IS Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about to switch sides? French
President Nicolas Sarkozy's entourage says yes - emphatically. Of
course, it has to: Sarkozy has invited Assad to sit next to
him next week in the presidential niche at the military parade for
Bastille Day, France's most important public holiday.
The invitation, an honor bestowed on few foreign leaders, is
intended to transform Assad from an international pariah into a partner
for France and the European Union. Yet no other Western leader will
touch the Syrian with a 10-foot pole. Indeed, it was France under
President Jacques Chirac that led international efforts to isolate
Cynics say Sarkozy is simply thumbing his nose at his long-time
tormentor Chirac. But idealists, including Foreign Minister Bernard
Kouchner think giving Assad a second chance is the right move, morally
Assad, in this reckoning, might be a closet reformer held in chains
by the Ba'athist old guard in Damascus; helping him shake off the
chains might let him fly his true colors. Assad's British education and
British wife are other indications cited to show he might not be as
closed to change as some imagine.
But there's also a realist explanation.
Syria's regime feels threatened on two fronts. On one are Western
powers, led by America, that seem determined to push Assad's back to
the wall. On the other are Iran's mullahs, spinning the cobweb of their
presence in Syria. They talk of partnership, but their goal is to
create a Syrian regime that shares their creed - as opposed to the
current Ba'athist one, which at heart remains hostile to Khomeinism
religiously and ideologically.
Even if a break with Tehran isn't imminent, Damascus doesn't want
all its eggs in the Iranian basket. Ever since Bashar's father Hafez
founded it, the Assad dynasty has tried to keep its options open.
At the Cold War's height, Syria allied with the Soviet Union but
maintained working relations with America. From 1970, when he seized
power, until his death in 2000, Hafez al-Assad was the only Arab leader
to have a one-on-one meeting with every US president.
Is Bashar trying to revive his father's tradition by proving that
Syria is something more than part of an Iranian hegemony in the Levant?
To win his invite for this weekend's parade on the Champs Elysee, Assad has made some concessions.
* He has welcomed Turkish mediation to revive peace talks with
Israel. Syria ruled that out in 2006, when Iran was setting up a new
"Rejection Front" that also included the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic
Jihad and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Syria's defection now undermines
Tehran's "wipe Israel off the map" coalition.
* Assad ended his campaign to prevent Lebanon from having anything
like a working government. Lebanon has elected a new president and may
soon announce a new Cabinet. More important, Assad swallowed something
he'd vowed never to accept: Fouad Siniora's continuation as premier.
* Assad agreed to attend the first summit of the Mediterranean
Union - Sarkozy's most important foreign-policy initiative so far. The
Syrian had vowed not to attend because Israel also has been
invited. Once he changed his mind, he lobbied hard for Israeli Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert to be placed at a separate table. Faced with a
French refusal, Assad eventually agreed to sit at the same table as
Olmert - ignoring Tehran's ire.
All that said, Sarkozy's move may prove a foolish gambit. Young
Assad might have seemed a plausible closet reformer six years ago.
Today, he's identified with a regime that refuses any attempt at
Accepting the French invitation is no big deal: Refusing to attend
the 40-nation summit would only have highlighted Syria's diplomatic
Nor will Assad break with the mullahs for now - they've emerged as the chief guarantors of his rule.
Syria's ruling elite has four interests (in descending order of
importance): self-preservation; sabotaging the UN investigation into
Damascus's role in political murders in Lebanon; a Syrian return to
Lebanon in a form that enables the elite to restore and expand its
business interests, and recovering the Golan Heights, captured by
Israel in 1967.
Except for the Golan's return, none of Assad's goals merit French
or international support. Why should anybody else help prolong the life
of a regime that may not be the choice of the Syrian people? What
interest would France have in derailing the inquiry into the murder of
Lebanese leaders, including ex-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, to save
Assad and other senior Syrian leaders from ending up in front of the
International Criminal Court at the Hague? Nor would a return of the
Syrian domination of Lebanon serve any French or European interest.
Once the Syrian first couple returns home after a Paris shopping
spree, the real question will remain: Is the Ba'athist elite prepared
for a strategic switch from alliance with the mullahs to one of
partnership with the Western democracies? We might know the answer
after Assad visits Tehran to brief his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad on the talks with Sarkozy.