What will be left after Sarkozy's grand party? Not a great deal

Nicolas Sarkozy has bitten off more than he can chew in trying to put France in a position of leadership in the Arab world.

Even a new album by his star wife could not steal the spotlight from Nicolas Sarkozy last weekend. The French president got everything he desired as he mosted more than 40 European and Mediterranean leaders for a summit to announce the birth of the Union for the Mediterranean.

But the spotlight will not stay fixed where it is for long; Sarkozy will simply not be able to sustain his high profile presence at the centre stage of global events. His new Mediterranean initiative has very little chances of success. The Middle Eastern issues he tackled will prove beyond his ability to influence in a substantial way, and the multiple summits he organised in Paris will not trigger the needed progress towards resolving the Middle East's conflicts.

The French president chose to stage a grand entry into the slippery politics of the Middle East, an approach guaranteed to attract global attention. But the haste with which he overenthusiastically tackled Mediterranean economic co-operation, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Lebanon and the rehabilitation of the Syrian regime, will doom him to an equally grand failure.

The Union for the Mediterranean is at best a continuation of the Barcelona process, which has produced only humble results since its launch in 1995. Neither the political environment across the Mediterranean nor the structure of the new initiative justifies optimism that it will fare better than its predecessor.

The Barcelona process was launched in more conducive conditions, when hopes for an Arab-Israeli peace were high. Yet it failed to realise its potential of ushering in a new era of Arab-Israeli co-operation necessary to bring the initiative to its full potential. Also, Arab countries targeted in the Sarkozy scheme are still as divided as they were in 1995. They will thus deal with the new forum as individual countries and not as a regional grouping, which, along with European reservations about the initiative, renders Sarkozy's objectives hard to achieve.

The situation is even more complicated when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is common knowledge that Europe can only play a marginal, supportive role in efforts to end the conflict. Without either an active American involvement or the Israeli will, the peace talks will remain deadlocked. Neither of these requirements are available. The American President, George Bush, is a lame duck awaiting the end of his tenure. The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is facing criminal charges expected to push him out of office.

Europe, and certainly France, cannot broker a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. Europe could not even protect the hundreds of millions of dollars it had invested in Palestinian infrastructure when Israel decided to destroy them. Sarkozy is trying to bite off much more than he can chew in attempting to win himself a leading role in Arab-Israeli peace making. His success will not go beyond hosting a summit between Olmert and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

The French president dug himself into yet a deeper hole when he took it upon himself to rehabilitate the Syrian regime. Sarkozy sought to present the election of a new Lebanese president and the formation of a "national unity" government as an achievement for which Syria's president, Bashar Assad, should be rewarded by ending the international isolation of his regime. Sarkozy's assumption is that Syrian policies towards Lebanon have changed, thus meeting the conditions France has set for positive re-engagement. He is dead wrong.

The apparently positive developments in Lebanon are reflective of the outcome of the latest military confrontations in Lebanon and the political power struggle in the region more than they are the result of a positive change in Syria's policies.

All that Sarkozy needs to do to realise this is to read the deal that allowed the end of the impasse in Lebanon. The majority forces have met all the conditions set by the Syrian and Iranian backed opposition. They did so because they lost the battle and had no other choice. Syria and Iran won the struggle in Lebanon in the same way they triumphed over moderate states in the region. Syria made no concessions in Lebanon or to the international community in allowing the election of a new president. It simply harvested the fruits of victory by allowing the creation of a government that it holds hostage.

Sarkozy provided Assad with a free ticket back onto the global stage. The Syrian president himself made it clear he did not break away from his established policies - policies that France itself had earlier considered dangerous enough to warrant the severing of political contacts. In an interview broadcast on the Al Jazeera channel on Monday, Assad all but said that it was France, not his regime, that has changed. He stressed there was nothing wrong with his policies and no reason to revisit them.

Assad feels like a victor. And he is acting like one, thanks to an adventurous French president who wanted an extravagant party at any cost.

For a couple of days, Sarkozy got the glamour he sought. He basked in a false sense of achievement as his smiles flashed across the world's television screens. But his excitement will be short lived. The Union for the Mediterranean will soon detour into the dormant tracks of the Barcelona process. Arab-Israeli peace making will not move an inch forward and the Syrian President will return home joyously declaring himself vindicated.

Sarkozy got his party. But he will not be able to celebrate its anniversary. By the time it is reunion time, there will be little to celebrate, even in the superficial Sarkozy style.

Ayman Safadi is a former editor of Alghad in Jordan and a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs

Published: July 16, 2008 04:00 AM


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