Bush Go-Ahead for New French Middle East Strategy

In a few short weeks, Syrian president Bashar Assad‘s sins in Lebanon and Iraq and his ill repute as longtime host and sponsor of terrorists have been forgotten and he is ardently pursued by the very Westerners who vilified and ostracized him.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources trace the events that led up to the astonishing transformation of a pariah into a near paragon overnight:

1. The new Middle East vision laid out in Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign and defense strategic reform so impressed President George W. Bush when he visited Paris on his farewell tour of Europe that he gave it the go-ahead. The French president emphasized that US-European cooperation was crucial for solving regional problems, including Iran and Iraq.

2. Gen. Michel Sleiman‘s consensual appointment as president of Lebanon: The supposed stabilization of Lebanese government after a prolonged political crisis was presented as a key factor in Assad’s favor.

3. Israel’s indirect negotiations with Syria through the good offices of Turkey opened the door for the French president to bring the Syrian ruler in from the cold.

Last Sunday, June 15, Assad received two French emissaries, the president’s diplomatic adviser Jean-David Levit and his chef de bureau Claude Gueant, in Damascus, for a long discussion on the regional standing of the United States, France, Iran and Israel.

Two days later, Assad became the first Syrian head of state to visit India in two decades. On arriving for a five-day trip, he announced India could play an important role in the Middle East and the indirect peace talks in progress between Syria and Israel in Turkey.


Winning Bush round to a new Middle East horizon


As though by prior arrangement, the Elysee confirmed Assad’s invitation as guest of honor at the July 14 Bastille Day parade on July 14 alongside the French president.

French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner then painted an idyllic picture of the Syrian and Israeli delegates on July 13 sitting round the same table at the Paris conference launching to the new Union of Mediterranean States (UPM).

A puzzling question about this development is this: How did President Bush’s farewell European tour, which no one in Washington or any of the capitals he visited expected to yield anything startling, suddenly become the platform for the launch of a new US-French Middle East strategy which, if successful, may also tie the hands of Bush’s successor in the White House?

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Paris sources disclose that it took Sarkozy two tete-a-tetes on June 13 and 14 to win the visiting US president over to his new Middle East doctrine.

These are its high points:

One: France will reintegrate in NATO’s military wing and strengthen its defense ties with the US. The details of Sarkozy’s defense reform, which were released in Paris Tuesday, June 17, underlined this closeness.

Two: Sarkozy’s outline to Bush of his plannedis ou overhaul of French defense strategy laid emphasis on expanding the role of and modernizing French intelligence agencies.

Our Paris sources report that the French president dreams fondly of making France the world’s second ranking intelligence power after America, rather than a military power, by a process of close strategic-operational cooperation with its American counterparts. He held up the examples of intimate US-British intelligence ties during the Cold War and close US-Israeli cooperation at different times to illustrate his intention.


The goal: a world-class intelligence power conjoined to Washington


The new French undercover services envisaged by Sarkozy will be armed with state of the art electronic surveillance tools and spaced-based espionage from military and civilian satellites.

In his lecture to Bush, he introduced the name of the legendary Count Alexandre de Marenches, the one before last director of the defunct French SDECE (Service de Documentation Exterieure et de Conter-espionage). From his appointment by Georges Pompidou in 1970 up until his retirement in 1981, the count became known as the most ardently pro-American spymaster France had ever had.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence experts recall that Marenches, a champion hunter of Soviet moles, cracked penetrations in Western intelligence agencies for the CIA and predicted the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

His reputation In Washington stood so high that when Ronald Reagan entered his first term as president in 1981, CIA chief William Casey and other advisers urged him to take his intelligence briefings from the French supreme savant on the ins and outs of the covert world, including US agencies.

At a secret briefing in California in Reagan’s early days as president, Marenches advised him not to trust CIA officers, because, he explained, they are not serious. Reagan and Casey continued to consult the ex-SDECE director before many important decisions.

It was Sarkozy’s view therefore, that American and French intelligence must again work together in many parts of the world, especially in Europe, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. He also talked about cooperation between their two navies.


Appeasing Assad as French Middle East policy linchpin


Three: Always in a hurry, the French president said there was no time like the present to get started on his Middle East plan, beginning with assigning the Syrian president his pivotal role in the coming weeks.

To prepare the way for their bonding, Assad must be mollified; his eight-year isolation must end and the primary threat to his hold on power called off or shelved – namely the United Nations tribunal set up at the insistence of (who else?) Washington and Paris, to prosecute the perpetrators and planners of a string of assassination of anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians, starting with former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005.

The key suspects are top Syrian officials close to the president.

To keep Assad sweet, the two presidents also agreed that president Assad should not be harassed by demands from the international nuclear watchdog (and Washington) to examine Syria’s suspected nuclear sites.

Three days later, proving that the distance between Paris and Vienna is even shorter than the memories of Western leaders, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s director Mohamad ElBaradei announced on June 17: “We have no evidence that Syria has the human resources that would allow it to carry out a large nuclear program. We do not see Syria having nuclear fuel.”

