On Thursday, French President Nicholas Sarkozy visited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. With another round of geeky photo-ops alongside a one-time pariah in the bag, Sarkozy thus sent the strongest message yet that France has completely retreated from its prior insistence that Syria end its interference in Lebanon.
Indeed, despite Sarkozy’s own claim that he and Assad would “affirm Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence,” Hezbollah – which has often used Syrian support to hold Lebanon hostage to its political demands – reacted to Sarkozy’s overture with profound optimism. On its media site al-Manar, Hezbollah hailed Sarkozy’s visit to Damascus as a “historic turn” that “asserts the importance of the role that Damascus plays and will play in the future on another level.” Meanwhile, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah used the occasion of Syria’s diplomatic triumph to issue his boldest defense of Hezbollah’s militancy to date. During a Ramadan iftar (break-fast dinner) hosted by the Hezbollah Support Committee, Nasrallah declared:
We are not using the occupied Shebaa Farms as an excuse to bear weapons. If the area is freed the weapons will remain because we are talking about a defensive strategy against a threatening country such as Israel.
Even for Hezbollah, the level of confidence embodied in this statement is remarkable. Not only has Nasrallah suddenly reframed the rationale of Hezbollah’s militia from “resisting occupation” to national security responsibilities, but he has done so barely a week after Hezbollah created a national incident when it shot down a Lebanese army helicopter that it believed was Israeli.
Approximately two months ago, I suspected that France’s rapid rapprochement with Syria represented a reluctant acceptance of Syria’s role in Lebanon, with Syria tacitly agreeing to restrain Hezbollah, maintain domestic Lebanese stability, and prevent another Israel-Hezbollah war. Yet, if this is even the strategy, Hezbollah’s burgeoning confidence indicates that it is failing. Meanwhile, despite signaling his interest in playing the role of peace broker, Sarkozy has derived little influence for furthering Israeli-Syrian peace from his meetings with Assad: the Syrian dictator announced in Sarkozy’s presence that he remains adamantly opposed to severing its ties with either Hamas or Hezbollah, which any agreement would require.
Which raises the question: does Sarkozy even have a realistic Syrian strategy?