x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Syria-France: why the new friendship?

In December 2007, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced in Cairo the "suspension" of all ties with Syria, a country that was commonly described in Paris as "irresponsible", wrote Mohammed Makhlouf, a Paris-based Syrian writer, in the opinion section of the UAE-based daily Al Bayan.

In December 2007, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced in Cairo the "suspension" of all ties with Syria, a country that was commonly described in Paris as "irresponsible", wrote Mohammed Makhlouf, a Paris-based Syrian writer, in the opinion section of the UAE-based daily Al Bayan. Only six months after Mr Sarkozy's declaration, France's tone mellowed as Syria "acted very responsibly" with respect to the Lebanese presidential elections following the Doha convention. Then Mr Sarkozy invited the Syrian president Bashar al Assad to take part in the summit in Paris to found the Union for the Mediterranean.

Two months later, Mr Sarkozy went on an official visit to Damascus, thus ending "the policy of apathy" which was long maintained by his predecessor Jacques Chirac. But what has really pushed France to change its attitude so radically? It would be very naive to think that the new French stance is a way to "reward" Syria for some new-found "positive attitude". A more realistic analysis rather points to France's intention to ensure a strategic presence in the Middle East amid growing US appeal in the region. France is, indeed, Syria's doorway to the international community, but, just as much, Damascus is a fine diplomatic outpost for Paris in the Middle East.

A report published by the London newspaper The Guardian on Wednesday constitutes "a first-rate political scandal for the Arabs", wrote Mazen Hamad in the Qatari daily Al Watan. The report said Arabs are not only about to agree on early measures to normalise relations with Israel, but they are also close to accepting the resumption of a project to build 2,400 settlement units.

"This is scandalous because the Arab initiative adopted at the Beirut summit in 2002 strictly conditioned normalisation with Israel on its complete withdrawal from Arab occupied territories. Nonetheless, an undetermined fragment of the Arab political body is apparently leaning towards a partial freeze of settlement activity, related to Israel's so-called natural demographic growth needs." The Americans must be ashamed of the report too. The US president Barack Obama's once firm words on the settlements seem to have been broken on the sturdiness of the Israeli attitude. Now he considers a partial freeze "a positive move" on the peace track. "Mr Obama has lived up to none of his promises to the Arabs and Muslims as yet, and he probably won't now that the US is being steadily sucked in by the Israeli premier's vision."

The fog in which post-elections Lebanon seems to be shrouded is further thickened by the opacity of the political configuration in the region as a whole, opined Suleiman Taqiy al Din in the Emirati daily Al Khaleej.

"All Lebanese internal debates and mutual accusations of stalling the process of government formation are nothing but a ploy to buy time and wait for the smoke to clear, say in the next two months, over the US-Iran-Syrian relationship, the war situation in Afghanistan and the Palestinian question." But is Lebanon that important for its cabinet structure to be conditioned by all these world events?

The answer is "yes and no". Yes, because Hizbollah's weapons and the constant, if relative, threat the party poses to Israel makes Lebanon an interesting topic, considering that the West and part of the Arab world view Hizbollah as a military arm of Iran and Syria trained on Israel. In this sense, Lebanon is important in its own right because its parliamentary formations have an impact on the political trends in the region. Otherwise, Lebanese political shenanigans have no intrinsic significance. They are merely a mirror of the regional conflicts which spill over into the country due to opposing strategic forces.

Over the past two weeks, the mask has fallen off two regimes that have long carried themselves as role models of democracy and took to giving lessons in human rights, free speech and egalitarian politics, commented Rachid Nini, the managing editor of the Moroccan daily Al Massae, in his daily column.

Last Sunday, Saif al Islam al Gaddafi, the son of the Libyan leader Col Muammar al Gaddafi, exposed a time-honoured democratic state, the United Kingdom, when he declared that the Scottish authorities released the former Libyan special agent, Abdel Baset al Mergahi, as part of a "commercial transaction" with the British government. Sweden is trying to negotiate with Israel over its reaction to an article published by a local newspaper accusing the Israeli army of killing Palestinians in Gaza and selling their organs. The Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, said the Swedish government must withdraw its "solidarity with the article" which is full of false accusations that are not worthy of a democratic system that respects freedom of speech.

"Perhaps the freedom of speech that Mr Barak refers to is that of the Swedish press when it accuses Muslims of terrorism, backwardness and barbarism." * Digest compiled by Achraf A El Bahi aelbahi@thenational.ae