It was too late to cancel the IAEA inspectors’ scheduled visit to the north Syrian location bombed by Israel last September, but their guidelines were clearly modified by their director’s amended approach. It was understood that the inspection would skip Washington’s former demand to look closely not at one but three suspect nuclear sites.


Losing Syria will help turn the screws on Iran


Assad is therefore emerging from the revised US-French Middle East strategy thoroughly sanitized. He is being cleared of the suspicion of developing nuclear arms and is getting away with a long record of destabilizing Lebanon by political assassination. His ongoing hospitality to Palestinian, Islamic and Iraqi terrorists is ignored as of no interest in the light of the new realpolitik.

For moral justification to grant the Syrian ruler absolution, Sarkozy looked no further than Israel, against which Syria’s nuclear weapon would have been aimed. If prime minister Ehud Olmert is willing to sit down and talk peace with the Syrian government, why can’t America and France?

Four: These preliminary steps – improved Paris-Damascus relations, a peace track between Jerusalem and Damascus, Washington’s newborn lenience toward Assad, the easing of economic pressure on his regime and, above all, the US-French willingness to accept Syria as partner for stabilizing Lebanon – were charted in Paris as the lead-in to the crux of the French president’s Middle East strategy: the breakup of the Damascus-Tehran alliance and a turn of the screws on Tehran.

This twin process is seen by Sarkozy as representing a radical and positive redistribution of the strategic chips in the Middle East and the key to cutting Iran down from its height as an unassailable regional power to an isolated and vulnerable country.

He urged more painful sanctions, such as the cutoff of refined oil productions vital to the Revolutionary Guards Corps’ continued activity. But most of all, depriving Tehran of its foremost ally, Syria – thereby also cutting the physical and geographic link to its sponsored terrorist groups, Hizballah and Hamas – would force the Islamic regime to succumb to international pressure and give up uranium enrichment and its nuclear arms program – or so the French president maintained to his American guest.

Five: Sarkozy told Bush he had been talking secretly to the Israeli prime minister in recent months and won his blessing for the new Middle East strategy, provided Washington approved and jumped aboard.


Israel‘s Olmert led the way to Assad’s absolution


To oil the wheels of the process and instill confidence in Damascus, Olmert agreed to hand over the disputed Shebaa Farms enclave on the northwestern slopes of Mount Hermon to United Nations custody (as first revealed by debkafile on June 16 – see HOT POINTS below).

The prime minister expected this gesture to persuade Syria of Israel’s willingness to pull out of the Golan, captured from Syria in the 1967 war, in a peace accord.

Before he left Paris on Saturday, June 14, the US president gave his French host the green light to give his Middle East master plan a tryout.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accordingly, turned up unannounced in Beirut on June 16, instead of flying from her talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah to join the president’s party in London.

Her mission was to urgently reassure the loyal pro-Western, anti-Syrian politicians of Lebanon – majority leader Saad Hariri, prime minister-designate Fouad Siniora and Druze chief Walid Jumblatt – that they had not been abandoned in the wake of the US-French change of course on the Assad regime. Rice said they must appreciate from the recent upheavals in Beirut that they cannot rule Lebanon unaided, without sharing power with the pro-Syrian opposition.

She therefore gave the new Lebanese president Michel Sleiman and the national unity government he had formed Washington’s endorsement – even though it will have to labor under the Hizballah terrorists’ veto power.

Echoing the information Sarkozy passed to Bush in Paris, the secretary of state declared: “The time has come to deal with the Shebaa Farms issue.”


Tehran and Damascus will dump France for dialogue with new US president


Can the ambitious new US-French Middle East policy win over the Syrian linchpin and be made to work?

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East experts estimate its chances as close to nil.

Its central weakness is that the French president, a new and dynamic broom, has based his doctrine on France’s former glory as a world power, whereas today it lacks the military, intelligence and economic wherewithal to support this presumption. Building credible security resources will take many years.

Only two months ago, Hizballah carved out in Beirut an arch of triumph for Syria and Iran to march through, while the American-French military-intelligence partners stood by and let it happen.

After that comedown, the Syrian president will hardly see the advantage of breaking ranks with Tehran and meekly falling in with the West and Sakorzy’s ideas for a New Middle East.

Turning the Syrian president round would be a tall order. He is not easily manipulated.

Assad has always been open to Western blandishments to win him over; he is not rejecting the generous efforts of the French president, the Turkish prime minister Tayyep Erdogan and the Israeli prime minister. But he is confident he can enjoy both worlds: mend his fences with the West and hold on to his ties with Tehran.

The Syrian ruler feels he is sitting pretty in Beirut, his power base there stronger than ever, less than two years after America and France caused the Syrian military to be thrown out of Lebanon and ended Damascus’ domination of the country.

His partnership with Tehran pays off handsome dividends economically and in other ways. In close sync with Iranian strategists, he is building up their shared control of Lebanon as a powerful platform for their big play, Tehran’s prospective dialogue with the American president who follows Bush into the White House next January.

Once that ploy is firmly on track, Assad will ditch France, Turkey and Israel as superfluous stepping stones and leave them clutching air, just as they did during Beirut’s fall in May 2008.

There is only one thing that can halt the Syrian-Iranian rise: An Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations – if it takes place in the coming weeks.

This option will be examined in a separate article.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email