Opinion: Assad on top of the world

PARIS, France — Five years ago, Rafik al-Hariri — the billionaire Lebanese businessman-turned-politician who was prime minister on and off until September 2004 when he joined the opposition to Syria — was murdered in a spectacular terror attack in Beirut.

Right away all signs pointed to Damascus’ involvement in the attack — from Syria’s personal open threats to Hariri to the first results of the international investigation. This event triggered the Cedar revolution that caused Syrian troops to leave Lebanon and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to be viewed as a pariah by the international community.

Fast forward to today: Assad has become the hottest ticket in town, from Washington to Paris, from Brussels to Ankara and from Riyadh to Cairo. Everybody wants to meet him, be seen with him and get on his good side.

Syria has suddenly become the key to solving the insoluble problems of the Middle East. In 2008, Assad started his charm offensive with French president Nicolas Sarkozy who had been lending a friendly ear thanks to the constant advice and friendly pressure of Qatar to do so.

This French diplomatic move was not well-viewed at the time by the Bush administration because since 2004, France and the U.S. had worked hand-in-hand in isolating Assad. Assad knew quite well that a new incoming Obama administration would be very much inclined to reach out. Something that was just recently proved by the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Syria after five years of void.

One of the reasons behind that overture was that Syria is the weakest link to getting at Iran and if a wedge could be driven between the two countries, then it would be much easier to pressure Tehran and decrease the mullahs’ leverage on the international community.

In fact, by getting Syria to switch camps, Hezbollah and Hamas, Tehran’s two most powerful proxies would be dramatically weakened. But easier said than done, Damascus is not ready to give up its alliance with Tehran. The reason why is that Iran is bankrolling Syria’s economy and Assad will have to find a way to replace Tehran’s funding at some point.

Signs of a real drift between Damascus and Tehran have not therefore emerged. This was a doomed policy from the start, as Lebanese MP Elias Atallah, an expert on Syria, forecast over two years ago. He explained to the French newspaper, Liberation, “Our long experience shows that, each time friendly countries try to open up to Damascus, this ends up having a negative impact on Lebanon. In reality, the relations between the Syrian and Iranian regimes are very deep. They have been allied since 1982. Whoever thinks that he can change Syria’s role is simplistic. Iran and Syria can totally live with their differences. They are minimal."

History should have taught the international community that engaging a regime like Assad’s rarely works; on the contrary it actually emboldens it. Therefore, Syria is now adopting an even tougher stance. Assad can be quite satisfied with his strategy: he did not concede anything; he publicly humiliated France; he showed that he was a key partner; he broke off his isolation; he got the European Union to offer him an Association agreement in October 2009 and most importantly he got the international tribunal investigating the murder of Rafik al-Hariri off his back.

Interestingly, Assad had warned menacingly that were the tribunal to be politicized then, “Lebanon will be the first to pay the price.” Let’s say that this threat sent shivers down the spines of most Lebanese politicians from the anti-Syrian March 14 majority bloc. Indeed history has proven that Syria’s threats are only too real because it has the ability to get rid of its opponents and create havoc in Lebanon.

And so in order to keep a relative peace in Lebanon, first the West, and then more surprisingly Saudi Arabia, the March 14 force’s staunchest ally, gave in to Syria and de facto sacrificed Lebanon once more.

The real cherry on the cake and the most humiliating photo-op came about in Damascus in December when current Lebanese premier Saad Hariri embraced Assad, the very same man he had repeatedly accused of his father’s murder. Ditto for Hariri’s main ally on the Lebanese political scene, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose father had been reportedly murdered by the Syrians in 1977. Jumblatt just offered public apologies to Syria in order to be allowed to travel to Damascus to meet Assad.

At this point the Cedar revolution is dead and buried and Syria and its allies — among them Hezbollah — are back in power in Beirut with the blessing of the international community.

For the time being, one has to recognize that Assad is a formidable poker player and that waiting for the storm to pass was a smart strategy.

Olivier Guitta is a security and geopolitical consultant based in Europe. He is also an Adjunct Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. You can view his latest work at www.thecroissant.com/about.html.