Sunday, June 22, 2008

Why is France wooing Syria?

Interesting article by Dr Marwan Kabalan, lecturer in media and international relations, Faculty of Political Science and Media, Damascus University, Syria

June 23, 2008 (Yemen Post)

After years of heightened tension, Syrian-French relations seem to be improving at a steady pace. Syria's President Bashar Al Assad has been invited to participate in the summit dedicated to the launching of the Mediterranean project, which will be held in Paris on July 13. He is also to attend the celebration to be held on the following day to mark the anniversary of the French Revolution. The invitation was handed to Bashar by two senior French envoys dispatched to Damascus earlier this week, demonstrating France's interest to bring Syria out from the cold.
These developments stand in drastic contrast with previous French positions vis-Ã -vis Damascus. Last December, President Nicolas Sarkozy had declared that he would have no further dealing with the Syrian government until he was convinced that Syria was prepared to allow Lebanon to have a consensus president.
Analysts and observers believe that the thaw in Lebanon, following the election of Michel Sulaiman as president, was the key motive that swayed Sarkozy to resume contacts with Syria. Indeed, Lebanon's importance for Paris cannot be understated, yet, Lebanon alone cannot explain the whole story.
With or without resolving the constitutional crisis in Lebanon, the pragmatist Sarkozy seems determined to have Syria as part of his Mediterranean project. This would help him secure political influence as well as major commercial deals. It has been reported that a French company will build two big cement factories in Syria worth $1.2 billion. Another French firm is working on engineering designs for the Damascus metro, and the Toulouse-based Airbus Industries hopes to win a big contract to re-equip Syria's national airline, whose fleet has been dwindling due to Western sanctions.
Politically, Sarkozy seems confident that by extending his hand to Damascus, he would eventually succeed in distancing Syria from Iran; the West's key foe in the region. Sarkozy believes that isolation and treating Syria as a pariah state has in fact produced the opposite effect. It brought Syria closer to Iran and made it more dependent on Tehran's economic and political support. Hence, he invested in the election of President Sulaiman to rehabilitate relations with Syria.
The resumption of Syrian-Israeli peace talks, through Turkish mediation, has also encouraged Sarkozy to rethink his policy towards Damascus. Since his election last year, the French president has made no effort to hide his unwavering support to Israel. The true objective of the Mediterranean project, according to many, is to help integrate Israel within the southern shore of the sea - the Arab world. The Paris summit, Sarkozy hopes, will help achieve that. Resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict has always been beyond France's capability, let alone its interests. The Barcelona process failed mainly because of the tension and lack of trust between the Arabs and Israel. The Mediterranean project might act as a catalyst to increasing European involvement to resolve the conflict; and from Sarkozy's point of view protect Israel.
The Mediterranean project would also help, in the opinion of its creators, protect Europe from the dire consequences of Western policies in Iraq, Palestine and other places in the region. Poverty, despair, and the lack of public freedoms in the southern shore of the Mediterranean have also driven hundreds of thousands of young Arabs to the shores of Europe, producing huge security, economic and political challenges. Europe can no longer stand idle, pretending that what happens on the other bank of the sea is none of its business.
Washington might not agree, but Europe does not seem to be bothered by what the Americans think. Brussels is trying to clean the mess caused by the US policies in the region and Sarkozy's project was proposed in the first place to fill in a vacuum resulted from the retreat of US influence in the region. If that vacuum is not filled by Europe there will be no shortage in bidders. Russia, China, India, Iran and even Turkey are all trying to exploit the weak US position to secure a foothold in one of the most important regions of the world.
Source: Gulf News

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