For a while, George Bush could close his eyes and imagine that Jacques Chirac, leader of the European country Americans love to hate, was really his good buddy – and an even closer ally than was Tony Blair at the outset of the Iraq war.
The full extent of US-French cooperation in Lebanon to drive Bashar Assad’s Syrian troops from the country was mostly kept under wraps.
While British military and intelligence agencies operated in recent months in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, Paris quietly replaced London as the Bush administration’s primary partner for the next stage of its Middle East offensive. As late as mid-April, the Washington-Paris alliance was working smoothly in Lebanon: the United States piled on diplomatic and economic leverage against Assad, while France provided European back-up and pulled the wires behind high-profile French and Syrian political figures.
The triumphant welcome home French military intelligence in Lebanon is preparing for Lebanese Maronite Catholic General Michel Aoun, 70, on Saturday, May 7, on his return from 14 years of exile in Paris, will draw a line on stage one of this US-French cooperation.
It will also mark the end of the allies’ honeymoon, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington and Paris. It became clear that the United States and France were deeply divided when French foreign minister and French intelligence services gave Aoun a separate briefing on what was expected from him on his return to Beirut.
The French stressed four key points:
1. Under US-French understandings, the opposition will be in a position to form the next government and Aoun, conveniently cleared by the Lebanese judiciary this week of long-standing criminal charges, is assured of winning the presidency. But Paris is opposed to this anti-Syrian government being used as a tool to topple Assad’s regime.
2. Aoun was specifically instructed to deny the Americans assistance for Assad’s overthrow.
3. Disarming the Shiite Hizballah must not be the new president’s first priority. The terrorists must be forced to lay down arms eventually, but the process must be gradual.
4. Aoun must come to terms and work with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Nabih Beri, the Shiite Amal chief who is incumbent speaker of the Lebanese parliament. This means that Aoun and his allies must not try and inflict election defeats on either.
Chirac’s adviser fails to swing Washington round
Shortly after the French handed out their directives to Aoun in Paris, a senior Chirac adviser, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, arrived in Washington on a secret visit.
Aged 53, this French diplomat has an impressive resume. He served as chef de cabinet under prime minister Alain Juppe from 1995-1997, Chirac’s personal envoy from 1997 to 1998 and ambassador to Japan from 1998 to 2002.
In the US capital, Gourdault-Montagne held talks with national security adviser Stephen Hadley and dined, along with French ambassador Jean-David Levitte, with secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. At the dinner, Gourdault-Montagne described Chirac’s plans for Syria and Lebanon and spelled out the differences between the United States and France.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington can report exclusively that Gourdault-Montagne opened his remarks by saying that Bush must have been surprised at the speed and ease at which Syria capitulated over Lebanon and pulled out its troops. He said that since France had argued throughout that this would be the inevitable consequence of a joint policy with the United States, Washington had every good reason to ensure such cooperation continued. But, the diplomat added, France now believes it was time for more measured and cautious moves and the Bush administration would be wrong to try to reap the benefits of Syria’s setback in one fell swoop.
Gourdault-Montagne argued that at this stage at least, Lebanese political parties and ethnic communities should be persuaded to work together productively before going for Assad. At all events, France will not consider sending over troops to disarm Hizballah;, nor would Paris lean on the new Lebanese administration for the sake of talks with Israel on any sort of accord, let alone a peace treaty.
Gourdault-Montagne’s message to Rice supplemented the French briefing to Aoun.
According to our sources, the French demand to lay off Assad as the price of future cooperation was met decisively with a rejoinder from Rice and Hadley.
Assad must go
They informed Chirac’s adviser that the Syrian ruler must be kept on the hot seat for now with the ultimate goal of regime change in Damascus. But the American officials added Washington was prepared to listen to the French case on the timing and intensity of the pressure on Assad and see if an understanding could not be reached.
Monday, May 2, Barnier flew into Washington to hear the Bush administration’s response to Gourdault-Montagne’s mission, for which he had an appointment with Rice. He discovered there was no change in the American position. Assad’s removal was a top priority on a par with bringing about political change and free elections in Lebanon.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources on Lebanon and Syria, the United States and France are now locked in a technical dispute over elections in Lebanon. With May 29 fast approaching, the Lebanese parliament has still put election legislation in place, which means voting districts have not been redrawn to meet the post-Syrian political reality and determine the outcome of the poll.
Washington seeks to gerrymander in a way that will promise the anti-Syrian opposition victory. Paris favors the same opposition groups but wants to make sure the lawmakers elected will not automatically perform Washington’s bidding. Jumblatt, hungrier than ever for power, wants the voting districts reset to promise him a win. Hizballah will go along with any deals and combinations as long as it gets a guarantee against being disarmed.
The final definitions of the voting districts will be a telling indicator of the state of the US-French alliance over Lebanon – whether fences have been mended and cooperation resumed, or whether one has gained the advantage over the other in a contest.
They will also point the way to Lebanon’s immediate future – as well as to Assad’s.