implicated—is ongoing. In short, the administration has correctly refused to exchange the pipedream of Arab-Israeli peace for Lebanese stability, to which the completion of the Hariri investigation is essential. But Sarkozy’s breaking of ties with Syria provides the Bush administration with a key opening through which it can promote another essential regional interest: prying Syria from Iran.
As Iranian state television reported on Wednesday, in the aftermath of soured Syrian-French relations, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem declared, “The pressures exerted by certain countries will never undermine the strong relations between Tehran and Damascus.” Au contraire! Only three days earlier, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reportedly told U.S. Senator Arlen Specter that he was ready for peace talks with Israel, a move that would dampen Iranian-Syrian cooperation for years to come. With Sarkozy’s brilliant strike against Damascus, the Bush administration is now able to offer Assad a stark choice: normalization with western states that are broadly united on Lebanon and Arab-Israeli peace, or an isolated alliance with Iran. The former offers the political, strategic, and economic benefits of relations with the west and possible peace with Israel in accordance with Assad’s stated desires; the latter offers Syria’s continued confinement as a rogue state—a prospect made more costly by Sarkozy’s announcement. Most importantly, Lebanese stability—which has severe consequences for Arab democratization, Iranian ascendancy, Arab-Israeli peace—would no longer be on the table thanks to the leverage provided by Sarkozy’s move.